The Third Way of Building the Modern Nation, KECC / Changmo Ahn

With the enactment of the International Tourism Corporation Act in February 1962, a tourism hotel project in Gwangjang-dong was quickly implemented. The purpose was to earn foreign currency. The state needed dollars to develop the economy, but the only way was to bring tourists to Korea, which had no industrial infrastructure. The targets were not foreign travelers but United Nations officials sent to Korea for postwar reconstruction and US forces based there. Because the project aimed to earn foreign currency from foreigners, the facilities at the Walkerhill project needed to be of a high standard. For this purpose, the best architects of the time such as Na Sang Jin, Kim Hee Chun, Eom Deok Mun and Kim Swoo Geun were in charge of designing the building and most of the building materials and fittings were imported.

Prior to World War II, the Japanese Government General of Korea promoted tourism very actively. At this time, the tourism industry chose areas with historic and cultural legacies, like Gyeongju and Suwon, and areas with great natural landscapes to develop as tourist attractions. Naturally, the former received tourist facilities with motifs of traditional Korean architecture, and the latter received Northern European-style tourism facilities. However, the Walkerhill Hotel, the first resort facility built after liberation, had to be equipped with facilities comparable to those of Japan and Guam, because it was intended to attract the US forces in Korea and United Nations personnel who were vacationing in those places. Naturally, the Walkerhill Hotel needed both state-of-the-art design and Korean traditional architecture. The results were shown in the hotel’s Hilltop Bar, Douglas Hall, and the Korean Folk Pavilion.

If the Walkerhill Hotel Project was an economic project for Park Chung Hee, who took power with the slogan of fighting against poverty and communism, the Freedom Center was a political project to make Korea an Asian sanctuary for anti-communism that clearly displayed the ideology of the anti-communist regime to those inside and outside the country. It was partly in deference to the US, whose main policy objective was to prevent the spread of communism. From the late 1940s to the late 1950s the United States experienced the era of the “Red Scare.” McCarthyism, initiated by Joseph McCarthy, a federal senator from the state of Wisconsin, was a campaign to draw out communists within the United States. Because of this, many people were placed on a blacklist and lost their jobs, many having had no relation to communism. The Park Chung Hee regime needed the support of the US to maintain their grip on power following the coup. To do this they asserted ‘anti-communism’ during a period when McCarthyism was still potent in the United States. The Freedom Center was a visible expression of the policy for forging political hegemony in the divided reality of Korea and securing the support of the United States by declaring itself to be anti-communist. Interestingly, the key figure in both projects was the architect Kim Swoo Geun.

Kim, who designed the Freedom Center, also designed the Hilltop Bar and the Douglas Hall for the Walkerhill Hotel project. The Freedom Center was built on the north of Namsan mountain in an architectural language that included pillars reminiscent of armed forces in battle-ready lines and a roof shaped like a bow facing north. For the Hilltop Bar, he designed a shocking inverted pyramid structure to memorialize the initials of Walton Walker, a United States army general who was killed during the Korean War. And for the Douglas Hall building, a curved mass sits atop the natural groove of the hill, whose design was inspired by the globally celebrated Oscar Niemeyer at the time.

In the two projects that represent the identity of Park’s regime, Kim succeeded in meeting the client’s goal in architectural terms and was recognized as being capable of visualizing and realizing the political will of the government. At the same time, Kim, who needed to secure technology to realize his architectural language, was able to establish KECC with the support of Kim Jong Pil, the number-two man of the regime.

excerpted from ‘The Third Way of Building the Modern Nation, KECC’, Spectres of the State Avant-garde (Seoul: Propaganda, 2018)