From its politics to its design, North Korea has conjured no shortage of curiosity in the Western world. Known for its uniform architecture and pastel aesthetic, the country’s distinctive structures have attracted widespread attention from authors to designers to the everyday onlooker, only to be fuelled further by the secrecy that shrouds North Korea.
With the nation tentatively opening its doors to a growing number of tourists and outsiders, there has been a steady rise in photo stories capturing its instantly recognisable architectural style. Yet though visually fascinating, many series only scratch the surface of the stories that lie beneath North Korea’s architectural landmarks and aesthetic.
In their new Thames & Hudson photo book, Model City Pyongyang, architects Cristiano Bianchi and Kristina Drapić peel back the lid on the idiosyncrasies of North Korean architecture. Crucially, they offer insightful stories about how the capital – a “showcase city”, says essayist Pico Iyer – arrived at its unique style. Many are aware that the city was rebuilt following the end of the Korean War in 1953, posing as a blank canvas for its leader to realise a socialist vision through architecture. That monumental statues are built to face the rising sun, as Iyer notes in the foreword, is likely a lesser known slice of trivia.
Bianchi and Drapić first made the trip to Pyongyang in 2015, returning several times over subsequent years. While the authors recall that approval for the project wasn’t an issue, realising it inevitably posed challenges due to the many notorious restrictions around access. It also came with “iron-clad rules”: photographs of slogans or leaders couldn’t be cropped, residential buildings had to be captured from a certain distance, and the military was off limits entirely. The project was eventually completed with the help of North Korean organisations Koryo Studio and Korea Cities Federation.
Model City Pyongyang does well to look not just to the past but also more recent trends influencing the city’s contemporary architecture. Bianchi and Drapić make a point of highlighting the effects of a renovation programme that began in 2012 leading to a more simplified, conservative style. “The character of each building has been reduced to a version of ‘international modern’, or a garishly colourful environment showcasing the latest architectural advances,” the authors note in the introduction.
The book is capped with useful aerial plans emblematic of the “model city” label, as well as with essays (one by Oliver Wainwright, author of Inside North Korea) that add insight to Pyongyang’s complex architectural story.
Model City Pyongyang by Cristiano Bianchi and Kristina Drapić is published by Thames & Hudson, available from September 19 for £19.95; thameshudson.com