Building on tradition

2006/09/06 21:37

Building on tradition

by Choi Jieho, JoongAng Daily
April 15, 2002

From 1966, when the Peace Corps was organized in Korea, until 1981, when it was phased out on the peninsula, several hundred Americans arrived to assist in classrooms, on farms, in businesses and with various industrial projects. Almost 30 volunteers who served the Peace Corps in Korea decided to stay on.

Over the next few months, the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition will visit several of these former volunteers. The first in our "Peace Corps People" series focuses on one man's passion for architecture.

SUWON Peter Bartholomew pokes at the 200-year-old dark wooden pillars at an old palace here. The bottom of the pillars are discolored and white. "That's not rot!" he snaps, tapping them to demonstrate that they are weathered but sound.

The white stuff is salt. The logs to build the palace ?"I can't imagine what they must have weighed," he says ?were soaked for three years or more in brine before being cut and set in place. The salt protects the pillars from insect damage. As the timber ages, the salt leaches to the bottom, just where insects would be most numerous. So the whitening, far from being evidence of decay, is just the opposite ?testimony to the ingenuity of the Korean builders of the Joseon era. Mr. Bartholomew beams in admiration.

"It's just fascinating to see how technologically savvy they were back then," he tells the group following him on a tour of old Suwon organized by the Royal Asiatic Society.

Peter Bartholomew came to Korea with the Peace Corps in 1968 and found his passion. Like other Peace Corps volunteers decided to do, Mr. Bartholomew made a life for himself in Korea after his service was over. (Created in 1961, and still going strong, the Peace Corps so far has sent 165,000 Americans to 135 countries. Though it's been more than 20 years since the last Peace Corps volunteer came to Korea, the group continues to meet periodically for reunions here).

Mr. Bartholomew's day job is running IRC Limited (Industrial Research and Consulting), a contractor for offshore marine facilities; he is the managing director. But his passion is traditional Korean architecture.

"It is the window to social, economic, cultural and scientific aspects of life in the Joseon period," he says. "Korea's traditional architecture is simply fascinating in its relationship with nature and the environment, achieving harmony and balance with its surroundings."

An enthusiastic man in his late 50s, with spectacles and graying hair, Mr. Bartholomew is more than just an amateur lover of architecture, for he knows far too much, right down to the most intricate details of the woodcarvings on a window sill. Kim Yong-duk, president of the Asiatic Society in Korea, says "I've seen him do this kind of tour many times, and I can't help being awed by his knowledge and energy every time."

"I can do this for hours and hours,"Mr. Bartholomew confesses.

He speaks with passion and eloquence, radiating excitement for his subject. He talks of the subtlety of a roof curve, the textures of wall masonry. He tells stories of long-ago palace intrigues and revels.

A smallish black brick gate that he points to, he says, took 10 years to reconstruct. It was not the craftsmanship that took most of the time, but the arguments about what the gate looked like. How many bricks high had it been, where was its foundation and what was its orientation? Mr. Bartholomew was a participant in these arguments, which looked for answers in ancient paintings and early 20th-century photographs taken before the Japanese demolished the structure.

"They got it exactly right!" he announces.

He heaps scorn on Japanese historians who, he says, manufactured a theory of Korea's cultural backwardness and destroyed all countervailing evidence. "It is just nonsense to say that Korea's artistic achievements lacked sophistication," he snorts, his voice quivering with indignation. Unfortunately, he says, many Koreans don't know any better because they can't see the brilliance of their ancestors' works. They were nearly all destroyed or taken to Japan during the colonial period. "Many of the finest Korean artifacts disappeared," he says sadly, "and that is why many people just don't know how great the arts and culture of the Joseon period were."

Korea's hanok, or traditional houses, are another passion. Mr. Bartholomew is saddened by the deterioration and disappearance of traditional buildings in the name of development.

"That's just a Third World mentality," he says. "Destroying the surroundings of historical sites to build karaoke bars and bibimbap restaurants for the sake of luring tourists and for development. It's offensive."

He at least is doing his part. Last year he bought an 80-year-old hanok in northern Seoul's Donam-dong area. He pours his spare money into its upkeep. "It's just endless," he says. "You get the roof tiles replaced, and then it's the floor, and after that the windows."

He laments the reluctance of the Korean government to do more historic preservation. "They understand the importance of palaces and temples, but completely underestimate the value of their traditional domestic architecture."

Peter E. Bartholomew was born near Niagara Falls, New York, and spent his childhood going back and forth between Canada and the United States. The idealism of the Kennedy era in the early 1960s spurred his wish to join the Peace Corps after graduating from Hamilton College in upstate New York. He began teaching English to Korean teachers at middle and high schools in Gangneung and Jumunjin in Gangwon province.

It was in Gangneung that he fell in love with Korean architecture. By chance he got to reside in an old but magnificent house of 99 kan, or rooms, that belonged to an elderly aristocratic woman. It was designated as a National Treasure. During his 4 years and 10 months (he extended his stay) with the Peace Corps, he visited historical sites all over the peninsula. He unofficially participated in excavations by archaeology departments at universities and learned from carpenters, architects and experts on Korean traditional architecture. He studied the language diligently, and by his third year in Korea, he was able to converse easily in Korean.

In 1972, he decided to stay in Korea because a "recession hit the U.S. and I did not think it would be easy to find a job there." Through a friend, he landed a job in a trading and shipping company, where he stayed until founding IRC in 1982. During the 10 years at the shipping company, he learned much about the industry through auditing classes at Britain's University of Newcastle upon Tyne and taking night courses on business and trade at Sungkyunkwan University.

Mr. Bartholomew has now lived in Korea for 34 years. Why did he stay so long? "Home is where you're at," he says. "The great thing about architecture is that it's a hobby you can appreciate, anytime, anywhere. All you have to do is look around."


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