The Korean Pavilion
16th International Architecture Exhibition
La Biennale Di Venezia
19, Jahamun-ro 8-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul (03044)


1. Why does this year’s Korean Pavilion focus on the projects of Kim Soo Keun’s team at the KECC in the late 1960s?

KECC’s or the Kim Soo Keun’s team experimented with their ideals through bold large-scale state-backed projects. It could be seen, as a similar form of visionary architecture and planning that flourished in Europe, the United States and Japan in the 1960s. But the historic background of KECC was different. Theirs had to be very practical to meet the needs of the development plans being carried out by the technocratic military regime.

South Korea had urgent missions to combat North Korean ideology as well as to literally build a nation-state. As a new independent nation after being a monarchy, a colony, Korea needed to overcome the absence of a nation during that time. Not only was there an institutional, legal, and administrative absence, but also there were no social imaginaries about how the society needed to be led.

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. But, despite its leading role in the urbanization and industrialization of Korea, research on the history, activities, and personalities of KECC have not been carried out in earnest and remain only as fragments of memory.

2. What does the exhibition keyword ‘spectres’ mean?

‘Spectres’ refers to the past that has an impact on the present but cannot be captured, and something that haunts us but is unclear. In the recent discourse about spectralities and Asian Confucianism, to summon spectres is to ask the present to take the responsibility for the past. They also refer to the invisible figures who worked for the Park Chung-hee military government during the state development period who aren’t recorded in history.

The Korean Pavilion exhibition looks for ideas for the future by revisiting the origin of current issues, instead of simply recording or praising the past. KECC was in charge of major urban development projects which contributed to building modern Korea. These include the development of areas around the Han River, Samil Overpass, Gyeongbu Expressway, POSCO steelworks, and Jungmun and Bomun Tourism Complexes. However, the projects haven’t been fully archived yet. This exhibition summons the spectres of KECC that have affected Korean architecture yet without being revealed or studied thoroughly. The curatorial team saw this situation as a problem and so decided to make this absence part of the exhibition.

3. Who are the participating artists and why were they selected?

We invited architects who are pushing the boundaries of architecture in Korea like the young architects of KECC in the past, and artists who have had artistic practice which medium is architecture. We asked them to shine a light on the legacies of state-led development in the 1960s and aspects of Korean modern architecture impacted by them.

The curatorial team paid attention to research carried out by the architect Sungwoo Kim and Jongho Lee on the Euljiro area in central Seoul. Working as one of the Public Architects of Seoul, Kim participates in the reconstruction of public spaces that makes use of megastructures in the center of Seoul. Based on this experience, his work for this exhibition is about urban changes around the Sewoon Sangga complex.

Choon Choi, who participates in the exhibition as an artist as well as a curator, interprets Seoul’s Yeouido district in an installation. Having participated in many museum and gallery exhibitions, he uses his experiences in building up examples of making architectural history into exhibitions, such as the Void exhibition held at MMCA Seoul.

We asked SGHS and BARE, who are emerging architects, to reinterpret KECC archives from a fresh point of view. SGHS has presented their unique work that broadens the possible interpretations of architecture and its historicity and then alters it. We thought they would be good at exposing the hidden meaning of the Korean Pavilion at Expo ‘70.

BARE have presented an installation as part of ‘Imagining New Eurasia’, a project which took place at the Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, and a research-based video work at Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism. The curatorial team focused on their local literacy and demonstrated their ability to bring their ideas to a space. BARE listened closely to the ‘excluded’ voices of low-wage workers of the past Guro and immigrant laborers in present day Guro.

Media artist Hyun-Suk Seo was invited to build upon his work to date that deals with the relationship between spaces and theatricality in the context of modernity. We thought his work – that crosses the boundaries of media art and performing art based on a thorough understanding of urban spaces – would be perfect to explore the legacy of Korean cities.

Formerly a graphic designer and currently a photographer, Kyoungtae Kim has created work that plays with variations of the scale of objects and visualizes them. His work for this exhibition converts 2D images into 3D.

Fiction writer Jidon Jung wrote a short story that is connected to his interest in 1960s Korean society and architects, which has featured in his previous works. It imagines a hopeful future for Seoul from the perspective of a woman who participated in the Expo ‘70 in 1970. His writing style that asks the relationship between truth and fiction parallels with the direction of the exhibition that questions the meaning of history, present and future.

4. How is the exhibition connected to the ‘Freespace’ theme of the 16th International Architecture Exhibition?

Spectres of the State Avant-garde suggests Korean architects’ responses to the theme of ‘Freespace’ as a universal value, as well as a justifiable request to explore the architectural legacies of Korean cities, which were created at a time when there was a lack of appreciation of civil society and civic space in the country. In addition to this, the exhibition looks to create a platform to share and think about the common urban issues of some Asian and third world countries, where modern architecture was imported by the state rather than invented through a gradual awakening of civic consciousness.

In urban spaces, free spaces or civic spaces cannot be built upon nothing. They can only be created through compromises and confrontations with urban structures built in the past. In this context, looking back at the late-1960s when Seoul was modernized can help us understand the origin of the current lack of civic spaces in the city. In 21st century Seoul, free spaces can only be fully appreciated when citizens understand the legacies of the 1960s ‘state avant-garde’.

If we understand the theme ’free space’ as a variation of public spaces or civic spaces, based on the traditional concept from the West, it is hard to find the foundation of it in Korean cities. It is because when urban spaces in Seoul were reorganized in the 1960s, the spaces did not belong to the citizens. We have to continue taking back those spaces at this time. Thus, we need to keep archiving the system of the 1960s around KECC.

5. What is a key message of the exhibition?

This exhibition aims to broaden the discourse regarding Korean modern architecture by shedding light on a period and a topic that has not been studied enough yet. Hopefully it helps to develop a better understanding of the complicated situation that Korean architecture faced at the time and moves us beyond the binary perception that had been defined as industrialization versus democratization.

Displaying the Absent Archive and the Emergent Archive, which are based on reflections of the past alongside the work of young Korean architects, provides an opportunity to present historical context and reference points to help us understand contemporary Korean architecture. Blurring the boundaries of commissioned works and archives, the exhibition will also provide a chance to observe how today’s young Korean architects interpret history and how the scenography mediates different parts of the exhibition.

Meanwhile, the curatorial team of the Korean Pavilion created a platform to share the exhibition topic with the domestic architecture sector by holding the Venice Biennale 2018 Research Forum last year. This was to improve on the practice of the past in which there was lack of dialogue with the Korean architecture sector. In addition to the forum, we hope that the theme and meaning of the exhibition grow through the catalogue published in line with the exhibition.

6. How could architect Kim Soo Keun be evaluated?

This exhibition does not intend to focus on Kim Soo Keun as an individual architect. Instead it traces back who actually worked on the projects that have been known as Kim’s while he was working for KECC. In essence, the exhibition demythologizes him.

Kim Soo Keun’s reputation after his death is ambivalent. In Korea, there is a recent movement to reevaluate him from a critical perspective with regard to some of his works, including the NamyoungDong Anti-Communist Branch of the Korean National Security Headquarters where democratic activists were tortured. Yet more research is needed for this, too. There still is a serious lack of information about what exactly the government requested, what the similarities and differences between Kim’s design and other torture facilities at the time were, what the roles and responsibilities of the architect were, and so on. From 1963 to 1969, Kim worked for KECC or something related to it amounting to more than a third of his career as an architect. But his work during the time has been mentioned only anecdotally.