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What’s behind North Korea’s strange architecture?

Pyongyang’s unique streetscape opens a window on a secretive regime

The vast, unfinished Ryugyong Hotel, photographed in 2010.

IAN TIMBERLAKE/AFP/Getty Images

The vast, unfinished Ryugyong Hotel, photographed in 2010.

Pyongyang is one of the least accessible big cities in the world, but for visitors who manage to spend time there, it’s not unusual to come away impressed—sort of. North Korea may be an economic basket case, but its capital manages a certain Washington-like splendor: It’s a city of sweeping boulevards lined with multistory office and housing complexes, wide squares, and grassy river banks studded with monuments.

But visitors also tend to develop a few questions. Why is most of the populace walking, with just a sprinkle of automotive traffic on those vast boulevards? Why does so little light shine from the windows of the giant apartment buildings? Why does the tallest building in the city, the 105-story, pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel erected in 1987, remain an uncompleted shell?

Photos from “Architectural and Cultural Guide Pyongyang,” courtesy DOM Publishers.

A colossal statue of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, dwarfs visitors to the Grand Monument on Mansu Hill.

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An impulse to come to terms with one of the world’s strangest cities animates “Architectural and Cultural Guide Pyongyang” (DOM Publishers). In two volumes, the appropriately strange new book pairs a reprint of the North Korean government’s own guide to its capital (long available to foreigners browsing Pyongyang bookstores; I acquired my copy on a visit more than two decades ago) with a collection of essays by outsiders about what, exactly, we’re seeing here. The editor, Berlin architect Philipp Meuser, describes the work as “a paradoxical attempt to lend normalcy to the abnormal.”

A Western architecture guide to an Eastern city that receives few Western visitors is a curious thing to start with. Beyond that, some might find it almost indecent to think of Pyongyang as an aesthetic achievement. After all, the most towering fact about North Korea isn’t its buildings but the dire circumstances of its people—a country of 24 million now entering the third generation of rule by a dynasty of dictators whose early run of economic policy successes sputtered to an end a half-century ago.

But buildings are valuable aids to understanding any society, and perhaps even more so when it comes to one of world’s most isolated and secretive regimes. The city’s centrally planned skyline, its huge empty avenues and libraries and stadiums, reflect a very particular fusion of Korean culture with socialist ideology. And the streetscape of Pyongyang tells much of the story of North Korea: the gulf between the strange ambitions of the buildings and the often invisible citizens for whom they are notionally built.

***

Pyongyang was originally a provincial seat—known around the turn of the 20th century as the Jerusalem of the Far East, thanks to the success of resident American Protestant missionaries in converting people and establishing churches. Its fortunes changed sharply in 1945, when Josef Stalin sent troops into the northern half of Korea to accept the Japanese surrender of the territory; he installed Kim Il Sung as its ruler and made Pyongyang the capital of the newly partitioned country.

The city was nearly flattened by US aerial bombardment in the Korean War, presenting Kim an opportunity after the Armistice to “reconstruct the city from the ground up” as Ahn Chang-mo of South Korea’s Kyonggi University notes in his history chapter in Meuser’s book. What resulted, he writes, was something unique: “a new city with an architecture that approximates the ideals of socialism more closely than any other socialist city.”

The Grand People’s Study House.

In planning Pyongyang, Kim initially tried to break down the barriers between private and working areas by building communal day care centers and even group kitchens. A large part of the goal was freeing up women for work outside the home: With most North Korean men destined to spend at least a decade in military service, visitors even today note that much of the society’s productive work is done by women. But social engineering failed to make a big dent in traditional Korean family structures, including the custom of living in single-family units—meaning that despite Kim’s planning, women today both work outside the home and do most of the cooking and housework.

On the aesthetic front, from 1954 Kim Il Sung insisted that architecture reflect not just generic socialist goals but, to an even greater extent, Korean national characteristics. In many public buildings constructed according to Kim’s prescription, traditional sloped tile roofs add grace to the skyline, even though they sit upon modern concrete structures. The national library, called the Grand People’s Study House, is one of the more felicitous examples—although, once inside, visitors discover that what the people can actually study is limited by the regime’s strictures on what its subjects may read (recent English literature is sparingly rationed), and by the conditions inside. Anyone going there to spend a winter’s day researching is well advised to bundle up.

The monuments in Pyongyang range from the highly derivative (the Arch of Triumph, celebrating Kim’s fictitious 1945 liberation of the country, a near-clone of the more famous arch in Paris) to unique gestures such as the Workers’ Party monument, featuring blocky interpretations of worker symbols, the hammer, the sickle, and—representing North Korea’s paper-pushers—the writing brush.

Pyongyang’s immense apartment complexes lack the roofs or other distinguishing touches of public buildings, though they have some distinctively Korean touches on the inside: When fuel is available, which means irregularly in many recent years, multi-unit housing projects offer ondol, an old Korean system in which heat is circulated beneath the floor. From the outside, the city’s some 3 million residents seem to be warehoused either in soulless rectangles or—in a monument to 20th-century modernism—what Meuser calls the “Soviet interpretation of Le Corbusier’s ‘machine for living.’”

Many of the more extravagant apartment blocks, along with stadiums, other sports venues, and four new hotels, were thrown up in time to impress visitors who showed up in 1989 when the city hosted the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students, Pyongyang’s answer to its bitter southern rival’s wildly successful 1988 Seoul Olympics. (Completing the Ryugyong Hotel in time for the socialist-bloc festival proved impossible.)

