Architecture is more than just a pretty façade. By examining architecture and its effects on society, we see that psychological and physical responses are commonly associated with our structures, which speak volumes about global matters, societal norms and cultural climates.
This is something that has been studied in depth, and an understanding of a culture’s architecture has come to help bolster an understanding of the workings and principles of the culture itself.
However, while there is a heavy focus on the capitalist architecture of the world – where the modus operandi is often ‘the taller the better’ – little information has been garnered from one of the world’s most closed-doored countries – North Korea.
The country functions as a family dictatorship, with overwhelmingly totalitarian state principles. Highly-contentious human and social rights issues aside, North Korea, with governing principles and a cultural foundation far removed from those of the rest of the world, is a fascinating architectural landscape for those who have seen the country and its capital of Pyongyang first-hand.
German architect Philipp Meuser has experienced the Korean-built environment, sharing his five-trip findings in a two-volume ‘Architectural and Cultural Guide: Pyongyang.’
He recalls the ways in which the city reflects the founding cultural policies that are in place through poorly-designed urban blocks, unused motorways and, most notably, giant monuments to North Korean leaders.
No less an authority than former dictator Kim Jong-Il has spoken of the intricacies of North Korean architecture in his own architectural memoir.
“The leader’s image must always be placed in the centre of the architectural space,” Kim Jong-Il writes. “Architectural space must be composed to ensure that the leader’s image dominates all the elements of the space and that all the architectural components throw the leader’s image in bold relief. This will help people to look up at the leader’s image at all times and inspire them with the pride and consciousness that they are happy in the leader’s embrace.”
The constant reminder of leadership figures easily symbolises the dictatorship ‘style’ endemic to the country. Architectural aspects of North Korea have been pulled together, designed and 100 per cent approved by Kim Jong-Il. Many of these have been decried as being nonsensical, hypercritical and planned by those who are not planners, but what they really imply is that the country, and especially the capital, is a construct meant to show a façade rather than to fulfill a function.
Exploring the architecture of totalitarian countries such as North Korea – countries that are more often than not unseen – is not undertaken in order to criticise or reprimand. It is a simple fact that architecture speaks of culture and politics and societal norms and values. To understand architecture is to listen. And through listening, a true understanding of a culture can be found.