Critical Mass

New apartment buildings next to portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in central Pyongyang. All photos: Travis Jeppesen.

IN THE SPRINGTIME, Pyongyang is shrouded in a pale mist that gives the city an enchanted and ethereal quality. For a moment, especially when dawn breaks over the city and the sun becomes a distant perfect golden circle in the sky, you can almost forget that you’re in the capital of the most hermetic country on the planet. Such moments of reflection are few and far between—after all, you are never really alone here. The mandatory guided tours, the only possible means of traveling in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, may seem an imposition to free-spirited travelers used to doing their own thing on their own schedule, though after a day or two, the routine of being herded and directed begins to make sense as the logical modus operandi in a country where everything is strictly regulated and “under control.”

It was the third week in April—spring break back in the Western world—when I joined the “Architecture for the Masses” expedition to the North Korean cities of Pyongyang and Kaesong offered by Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based, British-owned company specializing in travel to the Hermit Kingdom. Accompanied by Soviet film and architecture historian Daniel Levitsky and Koryo’s Simon Cockerell, a DPRK expert who has visited the country more than 130 times, I was promised that we would be granted access to buildings that had been closed to foreigners on my previous two trips to the country in 2012. As the itinerary was to coincide with Kim Il Sung’s birthday, the DPRK’s biggest national holiday, the city was flush with festivities, ranging from the annual Pyongyang Marathon, the twenty-ninth Spring Friendship Art Festival, mass dances, an international Juche study group convention, and the Kimilsungia-Kimjongilia Flower Exhibition.

Left: Ryugyong Hotel (right). Right: Arch of Triumph.

Of course, there was no chance of entering what is perhaps the country’s most iconic building (and perhaps even the inspiration for London’s the Shard?)—the 105-story pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel, which has been unfinished since construction began in 1987. (Cockerell, together with Koryo’s Hannah Barraclough, became the first foreigners to get a hardhat tour of the interior in late 2012. While the exterior of the building is finally complete, their photos revealed that the inside remains largely an empty shell.) The closest we got was a trip to the rarely visited Jongbo Centre annex, located directly behind it. We gained entry to the building under the pretext of refreshing ourselves at the Centre’s tiny, creepily dark bar. The Centre was, in its prime (the late 1970s/early 1980s), a highfalutin hotel and hangout spot for the Pyongyang elite; today, despite the sterile veneer elicited by its polished marble floors, its few remaining patrons are those of an age that are able to remember it in its prime—the premises were largely empty save for a middle-aged couple engaged in an enthusiastic game of Ping-Pong beside the empty bar, its former hotel rooms used as offices by local banks.

Foiled postmodern monstrosities aside, the DPRK’s architectural renaissance—if that’s not too strong a term—really took place in the building boom immediately following the Korean War (1950–53). Naturally, most of the best examples are to be found in Pyongyang, which was completely leveled. In those years, Kim Il Sung was still heavily under the influence of his mentor Stalin, and so Stalinist architecture—essentially rooted in Neoclassicism with kitsch features thrown in—proliferated. Perhaps the most blatant Neoclassical example is the city’s Arch of Triumph, modeled closely on the Parisian model, though—as your North Korean guides never tire of telling you—much bigger. The Arch is constructed out of 25,500 granite blocks—not a random number, but one for each day of Kim Il Sung’s life at the time it was unveiled, in 1982, on the occasion of the founding president’s seventieth birthday.

Kaesong Folk Hotel.

In terms of classical Korean architecture, very little remains due to the destruction wrought by the bombings of the war. Kaesong, a city near the South Korean border, was able to largely escape the scars of battle and has preserved its Hanok houses dating from the Joseon dynasty, with their traditional thatched roofs and underground ondol floor heating, which we got to experience ourselves, sleeping on the ground according to tradition in such a house at the Kaesong Folk Hotel. Then there is the ensemble of tiny huts comprising Kim Il Sung’s alleged birthplace in Mangyongbong on the outskirts of Pyongyang—though the buildings have been so impeccably maintained that one inevitably questions their authenticity.

An indigenous DPRK style combines traditional native elements with the language of classical Stalinism, a style that Levitsky has wordily but accurately deemed “Korean late-Socialist architecture with traditional characteristics.” Its best example is probably the Pyongyang Grand Theatre, where the country’s five revolutionary operas are regularly staged. Korean head, Socialist body: The building contains a traditional Korean thatched rooftop, while the columnar support is clearly influenced by Stalinist-infused neoclassical ideals of state power.

A second influence found throughout the city, and particularly in the pastel-colored panelak apartment buildings, comes from the GDR, with its space-age references. Indeed, adherents to the “ostalgia” trend of recent years will find more than their fill of perks throughout the country, most of which feels like it never really left the 1970s. Throughout the city, the DDR influence is so pronounced as to be astounding at times, making one feel as though one has been transported to East Berlin in the twentieth century. In a way, the influence endures to this day—the cars on the Pyongyang metro are all hand-me-downs from the Berlin U-bahn.

Living room, Pyongyang apartment.

For returnee visitors in particular, one of the highlights of visiting the DPRK is the opportunity to simply observe, and occasionally participate in, the rituals of daily life—and furthermore, what’s architecture without all the quotidian stuff that goes on around it? On the final day of our tour, after much buildup, our big surprise was unveiled: We were to be the first foreigners ever to visit an actual Pyongyang family apartment. One of the newest blocks of flats in the city, the building was constructed in 2013 to house faculty members of the nearby Kim Il Sung University. We were welcomed into one of the largest apartments, belonging to a young history professor (who was away from home) and his wife, who greeted us warmly and offered us cider. Besides the low ceilings, again characteristic of GDR-style apartment blocks, the home boasted a spacious layout, with a wide living room and a dining area off to the side, kitchen, and three bedrooms. Sitting atop the forty-fifth floor, the wraparound balcony boasts impressive views of the city and the mountains beyond.

A visit to the Pyongyang Architecture Institute yielded more questions than concrete answers. We were given a tour of the premises by a man identified only as the Director, who briefed us—the operative word here being brief—on the history of the city’s architecture. He was keen to highlight the two “miracles” that had taken place in the city’s building history: the “Pyongyang Speed” achieved at the end of the ’50s, when a single flat could be constructed in half an hour; and the “Pyongyang Prosperous Period” of the late ’70s and early ’80s, when another major period of construction occurred. “Now, another prosperous moment is taking place under the guidance of Marshall Kim Jong Un.” When queried as to what particular projects the institute was currently working on, the Director pointed to a number of new additions to the nearby satellite city of Pyongsong, including a kindergarten and a nursery. Perhaps that’s where his staff had been dispatched to on the afternoon of our visit—when we were permitted to visit the offices upstairs, they were all but empty, save for a single young architect we found diligently working on a stack of blueprints.

Dusk in Pyongyang.