What do North Korea’s buildings and landmarks tell us about the totalitarian state?

When Kim Jong-Il died in December 2011, a window was fleetingly opened on to the notoriously insular North Korea. Now, a new book kicks open the back door of the country’s capital, Pyongyang. German architect and publisher Philipp Meuser’s two-volume Architectural and Cultural Guide: Pyongyang is ostensibly an overview of the city’s buildings, but it reveals much more of the world’s most closed society, not to mention the hypocrisy of its ruling dynasty. Pyongyang’s streets, writes Meuser, are lined with “seemingly well-kept residential buildings that conceal primitive, single-storey huts in their back yards”. Monuments are “illuminated by perfectly designed lighting systems after dark while private dwellings show barely a light”. And public buildings “flaunt lavish facades of quarried stone while the precast concrete of the pavements is riddled with cracks”. The city was almost completely destroyed during the Korean War and reconstructed in its aftermath. Le Corbusier and his contemporaries might have approved of the regime’s superficially rigid adherence to modernist, socialist design. But it comes at a cost. “It’s such a negative country,” says Meuser, who visited North Korea five times to research the book. “My first visit was very interesting, like being back in the Soviet Union 50 years ago. But I always felt lucky to leave.”

Meuser first went to Pyongyang as a tourist in 2005. Four years later, he was one of a handful of foreigners invited to the Pyongyang architectural book fair. A North Korean state publishing house sold him the copyright for some 100 official images and he signed a contract agreeing to print them with uncritical captions. “But I couldn’t publish just the propaganda images,” he explains, “so I split it into two volumes, the second of which includes context and background on the first. That way I could get the approval of the Koreans, but also introduce some critical commentary.”

The second volume also includes extracts from Kim Jong-Il’s treatise On Architecture (some extracts are here in yellow). Most dictators identify themselves and their ideology through architecture and what most of them leave behind are their buildings and monuments. But Kim is unique in having written down his own theories, rather than delegating to official architects.

Most of the book’s photographs are empty of people. During his trips, says the author, “I felt like somebody with a torch entering a very dark room filled with cockroaches. As soon as I jumped in, everybody scuttled away and hid. There was no way to make connections with people. It’s very depressing.”

Tim Walker, The Independent



About Marc Leprêtre

Marc Leprêtre is researcher in sociolinguistics, history and political science. Born in Etterbeek (Belgium), he lives in Barcelona (Spain) since 1982. He holds a PhD in History and a BA in Sociolinguistics. He is currently head of studies and prospective at the Centre for Contemporary Affairs (Government of Catalonia). Devoted Springsteen and Barça fan…
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