London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

Korea wins Golden Lion in Venice architecture biennale

There have been a lot of Korean Ministry of Culture bigwigs in town this week for the opening of the City of London Festival, in which Korean performers are playing a major part. And many of the officials are going home to Seoul via Venice. Why? Because the Korean Pavilion has been awarded the Golden Lion for Best National Participation in the 14th International Architecture Exhibition.

Bae Hyung-min (left), commissioner Cho Minsuk (center) and cocurator Ahn Chang-mo with their Golden Lion
The Korea Pavilion’s commissioner Cho Minsuk (centre), with co-curators Bae Hyung-min (left)and Ahn Chang-mo (right) with their Golden Lion. (Arts Council Korea via Korea Herald)

All participating countries were asked to respond to the theme Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014; the commissioner of the Korean pavilion decided to approach the topic by looking at the different ways that architecture has developed on either size of the DMZ. Below is the full press release which contains the curatorial statement for the Korea’s entry, taken from the Korean Pavilion home page. And there follows an interview with the commissioner (Cho Minsuk) and one of the curators (Bae Hyung-min) of the pavilion, from the Venice Biennale YouTube Channel.

DeZeen Magazine has a video interview with Cho Minsuk on their website here (and embedded below). There’s a different, slightly longer, interview in the same magazine in an extended article here.

The pavilion is generating a lot of buzz because it contains work from both North and South Korea. In fact, this could be the first time that the pavilion has lived up to one of its founding visions – to represent the whole Korean peninsula. But it would be a stretch to call the exhibition a collaboration, as the organiser admits. Most of the North Korean work comes via Nick Bonner’s collection of posters and art, some of it commissioned by him (see example below). And there’s one of Charlie Crane’s photos from his book Welcome to Pyongyang (LKL review here).

Image from Commissions for Utopia by architects from Paektusan Academy of Architecture, 2011
Image from Commissions for Utopia by architects from Paektusan Academy of Architecture, 2011, acrylic on paper; commissioned by Nick Bonner

I won’t get a chance to go to the pavilion, but from the images in the press the architectural creations of the Mansudae studio are every bit as speculative and visionary as those from Korea Paekho Trading Corporation which were on display at the North Korean embassy in London a couple of years ago. There’s a picture of some of the North Korean designs over on the Designboom website, along with a guided tour of the exhibition with Cho Minsuk, to whom congratulations are due.

The 14th Architecture Biennale runs in Venice until 23 November 2014.

Crow’s Eye View: The Korean Peninsula

Korean Pavilion at the 14th International Architecture Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Korean Peninsula was divided in two. Within the polarizing global and state systems of the Cold War, a society and culture that had maintained a unified state entity for more than a millennium evolved radically divergent yet irrevocably interconnected economic, political, and ideological systems. The trauma of war and adversarial politics have too often sensationalized and over-simplified this condition, reproducing clichés and prejudices that obscure the complexity and possibilities that lie in the Peninsula’s past, present, and future. In the Korean Pavilion, the architecture of North and South Korea is presented as an agent – a mechanism for generating alternative narratives that are capable of perceiving both the everyday and the monumental in new ways.

Yi Sang, Crow’s Eye View, Poem No. 4, 1934
Yi Sang, Crow’s Eye View, Poem No. 4, 1934; typeset by Sulki and Min, 2014

The Korean Pavilion is inspired by “Crow’s Eye View,” a poem by the Korean architect-turned-poet Yi Sang (1910 -1937).1 In contrast to the singular and universalizing perspective bird’s eye view, the crow’s eye view points to the impossibility of a cohesive grasp of not only the architecture of a divided Korea but the idea of architecture itself. Like uncharted patches of an irregular globe, a diverse range of work produced by architects, urbanists, poets and writers, artists, photographers and film-makers, curators and collectors forms a multiple set of research programmes, entry nodes, and points of view. They call attention to the urban and architectural phenomena of the planned and the informal, individual and collective, the heroic and the everyday. Intertwined yet in opposition, spilling over to each other, they reveal the way that a wide range of architectural interventions have reflected and shaped the life of the Korean Peninsula. The Korean Pavilion reveals the Korean Peninsula as both symptom and agent, both archetype and anomaly of the tumultuous global trajectory of the past 100 years.

