The man behind North Korea's next generation of architects

Story highlights

  • Amidst building boom, North Korea's young architects express fresh ideas.
  • North Korea's annual infrastructure spending has grown roughly 10% since 2014.
  • Architect Calvin Chua mentors North Korean students and architects, as part of AA Visiting School program.

(CNN)Mega monuments, symmetrical Soviet-style high rises and grand boulevards. That's what normally comes to mind when picturing North Korean architecture.

But the streets of Pyongyang are evolving.
    Curved lines, asymmetric designs and pops of color are enriching new areas such as Mirae Scientists Street -- a new residential area next to next to Pyongyang Station -- showcasing an eclectic mix of building styles that would have been inconceivable a decade ago.
    And with North Korea's annual infrastructure spending growing nearly 10% since 2014, there's plenty of opportunity for architects to flex their design muscles.
    Amid the building boom, foreign architects including Singapore-based Calvin Chua have seized the rare opportunity to help shape the next generation of North Korean architects.
    Chua, the founder of Spatial Anatomy design firm, runs Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA) Visiting School program, which with the non-profit Choson Exchange program provides training to North Koreans.
    This Raphael Olivier photograph shows an example of a minimal structure built by the Russians after the Korean war. Scroll down for a gallery of Olivier's work.
    International architecture students visit North Korea for 10 days to work with local students and architects on different design approaches in urban development.
    CNN spoke with the Singapore University of Technology and Design adjunct assistant professor about working with North Korean architects and students, and how they're transforming the cityscape.
    When did you first visit North Korea?
    I went there in 2008 as a tourist. The first impression I had was the city's monumentality -- the strategically distributed public squares, monuments, and strong vistas along the boulevards in Pyongyang. From that perspective, the city was orderly and well-choreographed.
    What defines North Korean architecture?
    Most of the buildings are made of concrete, because that's the material that's readily available. To import steel from China would be too expensive. And because of all the sanctions, it's even more difficult. The entire city was flattened after the Korean War (1950-1953), so to some extent, a lot of the architectural styles and influences really came from the initial assistance provided by other communist states like East Germany and the Soviet Union.
    How is working in North Korea different from visiting as a tourist?
    As a tourist, you'll be so bombarded by the monuments and boulevards that it's hard to appreciate what's unique about North Korean architecture. After going to North Korea many times, you start to discover the small details of the city rather than the giant monuments.
    The way each house has a small balcony and everyone has potted plants -- that interests me much more because it reflects how people live in the city. Or the presence of mini department stores -- basically, shops where you can buy anything, from shoes to clothes to solar panels within 1,000 square feet (100 sqm).
    That's uniquely Pyongyang. You don't find that in other cities.
    What surprised your students about working in North Korea?
    It's a general perception that North Koreans are not very vocal. I think that when you talk about something that is more politically neutral, like urban planning or architecture, they can be critical and analytical.
    A lot of people never expect the North Korean participants to be so forthcoming with their ideas -- that's been a pleasant surprise.
    What types of projects do the students work on?
    Instead of designing the types of architecture that are already prevalent in Pyongyang, we focus on developing urban strategies for challenging sites in the city.
    For example, we look at how to adaptively reuse and change old or empty buildings -- that is conceptually new for the North Korean architects. Typically in North Korea, you would simply refurbish or demolish an existing building rather than changing its function.
    Despite the building boom, a number of buildings are empty in the city. It is important to consider how to adaptively reuse these existing buildings, rather than tearing them down.
    What's it like to work with North Korean architects?
    North Korean architects are very skilled with their design software. They are able to produce drawings and models, or even renderings, at a very fast speed. There is, however, a difference in how we approach design. In North Korea, architecture is a very formulaic practice, whereas the foreign students tend to spend more time thinking about the context, and the theoretical implications of design strategies.
    How has architecture in North Korea changed over time?
    If you look at the timeline of development in Pyongyang you can broadly break it down into a few phases. The 1950s was a neoclassical period where East German and Soviet architects were invited to participate in design projects in Pyongyang. Then we have the modernist era in the 60s and 70s, which was followed by the revival of vernacular Korean architectural elements, like Korean hipped roofs, built with concrete in the 80s.
    And more recently? What trends are you seeing?
    The architecture is evolving. The practice is driven by the amount of construction that's taking place in the city. Increasingly, they are moving away from standardized designs. North Korean architects are inventing more individual qualities in their buildings.
    So in the past, if you looked at older neighborhood, or even streets, like Kwangbok Street and Tongil Street -- all the buildings were designed, composed and replicated in a particular way that shared a similar geometrical language.
    And in the new developments?
    If you look at newer streets, like Mirae Street and Ryomyong Street, within a short span of just half a mile (1 kilometer), you get a diverse collection of buildings with different forms and façades.. For example, you get to see 30-story towers being erected in the middle of a low-rise urban block, which would have been unthinkable in the past. It seems to suggest that the planners, the architects, are slowly deviating away from a more cohesive, coherent urban design.
    What are some major concerns among North Korean architects?
    It ranges from technical issues such as improving insulation and waterproofing for buildings to developing a sustainable development framework for the city. We have led discussions and workshops on a series of issues, for example how to develop a sustainability guideline for the city.
    Is it hard for foreign architects to work in North Korea?
    It's slightly more difficult for architects to get involved in projects in North Korea -- firstly, the local architects are very capable themselves. Also, the lack of communication lines make it really difficult. You can't hold a Skype call, for example. You can email, but the best way to communicate is to be there in person.