This exhibition shows two paths spanning space and time over 50 years, exploring where the path of the past and path of the future meet and where they diverge. The curation of the exhibition is also divided into two complementary parts. One is an archive of key state projects during Korea’s industrialization and modernization, and the other is a collection of contemporary interpretations of these projects by young Korean architects and artists. We wanted to create a new perspective by drawing these two threads together. Of course, it was not easy. We have come a long way.
The exhibition begins with the Korea Engineering Consultants Corporation (KECC), a technical consultancy for architecture and civil engineering established by the government in 1965. KECC undertook national projects such as the development of the Han River areas, the Gyeongbu Expressway, Pohang Iron and Steel, Jungmun Tourism Complex, and Expo Korean Pavilions. It was also the place where representative architects of Korea gathered in the late 1960s and dreamed up a new utopia. Yoon Seung Joong, Kim Seok Chul, Kerl Yoo, Kim Won, Kim Won Seok and Kim Swoo Geun, known as the father of Korean modern architecture, worked there. They experimented with their ideals through bold large-scale state-backed projects. Their vision was similar to the radical architectural experiments in the West in the same period. Yet, theirs also had to be very practical to meet the needs of the development plans being carried out by the technocratic military regime. KECC based their work on empirical data including population growth, urban expansion, and the growing number of automobiles. As they tried to realize their ideals under an authoritarian government, their work sought to be radical yet also needed to meet the state’s aims. This tension means their proposals were not fully realized and remain as unfinished dreams. This is why the exhibition chose to examine the work of KECC from the late 1960s, when the ideology of national planning became entwined with the architects’ vision to form the ‘state avant-garde.’
Today, Koreans dream of new urban spaces that accept individual complexity and respect freedom and diversity, not the inflexible solutions imposed by the state in the past. Various groups including the working class, women and young people rejected the lives demanded by the authoritarian state and capitalism, and did not stop dreaming of new identities and visions. There have been continuous attempts in urbanism and architecture to solve social issues caused by national division and social injustice. Now, as nationalism collapses and diverse identities are rising, we searched for new commonalities from the remains of the broken avant-garde by positioning the legacies of the past as the starting point of our journey through this exhibition. And we found it was an opportunity for all of us to contemplate the issues the cities and architecture of Asia and the Third World face, where modernist architecture was introduced by the development-minded state, and not at the behest of civil society. This is why the Korean Pavilion takes a detour into the dissonant past to seek out the “spectres of the state avant-garde.”
excerpted from ‘Introduction’, Spectres of the State Avant-garde (Seoul: Propaganda, 2018)