Book: Pyongyang Architectural and Cultural Guide
The world’s horrified fascination with North Korea stepped up a gear in December with the demise of Kim Jong-il and the seamless installation of Kim Jong-un. The former ruler’s penchant for mass spectacle, total social repression and an apparent obsession with the day-to-day workings of his country’s creaking industrial infrastructure look set to be continued with the same fervent zeal by his successor.
Travelling to North Korea isn’t easy, but it is possible. We managed to stop by in W* issue 45 (2002), when our anonymous photographer provided an awe-inspiring insight into a world of shoddy system-building, ego-crazed statuary and synchronised celebration. This was the first in-depth look at Pyongyang’s architectural landmarks and attractions to be published in the West.
If you’re lucky enough to find your way into the country, and you’re partial to a spot of dictatorship tourism, North Korea is still the place to go. And now there’s an architectural guide to Pyongyang to help you distinguish between iconic obelisks and pre-fab concrete panel systems at a 1000 paces.
Philipp Meuser’s two-volume set is a guide with a difference, however. Volume 1 is perfect for the suitcase and should pass muster with even the most switched-on border guard. All the imagery and information about Pyongyang’s expansive but aesthetic underwhelming built environment has been provided by Pyongyang Foreign Languages Publishing House, one of the state’s deathly earnest propaganda outlets, and is presented straight, without comment.
To back it up, you need Volume 2, which contains the real meat of the matter. ’There are very few places in the world where architecture is as inextricably linked to state ideology as in North Korea,’ one section begins, and throughout this second book, Philipp Meuser presents a sober analysis of a society paralysed by propaganda, secrecy and insularity.
Pyongyang’s ’model city’ credentials - as dictated by the celebratory output of the Foreign Languages Publishing House - are revealed to be transparently false. Nevertheless, this is an environment rich in a very particular form of artistry, and the role of art and architecture as a tool of social control is laid bare for all to see.