November 19, 2019

Pyongyang’s Retro Sci-Fi Architecture

“In July 2015, the two of us stepped off a plane at the newly opened airport in Pyongyang, North Korea. It was our first time in the country. As architects based in Beijing, we were well acquainted with the world’s cities and skyscrapers, but North Korea was a dark spot in our mental map — filled in, as it was for most people, by preconceptions and stereotypes that rendered the so-called Hermit Kingdom in black and white. We had tried to leave those ideas behind, but we didn’t expect that this first visit would leave us with such a sense of confusion, one where the difference between what was real and genuine was muddled by what was ostensibly staged or faked.

As soon as we left, we knew we had to return. Over the next four years we made three more visits, facilitated by a Beijing-based travel company called Koryo Tours. Over time we decided to try to represent the complicated reality of Pyongyang through photography, which ended up in the form of a book, “Model City: Pyongyang.”

Pyongyang, a city of 3.2 million people, has a long history, but it was largely rebuilt after the Korean War (called the “American War” in North Korea) by the newly founded Communist government, which intended it to be a model city for a new society. North Korean society is built around “juche ideology,” a homegrown form of socialism based on self-reliance, and it infuses everything in the city, especially the architecture. “On Architecture,” an essay by Kim Jong Il, who ruled from 1994 to 2011, sets out juche-informed rules regarding axis, control of heights, framing of space and so on, and they are recognizable everywhere in the city.”

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