Dreaming of Civic Space in a Dystopian State: Promenades of KECC / Choon Choi

Looking rather docile and stiff at the podium, Kim Swoo Geun, otherwise known for his braggadocio and blatant disregard for formalities, is dressed in a dark business suit and straining to read from a prepared congratulatory speech at the opening of a symposium for highway construction technology. Kim Swoo Geun, still in his late thirties, had just been promoted as the head of Korea Engineering Consultants Corporation (KECC) in April of 1968, but he and his team of young architects had been involved with KECC since 1966 when Kim officially merged his atelier with KECC to form its Urban Design Division. This awkward cohabitation, which lasted for three years until Kim and his team left KECC to establish the Human Environmental Development Institute in 1969, produced some of the most ambitious and experimental projects in the early years of Korea’s modern architecture. Unlike Raphael Hythloday in Thomas More’s Utopia, who refused to serve the prince since “the difference is only a matter of one syllable...between service and servitude,” Kim Swoo Geun, who would later earn the nickname “Lorenzo of Korea,” eagerly cemented a tight, and often mischievous alliance with the military leaders of Korea’s Third Republic. Was it a patriotic desire for rebuilding the poverty-stricken nation that motivated Kim Swoo Geun’s service to Park Chung Hee, who was not exactly a philosopher-king, or was it Kim’s selfish desire to satisfy his inflated ego as an architect-hero that made him politically blind and mute? Perhaps Kim and his team of young architects understood that the only way to carry out their avant-garde agenda was through state sponsorship, or they understood active resistance was futile and would result in expulsion and exile, as was the case with Kim Chung Up who went into exile in France until 1979. The only option left for them might have been a retreat from reality and escape into the realm of the imaginary.

For South Koreans, the decade of the 1960s began with a burst of optimism when the April Revolution—a student-led political uprising in 1960—successfully toppled Syngman Rhee’s corrupt regime. But the May 16 coup of 1961, led by General Park Chung Hee, quickly extinguished the flame of hope for cultural openness and individual freedom, and instead ushered in two decades of brutal authoritarian rule. The Third Republic of Korea, followed by the Yushin Constitution of the Fourth Republic, which prolonged indefinitely the totalitarian repression justified by the imminent threat of war, was a Platonic prototype for a dystopian state. The complex web of historical events that unfolded during the 1960s undoubtedly laid the foundation for the Republic of Korea, but many older Koreans prefer to erase their memories from the sixties, or drastically revise them to suit their politically biased historical narratives. It is critically important, however, to put together all of the loose historical fragments from the postwar fifties and sixties into a plausible narrative because the first generation of Korea’s modern architects launched their careers during this time, establishing a formative legacy that still remains mostly undocumented and incomprehensible today. By salvaging the faint images and drawings left by the visionary dreamers of these years, a new generation of architects today may reawaken forgotten spirits, which will inspire them to dream of utopia, once again.

Unlike the conventional history of built monuments, a story of utopia deals with the unrealized dreams and desires for a new world, and it is this story of the “other half” that made the brutal decades of the 1960s tolerable for Koreans. The tales of their yearnings for a better future was a story of resilience and defiance, and their reality would gradually begin to resemble their fantasy. As Lewis Mumford observed, “the cities and mansions that people dream of are those in which they finally live...and out of generous dreams come beneficial realities.” The first generation of Korean architects were civil and cultural leaders who first visualized the “generous dreams” for the Korean republic, and it was the architects of KECC who were at the vanguard of Korea’s utopian enterprise. But many of their projects and activities have received little or no critical attention by scholars and historians, who dismissed them as willful fantasies, or mere political propaganda never meant for realization. By sorting through the ashes of their dreams, the history of the other half of Korean modern architecture will eventually be able to offer a composite portrait of the emergent identity for Korean architects, and the story of KECC forms the core foundation of this nascent discourse. Kim Swoo Geun addressed his fellow architects and engineers of KECC on the day of his inauguration as its second president with a grandiose rhetoric, befitting their utopian mission.1

excerpted from (Dreaming of Civic Space in a Dystopian State: Promenades of KECC), Spectres of the State Avant-garde (Seoul: Propaganda, 2018)

1 Our era is asking our KECC to be the flag bearer of the new century at the forefront of technological revolution for the world civilization. In an era characterized by a serious loss of humanity, our great task is to tackle many projects for the creation of a better human environment through technology.