Nov 2, 201310:00 AMPoint of View
The METROPOLIS Blog
A Guide to Pyongyang, North Korea
The introduction to the recent Architectural and Cultural Guide: Pyongyang (DOM publishers, Philipp Meuser, editor) makes clear what you may have already imagined; your chances of fishing this volume out of a backpack and matching a real-life sight to a photo are about as good as trying the same with A Guide to Middle Earth. Given that, as the book’s editor notes, an “unannounced or unaccompanied trip to the North Korean capital is tantamount to an act of espionage,” and that the estimated number of tourists this city of three million hosts each year is around five thousand (which is a substantial increase from a few years previous), the odds for using this volume like any other guidebook are exceptionally poor. In any case, the contents are rare, horrifying, and fascinating, and the publisher’s decision to release this guide in a series featuring otherwise normal cities such as Tokyo and Taipei is a calculated reminder of the surreal oppression that renders the use, even of an architectural guide, almost impossible.
The box-set edition is divided nimbly into two parts. The first part reproduces photos and captions from the government-run Foreign Languages Publishing House in North Korea without comment; the second features comment, in the form of additional photos and essays. Volume one features the kind of tepid stew of textual humorlessness and photographic grandiosity one would expect from a North Korean state publisher; volume two sheds a little more light on these situations.
To start with the architecture: the great and evident misfortune of Pyongyang, a sleepy town chosen as provisional capital at the partition of Korea (and not officially recognized as capital until 1972) is to have emerged from the Korean war almost entirely destroyed, with virtually no architectural past and then to experience perhaps the worst sequence of caprices of architectural favor that we’ve seen in the eastern bloc.
Starting with the premise that most Socialist architecture was thoroughly mediocre, there were unquestionable periods of startling innovation. These include Soviet constructivism in the 1920s, some modernism accompanying the Khruschev thaw, and another burst of the ultra-modern from the Andropov era onwards. A look at recent glossy art publications roughly mirroring these phases, such as Lost Vanguard: Soviet Modernist Architecture 1922-1932 (The Museum of Modern Art), Socialist Modern (Haatje Cantz) and Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed (Taschen) quickly confirms that enthusiasm for these structures constitutes much more than mere Ostologie. Satellite communist states shifted with or against these trends at different points, but they also occasionally reached points of real distinction. Monographs on this work spring up every month. North Korea, however, seemed to reliably miss, reject, or water down any wave of even vague architectural interest in the eastern bloc.
Constructivism obviously bypassed North Korea, in an era when Japanese rule also failed to leave any meaningful landmarks. The establishment of Pyongyang as provisional capital in the wake of partition brought a wave of neo-classical Stalinist architecture, principally Russian in design and banal in execution. While Stalin’s death in 1953 brought some liberalization of architecture elsewhere, Pyongyang continued to sprout bleak neo-classical structures for much of the next decade. The 1960s eventually saw a turn towards Korean vernacular architecture, with public buildings sprouting traditional “giwa” tiled roofs (typically numerous), staggered facades, and colorful “dancheong” paintings on facades. These, however, feel unfailingly ersatz, dodging any sort of interest or liveliness.
At long last, a neutered sort of modernism began to creep into building design, accentuated by a governmental determination to burnish the “international” stature of Pyongyang in the 1980s with grander cultural facilities. No one, of course, is going to mistake this “international” phase for the “International Style,” although it did bring about the first buildings in Pyongyang with glass facades --- some 30 years after the rest of the world, which was fairly quick by North Korean standards.
In this era, finally some scattered buildings begin to impress. The Pyongyang International House of Cinema (1989) resembles nothing so much as a terraced watch cog slowly spilling its bounds, and, while still a concrete mass, at least offers rare imagination in its schizophrenic geometry. The May Day Stadium (also 1989), the largest in the world, suggests nothing so much as a draping (on the model of the Munich Olympic Stadium, or the King Fahd stadium in Riyadh) that’s been scrunched inwards by a giant (Kim Jong-Il?) revealing a bleached and calcified sunflower from above and a series of huge sloping arches from the ground.
There is also, of course, the monolith that is perhaps North Korea’s most-recognized building; the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel. Begun in 1987 and still unfinished, the hotel loomed a windowless concrete-frame monolith over the city for over two decades. Dubbed, “the worst building in the history of mankind” by Esquire, and, to return to the Middle Earth parallel, “a luxury hotel designed for Mordor” by the Lonely Planet, it stood an ominous shell until 2009, when work applying a glass façade resumed. Perhaps the most damning realization is that the building looked more interesting without its pedestrian exterior.