The exhibition is co-curated by the architectural historians and critics Hyungmin Pai and Changmo Ahn. The exhibitors include Ahn Sekwon, Alessandro Belgiojoso, Nick Bonner (featuring the Mansudae Art Studio and anonymous artists and architects of North Korea), Marc Brossa, Che Onejoon, Charlie Crane, Maxime Delvaux, Jun Min Cho, Ik-Joong Kang, Karolis Kazlauskas and PLT Planning & Architecture Ltd., Dongsei Kim, Kim Hanyong, Kim Kichan, Seok Chul Kim & Franco Mancuso, Kim Swoo Geun, Young June Lee, Chris Marker, Philipp Meuser, Moon Hoon, MOTOElastico, Osamu Murai, Peter Noever (featuring the North Korean architects exhibited in Flowers for Kim Il Sung, MAK, 2010), Kyong Park (featuring Nam June Paik and the artists of Project DMZ, Storefront for Art and Architecture, 1988), James Powderly, Kyungsub Shin, Hyun-Suk Seo (featuring Kim Jong Hui et al.), Yehre Suh, Yi Sang and Dongwoo Yim.

Crow’s Eye View: The Korean Peninsula is settled on four large themes—Reconstructing Life, Monumental State, Borders, and Utopian Tours.

Reconstructing Life

After the Korean War, the two Koreas embarked on divergent paths of bringing stability and growth to their societies. During the War, many North Korean cities, including Pyongyang, were totally leveled by bombing. The idea of architecture – the building of houses, monuments, institutions upon a tabula rasa – constituted a founding myth for the new socialist nation. If old Pyongyang was destroyed by bombs dropped from the sky, the historical landscape of Seoul was destroyed on the ground by bulldozers. After three decades of high state-driven growth, Seoul has become a hybrid metropolitan city. Reconstructing Life takes a glimpse at the common and divergent ways the reconstructed architectural environment of Seoul and Pyongyang has functioned as mechanisms of memory and desire.

Monumental State

Pyongyang is the ultimate city of monuments, a city planned upon the ideals of socialism and the Juche Idea. Furthermore, North Korea is unique in the world for the deep engagement of its most powerful political leader in the definition of architecture. Driven by divergent economic forces, architecture in South Korea has moved on a different trajectory. Nevertheless, its developmental state, at times in specific competition with Pyongyang, has produced similar visions of the monument. Hence, the historical formation of architecture in both Koreas is structured by contradiction. While the North Korean architect is bestowed with the heroic task of building a socialist society, the architect-author figure in North Korea fades out as part of the mandate of the “great” leaders. The architect in South Korea, while imbued with the ideal of individual creativity, has long served the requirements of bureaucracy and capitalism.


Exemplified by the DMZ, the borders between North and South Korea comprises the most radically mediated, the most militarized, and the most politically charged boundary in the world. Borders expands the exhibition’s architectural concerns to the physical, conceptual, and emotional boundaries that separate and link the two Koreas. Research on the relation between North and South Korea show complex mechanisms that involve intricate interconnections among state apparatus, corporations, NGOs, religious and academic groups, etc. Even the impenetrable spatial divide that is DMZ demonstrates that it contains an array of permeable elements and forces that can provide the basis of a more interconnected future. Along with such ecological and historical analysis, the DMZ is presented as a potential space of imagination and reconciliation by a diverse group of artists, architects, and writers.

Utopian Tours

Utopian Tours is comprised of a selection of images from the collections and commissions of Nick Bonner. In 1993, Nick Bonner co-founded Koryo Group, a Beijing based company that specializes in travel, film, and cultural production in North Korea. For more than two decades, Koryo Group has been committed to projects that seek to engage with the everyday life of North Korea. Comrades of Construction, comprised of linocuts, ink paintings, and posters dating from the mid-1950s to present, illustrate the significance of architecture in the construction of a self-proclaimed utopian society. Commissions for Utopia, an exploration of environments for sustainable tourism, and the comic strip A Day of an Architect, produced specifically for the Korean Pavilion, are part of his numerous commissions to anonymous North Korean architects and artists.


This exhibition is supported by AMOREPACIFIC Corporation, Samsung Foundation of Culture, Janghak Engineering & Construction Co., Ltd., Duomo Co., Ltd., lokaldesign, Jaeho Son, Hye Jeung Jung, Young Min Woo, and sponsored by Samsung Electronics Italia S.P.A., Artemide, Samsung Chemical Europe GmbH-Staron, Lock Museum, Newlite Architectural Lighting Design & Imports, Turkish Airlines and Basic House.

ARKO logo


  1. Brother Anthony has a go at translating one of the poems in the Crow’s Eye View cycle over on his website. The translation is every bit as avant-garde as the poem as typeset above. []

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.