North Korea is one of the few countries still under communist rule, and probably the most isolated and unknown worldwide. This is a result of the philosophy of Juche – a political system based on national self-reliance which was partly influenced by principles of Marxism and Leninism.
In recent years though, the country has loosened its restrictions on tourism, allowing access to a limited number of visitors. With his personal photo series “North Korea – Vintage Socialist Architecture,” French photographer Raphael Olivier reports on Pyongyang’s largely unseen architectural heritage. ArchDaily interviewed Olivier about the project, the architecture he captured, and what he understood of North Korea’s architecture and way of life.
Marie Chatel: You’re based in Singapore, and conducted all your previous personal series in China. Why did you develop an interest in North Korea and what did you want to capture?
Raphael Olivier: I first travelled to Pyongyang in 2015 for a very short 24 hour visit, which was an eye opener and sparked my curiosity about the country. North Korea is a complex nation with multiple facets and points of interest, but as an architectural photographer the first thing to strike me when I visit any city is usually the visual appeal of its construction. In that sense Pyongyang is very unique and has a distinctive style of its own, which I wanted to explore more so I decided to go on a dedicated architecture tour with specialist agency Koryo Tours.
MC: Did you feel constrained by traveling in a tour group or did it somehow contribute to the experience?
RO: Of course travelling in a group within an organized tour has its limitations, but that's part of the deal when visiting North Korea. The country is not yet open to individual tourism so a certain level of compromise has to be made.
RO: There is definitely a strong Soviet influence in the city's architecture, mixed with some elements of traditional Korean design. I would say the biggest difference between Pyongyang and other cities is that Pyongyang is very homogenous. In former Soviet cities we might still find great examples of modernist architecture but somehow sprinkled throughout more contemporary urban fabrics. In Pyongyang the whole city's layout is planned from A to Z and there aren't any private developers building their own projects here and there. It's an endless vision of raw concrete blocks painted in pastel colors as far as the eye can see, which is very unique.
MC: The photograph of the swimming pool at the Changgwang-won health complex is intriguing, as it’s the one time in your photographs you have direct visual contact with a Pyongyang inhabitant. In most pictures people are absent or self-effacing. How would you describe their use of public buildings?
RO: Pyongyang is a real city, and a real capital. It might not be a bustling metropolis like New York, London or Tokyo, but there are real people living there, going around and using public spaces for their daily activities. The difference is that foreign visitors are often kept at a certain distance, not often interacting directly with the local population. However this is changing as the country is gradually opening up, leading to more opportunities for tourists to meet the locals in less staged settings.
MC: Along the same lines, I wonder about the city’s layout and how people relate to their urban environment? From your photographs, it seems that roads and public squares remain just as empty and clean as the public buildings, if not more.
RO: Buildings and public spaces that are used for official purposes (military monuments etc) are not used for recreational purposes. But there are also plenty of parks, sport playgrounds and entertainement venues that are used by the public. My photos this time were focused on architecture, but of course it would be naive to think this small work could give a general overview of a city like Pyongyang.