German architect and publisher Philipp Meuser describes Pyongyang, the North Korean psycho regime’s capital, as ‘arguably the world’s best-preserved open-air museum of socialist architecture’. This publication offers a solid armchair trip through it. Volume 1 has photographs and descriptions furnished by the official Pyongyang Foreign Publishing House, without critical comment, but Volume 2 includes critical and analytical essays. Best to leave the latter at home if you’re planning a trip.
South Korean architectural historian Ahn Chang-mo comprehensively charts the development of Pyongyang from before its destruction in the 1950-1953 Korean War. He says that the architecture of Pyongyang is ‘completely different’ from that of other socialist states, but anyone who has wandered along, say, Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee, would instantly recognise the stolid heroic architecture set in wide, windswept spaces. The spaces are wider in Pyongyang, Ahn explains, to reduce damage in war, and he highlights how North Korean architecture diverged from Soviet styles. From the Sixties, traditional Korean elements and typologies were encouraged, coinciding with founding dictator Kim Il-Sung’s unique political philosophy, Juche. From the Eighties international influences are absorbed. This contextualises works like the 170m-high granite Juche Tower monument to the Ryugyong Hotel, long an unfinished shell whose very existence locals denied, despite its 330m height. Only now is this concrete rocket-cum-pyramid being completed, with new glass cladding.
Christian Posthafen’s essay ‘on the Legibility of Spatial Production’ is somewhat less illuminating, stuck in the arcane vagaries of philosophers like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, although his comparison of citizenship in Augustan Rome and contemporary Pyongyang is more interesting.
The drivel of Kim Jong-il’s interminable treatise ‘On Architecture’ makes Posthafen read like a thriller in comparison. Mercifully, here we get an edited version — the original was five times longer. The Dear Leader was no Palladio. His banal generalisations, repetitions and inconsistencies are occasionally lightened by references to door handles or exhortations about making grand monuments to the
leader (ie, him).
No mention is made of Pyongyang’s loony attempt to co-host the 1988 Olympics with Seoul, despite 30,000 crack soldiers from the Korean People’s Army being assigned to whip up a blizzard of buildings in Kwangbok. Desperate Olympic hopes are why vast athletic and housing facilities and the May Day Stadium, the world’s largest, were started. It’s a rare oversight in Meuser’s own essay surveying the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ that is Pyongyang. Overall, he has produced a fascinating insight, with great photography, into this freak city and the urbanism of megalomaniacs, both stranded by history.
Edited by Philipp Meuser, DOM Publishers, £31.90
Images Courtesy of Meuser/ DOM Publishers