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Inside View


Durable, Eco-friendly Homes

A daemokjang is a master carpenter who assumes full responsibility for the design and construction of traditional Korean structures such as Hanok (traditional Korean home),starting with the selection of timber.
Just three daemokjang remain in Korea, and one of them is Choi Gi-young. He has received the designation of intangible cultural heritage by the Korean government for his contributions to numerous restoration projects for historical Buddhist temples.

Written by Kim You-rim        Photographed by Studio Kenn

Inside View

The start of Choi Gi-young’s life was far from comfortable. He was born in 1945 after Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, and five years later, the country was devastated by the Korean War. His father died when Choi was 5 and his family soon fell into abject poverty. He barely graduated from elementary school as he had to collect firewood from the mountains and cut grass on the fields every day. Choi, however, spared time to attend a seodang (Confucian academy) for basic education in Chinese classics ranging from The Cheonjamun (Thousand Character Classic), used as a primer for teaching Chinese characters, to The Book of Mencius, which helped him study traditional Korean architecture later. He decided to become a carpenter after learning that the son of his seodang teacher who pursued that trade had a stable occupation, thus valuing security more than anything else at the time.

“I had no lofty reason for wanting to become a carpenter. I wanted to gain the skills to survive. I learned carpentry to feed myself. While learning carpentry, I found myself a bit ahead of others in talent and worked hard. That made me what I am today. I’ve experienced everything you can imagine in my life, but never considered quitting carpentry,” he said.

Passion-led Development

  • This is a tool that master Hanok carpenter Choi Gi-young has used for a long time.

    Choi said he has never slept more than four hours a day since childhood. Though he lucked out in meeting master carpenters Kim Deok-hee and Kim Chung-hee, his outstanding dexterity and sharp eyes were a testament to his extraordinary skills. His hands did exactly what he was shown or told, he said, and he quickly familiarized himself with any new tool. Korea at the time had no carpentry textbooks, let alone one-on-one training for vocational skill development. He watched his teachers working on their pieces, but his natural talent did not remain hidden for long. Choi later heard from his mother that not only his father but also his grandfather had been a carpenter. As the old saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. With his mentors, Choi crisscrossed the country to work on major landmarks from Woljeongsa Temple in Pyeongchang-gun County, Gangwon-do Province, to Deoksugung Palace in Seoul. In the evening, his teachers drew architectural drawings on Hanji (traditional handmade Korean paper), a scene that captivated the young apprentice and eventually drove him to sneak out of bed and go over the fences of royal palaces at night many times. Pointing a flashlight at eaves and pillars, he memorized every detail of the structure he was to work on; when he had no flashlight, he drew every detail on scraps of paper under the moonlight.

    “If you learn things the ordinary way, you’ll become just an ordinary carpenter. When I began to learn carpentry, there were 50 of us, and just a few became master carpenters who worked while the others were sleeping. They kept thinking about their work, made numerous drawings, delved into structural factors and even dreamed about their work at night. A master carpenter considers the lifestyle of the owner of a potential building he or she will build, thus pays keen attention to every detail possible including the height and width of spaces in a given structure as well as the size of columns,” Choi said.

Achieving Fame

Questions about Hanok

Is tradition dead or dying in modern society? In Korea, Hanok is still used for residence but has also embraced new forms amid the ever-changing concept of living tradition. An American expat who lives in a Hanok in Seoul and a master architect who has built Hanok for decades were asked the following questions:

Choi Gi-young

In our rapidly changing modern society, Hanok passes on a distinct message that the essence of something remains the same. For instance, no matter how advanced the world gets, people must still eat. Whether you cook rice in a cauldron or an electric rice cooker, you must have a meal. The same is true for Hanok. What has changed is skills, nothing more. Nowadays, machines do a lot of work, which has shortened work time and increased convenience. Yet the principles remain the same. Though housing construction has gotten faster, that should not compromise construction principles. Hanok still maintains its basic principle of eco-friendliness and making its residents healthy and comfortable.

The biggest advantage of Hanok is that it is part of nature. Natural materials used for its walls, ceiling, doors and windows function as high-quality filters for anything undesirable for the human body. Ondol (heated floor) means that the temperature differs between the lower and upper parts of a room, which explains the feeling of refreshment after sleeping in a traditional ondol-heated room. Run a boiler in a concrete house after shutting the doors and windows to feel how stuffy the air becomes. Stay in a Hanok to experience how sweet the air is. When people feel comfortable, they are more generous and nice to others. Not only that, the wooden frames are structurally interlocked to form a natural barrier against earthquakes. So Hanok is safe, too.

Besides those with historical value, a number of modern Hanok buildings are being built across the country. I recommend visiting Yechon Hanok Hotel in Namwon, Jeollabuk-do. Though recently built, the Hanok buildings in the complex comply with traditional building methods. Heat is produced through the traditional ondol system using wood. Walls are made from yellow clay according to tradition. You cannot find a healthier living environment than this.

Choi Gi-young’s Profile

  • • 2010
  • Completed restoration of Geukrakjeon Hall at Bongjeongsa Temple in Andong
  • • 2010
  • Added to UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list as daemokjang (master carpenter)
  • • 2000
  • Designated Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 74 as daemokjang
  • • 2000-10
  • Built Baekje Cultural Land in Buyeo-gun County, Chungcheongnam-do Province
  • • 1977
  • Designated Carpenter No. 407 by Cultural Heritage Administration for repair of cultural heritage
  • • 1961
  • Started carpenter training

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