How Pyongyang's buildings reveal a nuanced visual history of the city

Updated 28th June 2018
View gallery
18 Pictures
pastel North Korea 1
How Pyongyang's buildings reveal a nuanced visual history of the city
Written by Oscar Holland, CNN
Any take on North Korean architecture would be remiss to exclude emblematic structures such as the jagged, pyramidal Ryugyong Hotel, or towering monuments to erstwhile leaders. And, true to form, architecture critic Oliver Wainwright's new book about the country's built environment features an expected dose of the bizarre.
Comprising photos taken in and around Pyongyang, "Inside North Korea" presents lesser-known -- though no less unusual -- structures, such as a Saturn-shaped planetarium and an ice rink resembling a concrete teepee.
Yet, the journalist and photographer's images portray something deliberately unremarkable. His depictions of Pyongyang's utilitarian apartment blocks and public sports facilities serve as a reminder that, as in any city, form sometimes follows function.
Combining the political with the everyday offers a nuanced visual history of Pyongyang. Aware that North Korea's curated capital is unrepresentative of the country at large, Wainwright believes that the capital's buildings and urban plan can be used as vehicles to understand the country's past and present.
North Korea's art dealer to the West

A historic record

Pyongyang was effectively built from scratch following the Korean War. This, coupled with the country's relative political stability since, means that the capital is a well-preserved record of North Korea's modern history.
"It has to be the only city in the world where the original political ideology which spawned the urban plan is still intact," Wainwright said in a phone interview. "You go to post-Soviet cities and can still just about read the ideology that formed them. But they've obviously changed since their regimes changed, whereas in Pyongyang -- because North Korea has had this Kim dynasty since the 1950s -- the political and social ideology behind the urban plan is still very much there.
"It's like walking around a living museum to the Kims' 'Juche' ideology," he added, "which is all about self-sufficiency and self-reliance."
Despite an architectural philosophy that eschews outside influences, many of Pyongyang's post-war buildings are distinctly Soviet in style. Kim Il Sung relied on Moscow-trained architects to rebuild the country during the 1950s, though he ensured that local influences played their part.
"It's kind of Stalinist architecture, but inflected with overtly Korean symbolism," Wainwright said. "So there are neo-classical buildings with grand, colonnaded, pedimented entrances. But rather than having the standard round, classical columns they've gone for octagonal columns, to reference ancient Korean temples."
The city's more unusual structures would appear under the guidance of Kim Jong Il, who established his architectural credentials before his father's death in 1994. Less deferential to history than his predecessor, he saw architecture as an expression of progress and modernity, according to Wainwright, who describes Kim Jong ll as having "more of a sci-fi fantasy fetish."
"A key year is 1989, because that's when (North Korea) hosted this spectacle called the World Festival of Youth and Students, which is like a communist version of the Olympics," Wainwright said. "It was the biggest international event that Pyongyang had ever hosted, so, in the years running up to it, there were a huge number of showcase construction projects.
"In Kim Jong Il's 1991 treatise 'On Architecture,' he describes how (the event's buildings) were specially designed to be a combination of cylinders, ziggurats and serpentine curves. He said that rectilinear buildings were an 'outdated method.'"

A pastel 'fairyland'

Which brings us to the present era, where Kim Jong Un is forging his own architectural identity. Having inaugurated a number of large-scale apartment complexes and public projects since assuming power in 2011, the young Kim's aesthetic appears to be distinctly pastel-colored.
Soft shades of pink, orange and blue may predate the current leader, but Wainwright believes that their use has accelerated in recent years.
"One of the slogans that has been published under Kim Jong Un is, 'Let us turn the whole country into a socialist fairyland,' and a lot of the new projects that have happened under him have this very infantilized, kindergarten color palette, and slightly cartoonish forms.
"Things are rounded and soft, candy-shaded and pastel, and you sense that they're trying to provide a visual anesthetic, almost. It's this kind of saccharine salve to distract people ... from the fact they're living under an authoritarian regime."
The cumulative effect of three leaders' differing visions for the city leave it feeling "very theatrical," Wainwright said, comparing Pyongyang to a movie set.
"It has these monumentally wide boulevards that terminate either in statues of the leaders or key public buildings," he said. "You get a lot of axial views down these roads, flanked on either side by symmetrically arranged buildings. It's a bit like looking at a stage set, where the wings and the set design all focuses your attention to the center."
This unique meeting of Soviet influences, post-modernism and pastel colors also creates a Machiavellian blend of utopian and severe forms. Pyongyang, it seems, is a city asking to be both loved and feared.
But Wainwright resists the urge to sensationalize. After all, a skyscraper in London is perhaps no less belittling than an austere government building in Pyongyang. And a pastel-colored palette is perhaps no more superficial in North Korea than in Scandinavia, whose cities share Kim Jong Un's penchant for soothing colored facades.
"These urban beautification programs happen all over the world," Wainwright said. "Both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong II ... wrote these lengthy documents about the structure of (Pyongyang), so I'm sure they were aware of cities like St. Petersburg and Copenhagen, and the power of colorful buildings -- not to suppress people, but to make it a pleasant place to be. There isn't necessarily a sinister connotation behind it at all."
"Inside North Korea," published by Taschen, is available August 15, 2018. Prints from the book are available through Saatchi Art.