North Korea is a country known for it’s rising nuclear tensions, extreme militaristic showboating, and draconian views of human rights. As one of the few remaining places on earth that is almost entirely shut off from the rest of the world, little is known about day to day life in the communist state. But for a nation that is so heavily shrouded in mystery and uncertainty, the efforts of their architectural bravado provide some insight into how their regime operates.
The modern era of design and urban planning in North Korea began in 1950, when the nation’s army marched across the 38th parallel and with Soviet aid, invaded South Korea. After the war ended, the capital of Pyongyang was a scene of complete destruction and chaos. To remedy this, the entire city was razed to create a tabula rasa, on top of which a new city and a strict ideology could be built. Drawing upon leafs of Soviet urbanism and the Five Year Plan, North Korea adapted a system of building that relied heavily on quantifiable targets and financial quotas in favor of placing any value in experiential and formal aspects of architectural design. The highly axial streets opened into grand boulevards lined by pastel buildings, giving the feeling of sameness after sameness.
The Corbusian Plan Voisin-tinged principles of urban design were articulated by Kim Jong-il in his 160-page discourse, On Architecture, in 1991. “The basic condition for harmonizing all the city’s architectural space,” he wrote, “is the focus on the leader’s statue and ensuring that the statue plays the leading role in the architectural formation of the city.” His ideals play out to the extreme in the form of a cult personality that carefully flanks every leader’s monument with soviet-inspired concrete buildings.
Overall, the city exhibits a highly curated feel that leaves the few visitors who have been there with the impression that the capital has been constructed solely to flex its totalitarian muscle in order to display its wealth and glory. While such exaggerated design devices might be reminiscent of other cities across the Soviet bloc, Pyongyang is unique in that It is still governed by the exact same ideological system it was built to venerate. Largely separated from the usual global pressures of commercialization and migration, the city has still found ways to evolve over the last several years.
One of the most notable stories to emerge from the isolated country was in 2014, when a 23-story apartment block in Pyongyang collapsed during construction, killing hundreds of locals who had already moved in. In response, the deputy minister of construction and building material industries was executed that week. In another instance, Ma Won-Chun, the architect responsible for designing Pyongyang’s new airport terminals was exiled and supposedly killed after his schematic proposal failed to bear in mind the party’s idea of modern architectural beauty, while also preserving the spirit of their national identity.
The North Korean regime dictates not just the designs, but also the rates at which realization is intended to happen. Around construction sites, the labor workers known as “soldier builders” hang banners to display the different speeds of development. “We are now building at ‘Pyongyang speed’” is used by the leaders to urge on construction at the fastest rate. The slightly slower, yet still unrealistic speed of construction, “Chollima speed”, refers to the quickness of a mythical winged horse that set the pace for Pyongyang’s early development during the Soviet rebuild. The more modern day “Masikryong speed”, apparently dictated the construction of an entire ski resort, a massive hotel, and a Dolphinarium where Chinese dolphins perform flips on demand, leaping from a pool of saltwater that’s pumped there via a 100km pipeline. All of this program was conceptualized and built in just ten months.
However, North Korea’s architectural ambitions are sometimes pushed too far, and their inability to disguise these failures is perhaps expressed best in the Ryugyong Hotel. This enormous pyramid shaped building was intended to be home to 3000 rooms, and stood as a deteriorating carcass until 2008, when it was reclad in glass by an Egyptian telecom company. Intended to open for a celebration of Kim Il-sung in 2012, it still remains far from finished and completely off-limits, but is easily one of the most well known icons of North Korean architecture.
Pyongyang is also home to May Day stadium, which boasts the largest stadium seating capacity in the world with the slogan “Play sports games in an offensive way!” and is shaped like a silver parachute caught in full flight. It was recently converted into a soccer stadium, and optimistically adorned with both FIFA’s logo and the Olympic rings, a not-so-subtle expression to the world that they would be interested in hosting an international event. Inside of the stadium, and also true of other more recently renovated buildings in the capital, the athletic facilities have a repetitive axial symmetry and a consistent palette of preschool color schemes, giving an eerie feeling of walking into a life-size doll house.
It is not clear if this style of architecture comes from the availability of materials in the region, or if it’s a conscious design decision. But based on an understanding of how this extreme form of communism operates, it seems rather intentional. Having adapted the designs extravagant soviet-blocs and the emphasis of idolatry monuments, this infantilizing pastel kitsch is the logical next step for a regime intent on projecting an image of a utopian society. North Korea aims to use their architecture as an anesthetic to control their people by projecting a metaphorical Bucky fuller-esque “pleasure dome” that covers the obscured realities of a regime’s fairytale image.