What do North Korea's buildings and landmarks tell us about the totalitarian state?
The country has some of the world's biggest – and most bizarre – buildings and landmarks.
Tim Walker is The Independent’s Los Angeles correspondent, covering entertainment and other concerns from the West Coast of the US. He was previously a features writer and the editor of the paper’s diary column. His first novel, Completion, is being published in January 2014.
Thursday 05 April 2012
When Kim Jong-Il died in December 2011, a window was fleetingly opened on to the notoriously insular North Korea. Now, a new book kicks open the back door of the country's capital, Pyongyang. German architect and publisher Philipp Meuser's two-volume Architectural and Cultural Guide: Pyongyang is ostensibly an overview of the city's buildings, but it reveals much more of the world's most closed society, not to mention the hypocrisy of its ruling dynasty. Pyongyang's streets, writes Meuser, are lined with "seemingly well-kept residential buildings that conceal primitive, single-storey huts in their back yards". Monuments are "illuminated by perfectly designed lighting systems after dark while private dwellings show barely a light". And public buildings "flaunt lavish facades of quarried stone while the precast concrete of the pavements is riddled with cracks". The city was almost completely destroyed during the Korean War and reconstructed in its aftermath. Le Corbusier and his contemporaries might have approved of the regime's superficially rigid adherence to modernist, socialist design. But it comes at a cost. "It's such a negative country," says Meuser, who visited North Korea five times to research the book. "My first visit was very interesting, like being back in the Soviet Union 50 years ago. But I always felt lucky to leave."
Meuser first went to Pyongyang as a tourist in 2005. Four years later, he was one of a handful of foreigners invited to the Pyongyang architectural book fair. A North Korean state publishing house sold him the copyright for some 100 official images and he signed a contract agreeing to print them with uncritical captions. "But I couldn't publish just the propaganda images," he explains, "so I split it into two volumes, the second of which includes context and background on the first. That way I could get the approval of the Koreans, but also introduce some critical commentary."
The second volume also includes extracts from Kim Jong-Il's treatise On Architecture. Most dictators identify themselves and their ideology through architecture and what most of them leave behind are their buildings and monuments. But Kim is unique in having written down his own theories, rather than delegating to official architects.
Most of the book's photographs are empty of people. During his trips, says the author, "I felt like somebody with a torch entering a very dark room filled with cockroaches. As soon as I jumped in, everybody scuttled away and hid. There was no way to make connections with people. It's very depressing."
Pyongyang Architectural and Cultural Guide, DOM Publishers, £31.27
film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Stephen Fry explains what he would say if he was 'confronted by God'
- 2 City traders pay £200 for a quick hangover cure
- 3 Venezuela Expo Tattoo 2015: Extreme body art from 'Vampire Woman' to 109mm earlobes
- 4 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 5 Ball pool for adults opens in London
Gorillaz Phase 4: Cartoon supergroup is back as new artwork is unveiled
Venezuela Expo Tattoo 2015: Extreme body art from 'Vampire Woman' to 109mm earlobes
As Better Call Saul launches, here are the other spin-off shows we need to see
Game of Thrones season 5 trailer: The first full-length look is here
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
Stephen Fry explains what he would say if he was 'confronted by God'
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures
President Putin is a dangerous psychopath - reason is not going to work with him