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.
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In 776 BC, the Olympic Games of antiquity were hosted at the Olympia stadium in Peloponnese, Greece, an arena widely believed to be the world’s oldest stadium. The elongated U-shaped track and stand had a capacity of up to 45,000 people.
This Underground Bathhouse on the Korean Border Questions Architecture's Role in Geopolitical Tension
Since 1953, the 160-mile (260 kilometer) strip of land along the Korean Peninsula's 38th parallel has served as a Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. The DMZ is more than a border; it's a heavily guarded, nearly four-mile-wide (6 kilometer) buffer zone between the two countries. Each military stays behind its own country's edge of the zone, perpetually awaiting potential conflict, and access to the interior of the zone itself is unyieldingly limited. Apart from the landmines and patrolling troops, the interior of the DMZ also holds thriving natural ecosystems that have been the subject of studies on what happens when wildlife is allowed to flourish in the absence of human contact.
As long as there have been buildings mankind has sought to construct its way to the heavens. From stone pyramids to steel skyscrapers, successive generations of designers have devised ever more innovative ways to push the vertical boundaries of architecture. Whether stone or steel, however, each attempt to reach unprecedented heights has represented a vast undertaking in terms of both materials and labor – and the more complex the project, the greater the chance for things to go awry.
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.
Architecture is propaganda. Throughout my two years of visiting and living in North Korea the country slowly revealed to me the details of this evolved and refined tool for totalitarian control of the country’s population. The West views the country with incredulity—surely this cannot be a functioning country where people lead “everyday lives?” Surely the country’s populace can’t possibly buy into this regime? But I assure you that they do. People have careers, they go to work on the bus, and those women crying over the death of their leader were doing so through their own initiative, if not out of genuine emotion. How is this possible? This is a carefully constructed regime which has, at its heart, an unprecedented understanding of how architecture and urbanism can influence and control people. Coming second only to the military on the list of party priorities, the design of the built environment has had an incalculable effect on reinforcing the ideologies of the North Korean regime and conveying these to the people.
Originally published on Metropolis Magazine as "The Future of Architecture, According to a North Korean Architect," this interview with Nick Bonner, Curator of the North Korean Portion of the Venice Biennale's Korean Pavilion, delves into the realities of architectural work in one of the world's most secretive countries.
Today, the Korean Peninsula provides a striking example of a post-war polarization: two opposite political and economical systems, constantly presented in contrast/conflict by the global media, that still maintain an intricate, complicated relationship. Architecture’s role in this polarization was instrumental. North Korea sought to represent the aspirations of a new communist nation within a context devastated after the war -- a tabula-rasa from which adaptations of modernism could appear. In South Korea, fast economic growth bred a form of modernization that represented the ideals of a globalized world.
Singaporean Aran Pan is one of the only people in the world to have filmed Pyongyang, North Korea's largest (and perhaps most inaccessible) city. The video, captured via a GoPro attached to the windshield of a vehicle, is part of Pan's project "DPRK 360°," an initiative to document and reveal the people and landscapes of the secretive country.
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