Pyongyang: the Orwellian city through its architecture

by Gianni Simone

PYONGYANG ARCHITECTURAL AND CULTURAL GUIDE, by Philipp Meuser. DOM publishers, 2012, 368 pp., $49.95 (paperback)

Imagine an easy-to-navigate, pedestrian- and car-friendly city with enough space to avoid the kind of congestion that typically threatens to choke similar places worldwide — a city whose carefully thought-out proportions is revealed in its broad boulevards (some, 100 meters wide) that open up into spacious squares with light-filled, airy, and sunny living spaces.

Le Corbusier and the other fathers of modern architecture would have approved of such a model place. Yet these principles have been adapted and twisted in such a way that the final product looks more like something from George Orwell’s “1984.” Welcome to Pyongyang.

As editor Philipp Meuser points out in the introduction, making a guide to the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea might be a futile editorial project as this is a place that eludes all forms of independent reporting. Yet Meuser and his collaborators have put together a huge amount of information that offers unprecedented insights into the capital of what is probably the most isolated country in the world. This tour de force of a book is a beautifully produced two-volume set featuring 450 color pictures of ambitiously designed community buildings, faceless mass housing developments, and a monumental emptiness that perhaps best defines this city.

Volume 1 shows the official face of the city imbued with the autarchic Juche ideology: All texts and images have been selected and provided by the Pyongyang Foreign Languages Publishing House. Everything looks polished, and the nearly 100 buildings featured in these pages provide a striking view of what can be considered the world’s best preserved museum of socialist architecture, complete with sumptuously designed subway stations, clean outdoor spaces, and graffiti-free walls. We learn, among other things, that the North Koreans have a thing for top-floor revolving restaurants — all the main hotels seem to have one. Also, it might be because of the predominant color schemes (gray and pastel) or the anonymous and mostly uninspired designs, but though many buildings have been built fairly recently, the city itself feels “dusty” and shabby. Somehow it manages to look new and outdated at the same time. Among the several cases of unintended humor, the two-story indoor swimming pool inside the huge and mighty Kim Il Sung University campus features a couple of those waterslides that are usually easier to find at an amusement park than a severe-looking academic institution.

Volume 2 discusses the buildings and layout of Pyongyang in a theoretical context while providing critical analysis from both Korean and European perspectives. Meuser very interesting introduction is followed by architectural historian Ahn Chang Mo’s essay on the architectural history of the city. Christian Posthofen often writes about the theory of architecture, and it shows in a dense jargon-filled essay that is better left to architectural experts, philosophers, and epistemologists.

In the end, though, the hundreds of images are what truly make this guide a must for architecture lovers and “fans” of the Hermit Kingdom. Though constantly shadowed by their official guide, interpreter and chauffeur, Meuser and his brother Florian managed to take many revealing pictures of the surreally harsh and exotic reality hidden behind the official facade. One panoramic view taken from the Juche Tower is particularly striking. It shows the Tongdaewon residential area east of the Taedong River. The high-rise apartment blocks that in the official pictures taken from afar create a massive wall that only shows the clean, official face of the city, suddenly open up to reveal smaller dilapidated buildings, primitive shack-like dwellings, and small vegetable gardens. The high-rise themselves are reminiscent of Russian suburbs on which time has taken its toll, ruthlessly exposing their poor construction quality and the regime’s disregard for aesthetic pleasure. Even the precast concrete of the pavements is riddled with cracks.

What most of central Pyongyang lacks in greenery provides in big billboards featuring the kimilsungia and kimjongilia, respectively a hybrid orchid and begonia that symbolize Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. These flowers appear from the facades of buildings and on signs at every intersection, and make the presence of the two leaders felt everywhere. At first sight, though, a short-time visitor may wonder who is supposed to look at those posters and murals, as the streets all too often look like deserted expanses of asphalt, so much so that one begins to doubt the official population figure of three million.

Probably the most interesting bit is left at the very end of the Appendix: “It is possible that some of the information published is classified under North Korean law. The publisher cannot accept liability for any problems with local authorities that may arise from taking this publication into North Korean territory.” Enjoy.