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The Hidden Architecture of Pyongyang

A new book explores the politics behind the city's buildings.

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Courtesy: DOM Publishers

As a general rule, dictators love architecture, and Kim Jong-il was no different. The late North Korean leader even authored a treatise on the art of building, 1991′s On Architecture, in which Kim extols the virtues of “Juche” architecture, that is, those works that were symbolically compatible, ideologically resonant, and formally representative of DPRK state doctrine. According to Kim, architects are both “creative workers and operations officers” whose work must cannot be successful, architecturally or otherwise, without the approval of the masses, "the true critics of architecture."

But, have a look through Philipp Meuser’s fascinating Pyongyang: Architectural and Cultural Guide, and it’s safe to say that the masses do not approve.

Despite Kim’s appeal to the masses, much of the architecture of Pyongyang, the dictator’s seat of power, is overwhelmingly authoritarian in tone. Large monuments of questionable taste dot the cityscape embodying Kim’s cult of personality, linked by absurdly wide Haussmannian boulevards and colossal public squares devoid of an actual public.

Featureless (but free) housing projects foreground the pedestal architecture, whose fragments are held visually together by a penchant for Stalinist grandeur and a schizophrenic eclecticism, with allusions to the building cultures of nearly every socialist regime of the last half century. Meuser’s book is split into two parts, the first of which consists of an actual North Korean architectural guide–the photos of which can be seen here–with the other functioning as exegesis, filled with critical texts that not only argue against the ugly power of Kim’s architecture, but also outlines potential lessons that Pyongyang, as a socio-urban model, has to offer.

All photos courtesy of DOM Publishing. This post first appeared on Architizer, an Atlantic partner site.

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