Expenditures for the 1989 bash all but bankrupted the regime, setting the stage for the collapse of the economy in the 1990s. Pyongyang’s building boom has come to horrify onlookers with overreach and its consequences. Retired British diplomat John Everard, in his own book on North Korea, “Only Beautiful, Please: A British Diplomat in North Korea” (Asia-Pacific Research Center), calls the 1989 construction tear “a tragic waste of money for a grindingly poor country.” Everard, a far-ranging walker and bicyclist and a keen-eyed observer, writes that most of the 260 facilities built on two new streets for the festival were “empty and unused” during his tenure as ambassador from 2006-2008: “The whole complex was almost a ghost town, and I often wandered along the deserted streets listening to the wind blowing past the empty buildings.”

***

For all Pyongyang’s excesses and absences, a visitor does get the feeling that the city’s parts add up to an externally coherent whole. According to Meuser, “The architecture seems to be serving as the backdrop for a collective social idea.”

Pyongyang’s planners made imaginative use of land around the buildings in the service of the regime’s aims. Staying in the Potonggang Hotel in 1979, I noted the pleasant, willow-planted, park-like setting—and then realized the hotel was literally moated, isolating its foreign clientele from the city around them. On later trips I was billeted in the newer Yanggakdo Hotel and found myself similarly isolated on a small river island.

Housing blocks under construction in 1989.

None of this is accidental. The Kims have striven to block almost all communication between their subjects and foreigners. Like other authoritarian and totalitarian leaders, they tend to see architecture as an extension of themselves. Kim Jong Il in 1991 even published a pamphlet, “On Architecture,” of which the Meuser book provides an abridgement.

Although the late second-generation ruler’s name is affixed to the treatise, no doubt he had it ghost-written. One passage—“Tall people want the door handle fixed high, and short people want it low”—suggests to me that Kim Jong Il didn’t even read the entire work before publication. He was so insecure about his own stature that it’s nearly impossible to imagine him penning a line that drew attention to short people’s needs.

It’s easier to imagine Kim’s true thoughts coming through when, as Christian Posthofen writes in his introduction to the abridged text, the author “openly acknowledges the ideological dimension of architecture and gives detailed instructions on how to use architecture to promote the interests of the ruling elite.” In the end, observes Posthofen, who teaches at the Nuremburg Academy of Fine Arts, “it is not all about truth, goodness and beauty—it is about politics and power and the formative influences of architecture.”

More specifically, it is about worshiping the leader. “Ensuring that the revolutionary outlook on the leader pervades architecture is the fundamental principle,” according to the pamphlet credited to Kim, who died last December at 70. His own biggest contribution to the country’s architecture appears to have consisted of monuments to his family’s rule. During his years as heir apparent and ruler in his own right, he sprinkled them liberally around the country, and especially throughout Pyongyang. “Monuments remain with mankind forever, and therefore have positive effects on people’s ideas regardless of social progress and change of generations,” the pamphlet asserts.

***

In North Korea, often the line between public building and monument blurs. Such is the case at the International Friendship Museum at Mount Myohyang, a two-hour drive north of the capital. Visiting there with a group of Western tourists a few years ago, I infuriated my guides by questioning an architectural decision of the leader. Why, I asked, had the country spent untold sums building an extension of the museum when its people were starving?

The original 1978 structure, which I had first visited some years earlier, held hundreds of thousands of gifts presented by foreign visitors to Kim Il Sung. This was my first glimpse of the extension, more than 200,000 square feet of floor space completed in 1996 when a famine was taking the lives of hundreds of thousands—some estimates say millions—of North Koreans. By the time I visited, it held 55,423 gifts to Kim Jong Il.

The tiled and curved temple-style roofs, the marble floors and the four-ton bronze doors of both the original structure and the extension clearly had been intended to impress visitors with the power and glory of the leaders. The interiors nevertheless had the feel of one of those thrift shops crammed with unwanted wedding presents—dishes and utensils not listed on the bridal registry, stuffed animals and birds, tacky works of art.

Our museum guide did not like my question. “The gifts are very precious,” she told me. “From 1993 to 2000 our people suffered from countless natural disasters but also from pressure in the economic field, owing to the US aggressors. Our people couldn’t exhibit all these precious gifts in a poor palace, so we built this palace with our best. It is the greatest desire of all the people.”

Suddenly, the lights blinked off; there had been an electrical blackout. When the lights came back on, the museum guide tried again to explain that the money had been well spent.

Today, we hear from defectors that more North Koreans than before are themselves asking such questions, in guarded conversations with trusted associates. They live among a series of monuments to what the regime thinks they should want. Will they ever get—in food and clothing, as well as shelter—what they themselves know they need?

Pyongyang is now in the hands of the country’s third-generation leader, twenty-something Kim Jong Un. In his first public speech he indicated he would do better by his people, promising that his subjects “don’t have to tighten their belt again.” There are hints that he may plan at long last to undertake Chinese- or Vietnamese-style opening and reform. Maybe so, but maybe not.

For now Kim might do well to contemplate recent world history, which suggests that his father was not necessarily right about the permanence of monuments. There are countries whose newly removed leaders’ statues have been pulled down and shattered by angry former subjects. It is a lesson that doesn’t yet appear to have penetrated the regime. The newest Kim dynast started his reign with yet another round of building projects in Pyongyang: new giant statues of his father and grandfather, and a tomb for his mother.

Bradley K. Martin is the author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.”
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