The larger fabric of the city is slightly more redeeming. This is due to an understanding of axial arrangements, building proportion, and sightlines that simply constitute good planning sense, whether you’re Pierre L’Enfant, a modern New Urbanist, or Kim Jong-Il. Traditional senses of enclosure and the creation of uniform streetscapes seem to have commanded somewhat greater sway than in other totalitarian cities. And the ills of planning for the automobile to the exclusion of pedestrians have been avoided to a fair extent (aided, no doubt, by the fact that private automobile ownership remains illegal in North Korea). It’s not exhaust fumes, but the state that oppresses in this volume.
Most cities, whether fascist or socialist, democratic or autocratic, enshrine and privilege the state in some or many forms. However, it’s almost impossible to find a city like Pyongyang, in which virtually every feature supports a geography of power originated with this regime. Ceaucescu endeavored mightily to remake Bucharest in his image but even he moved older structures. Mao considered destroying the Forbidden City but retained it as a symbol of power. East Germany eventually undertook the renovation of old Prussian monuments and structures, going so far as to recast Frederick the Great as a proto-Socialist, but at least there were structures that some other regime had built. There seems to be hardly any physical past of any consequence in Pyongyang. There is the Korean Revolution Museum, the April 25 House of Culture (the day the Korean People’s Army was established), the Party Foundation Monument, the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Memorial, Kim Il Sung University, Kim Il Sung Stadium, the Monument to the Immortality of President Kim Il Sung, and Kumsuan Memorial Palace, which contains, it should come as no surprise, Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum. For additional relaxation, there are such divertissements as “Department Store Number One” and Children’s Department Store.”
It’s a tribute to the patent un-likeability of Pyongyang, and the tone-deafness of North Korean propaganda, the critical essays in the second volume are really superfluous in terms of determining not to visit. The official text for a new housing complex, opened in 2009, cites as proof of a “high standard of modern comfort” the fact that all of its units have thermostats. The attendant essays yield invaluable context however. Meuser asks:
“A Western-style critical approach to urban development and to the architecture of Pyongyang raises a number of questions, many of which contain the seeds of their own answers. Why are the streets lined by seemingly well-kept residential buildings that conceal primitive, single-storey huts in their back yards? Why are public buildings and monuments illuminated by perfectly designed lighting systems after dark while private dwellings show barely a light? Why do public buildings flaunt lavish facades of quarried stone while the precast concrete of the pavements is riddled with cracks? The imposed collectivism, the permanent state of economic emergency, and the focus on social mega-events and prestigious buildings in which to hold them determine the order of priorities according to which the buildings – which were all, without exception, built by the state – are operated and maintained.”
Even what seemed, at first glance, as some welcome escape from the state’s grip – abundant floral displays - are soon revealed, in a fascinating essay by Christian Posthofen, as yet another freighted contribution to the cult of socialist personality. A ubiquitous orchid cultivar, symbolizing “the ascent of power into a general state of nature,” is “kimilsungia.” A begonia, also widespread, is the “kimjongilia.”
In the wake of any totalitarian state, battles rage about its physical legacy. Some will argue for retention of buildings on practical grounds, others for retention as a reminder that horrific states often still built useful things, and others will press for broad-based demolition. In any case, this is the kind of worthy debate only possible when the circumstances of their original conception have passed irretrievably.
These, of course, are impressions derived from a book. I consulted a friend who recently visited Pyongyang to see how this might diverge from reality. “I guess my only impression… is that the imagery this article evokes of the town almost feels like a ghost-town, like we're talking about the architecture in a land devoid of people.” He cited the population of thee million, largely unseen in the volume save in elaborately choreographed crowd sequences, the subway system 100 meters below ground that was also intended to serve as a bomb shelter. And “..after reading this I'm more thinking 'grim reality of all those shitty-looking buildings' than 'grim reality of how much life there blows, and how the architecture is a great metaphor for that.'
Meuser dubs Pyongyang, the “best preserved open air museum of socialist architecture,” but salient point remains that this isn’t a museum to the average resident; the interval at which the city might serve as a catalogue of the past and not a grim reality of the present clearly could not come soon enough.
All Images Courtesy DOM publishers
Anthony Paletta is a writer living in Brooklyn. He writes the “Spaces” column for the Wall Street Journal and has written otherwise for The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast, The Awl,Bookforum, and The Millions on urban policy, cinema, historic preservation, and literature, and Metropolis on Long Island Modernism, Boston city planning, the preservation of Brutalism, and a variety of other topics.