Architects and urban planners met in Seoul to discuss the North Korean capital—and political tensions on the peninsulaby Owen Hatherley / November 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
The week before Donald Trump’s tour of South Korea, I attended a series of events held across Seoul on architecture and urban planning. The specific focus was Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Rather than an eccentric side-issue to the march to war on the Korean peninsula, the events revealed something unexpected—an attempt to understand and build links with the “enemy,” rather than caricature and demonise them.
The events—a two-day symposium in the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, and an exhibit of a typical new Pyongyang flat in the Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism—had the backing of Seoul’s radical mayor Park Won-soon. But they reminded me that the “discussion” between the two capitals is very one-sided, with Seoul desperately wanting to speak to Pyongyang, but the north not returning the favour.
The symposium, “Pyongyang Revisited,” was organised by the academics Koen de Ceuster and Valerie Gelezeau, for whom the point was “understanding everyday life” in the city. “We all have an image of Pyongyang, even if we haven’t visited,” they pointed out; monuments like the Juche Tower and the gold statues of the Kims, the wide streets and intimidating vistas, the ideal totalitarian city the North Korean government itself likes to publicly project.
According to de Ceuster and Gelezeau, Pyongyang is usually seen by outsiders as just a well-organised stage-set, where North Koreans are considered little more than mute “actors,” rather than thinking beings. So their event featured historians, architects, artists, tour operators and North Korean exiles trying to look beyond the stereotype. Similarly, the reconstructed apartment in the Biennale, put together by the architects Calvin Chua and Dongwoo Yim, was about trying to peer behind the facades, to get some sense of what Yim calls “the ‘experience’” of living in the North Korean capital.
For the South Korean historian Yuhwan Koh, you can divide Pyongyang’s buildings into three phases, one for each Kim. The Kim Il-sung era entailed the mass production of housing, part of a state-building project which meant that until the 1980s, North Korea was more affluent than the South (it is now estimated to be fifteen times poorer). The rule of his son Kim Jong-il entailed buying popularity and prominence through grand projects,…