Nov 2, 201310:00 AMPoint of View
A Guide to Pyongyang, North Korea
(page 1 of 3)
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.