Photoshop Urbanism (2005)
Domus Magazine 882


Razed to the ground in 1952 during the Korean War, Pyongyang was reconstructed under the visionary plan of the leader Kim Il Sung, drawing on an ideal catalogue of architecture from all ages. The North Korean capital is the place where the modern dream has become reality, where we see the utopia and the nightmare of a city realised on the basis of a single global design. It is a metropolis where simulacrums of a thousand
of years of intermixed and overlapping styles, languages and traditions coexist. After visiting the archives of the architects who invented the city, Domus reconstructs its incredible history and photographs its current state.

1.0.0 Getting Started

1.1.0 Tabula rasa
The Korean War bombing that totally destroyed Pyongyang and its store of history left architects free to construct a modern city without having to compromise.

2.0.0 Set up

How did the architects manage to construct the identity of a city for a population in excess of two million in less than 40 years? What urban and architectural models did they adopt?

2.1.0 Archives
The designers charged with conjuring up a monumentally modern Pyongyang had the principles and forms of thousands of years of architecture at their disposal. The Mount Paekdu Architecture Academy has set aside space for the conservation and display of a stark series of images illustrating what are considered the most significant examples in the history of international architecture. The pictures, all in black and white, are mounted in chronological order on both sides of five horizontal white panels.

2.2.0 Photoshop
From the variations on the winged roofs of old Oriental tradition to the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, the pyramids, the Acropolis in Athens, the Pantheon and the Coliseum, the pictures on display at the Academy rewrite a remarkable and partial visual history of the architecture of all times; a precise catalogue of examples ready to be cut up, filtered, assembled and superimposed.
While tradition is present in all its geographical variations, modernity is shown in its multiple languages: the artistic figures of Mendelsohn, Behrens, Le Corbusier, Wright, Saarinen, Tange and Ponti are amassed in a few square metres with the pictures of vast urban Soviet and American areas.

3.0.0 Tools

3.1.0 Speed
The plan for the city’s reconstruction, approved by the Cabinet in 1952, was presented at the World Conference of Architects held in Warsaw the same year. As explosive devices were completing the city’s destruction, its resurrection was already being planned underground.

3.2.0 Superblocks vs. Skyscrapers
The centre of the metropolis is a literal execution of the 1952 master plan: the street system designed was entirely accomplished. The street blocks are traced by the long fronts of austere apartment buildings, which hide whole portions of a built-up area also made of low-rise houses. The urban form is created with a spartan Korean version of the Soviet “superblock”. As the population grew, the architects alternated the construction of linear blocks with tall apartment towers. The city skyline looks like a battlefield without victors: the battle being between superblocks and skyscrapers.

3.3.0 Atoms
The streets of Pyongyang are marked by emphatic sequences, portions of a standard city enriched with designed exceptions, subtitled with propaganda. There are large hotels, sports centres, theatres and museums as well as celebratory constructions: all “properly distanced”.
The polynuclear model proposed by Sakulin in 1918 for the technical and economic organisation of the Moscow area was calibrated and refined. The nuclei distributed around the Moscow region match the essential locations of the Korean capital: the network of infrastructures. The close visual and emotional links alternate before spectators as they orbit around the various monuments.

4.0.0 Techniques

4.1.0 Analogy
Hanging on the walls of the room devoted to the archaeology of architectural knowledge are all the great projects developed by the Academy members for Pyongyang. This proximity clarifies the relationship the North Korean architects wanted to find between a modernity alien to their building tradition and the formal heritage of local architecture. From the early 1950s to the early 1990s, the autarchy programmed for social development chose an exotic and historicist super-eclecticism as the language for the new Pyongyang, creating a city that narrates the history and forms of the architecture of many other places to its visitors via the different identity of single buildings. It tells of the Oriental city, indeed, but it also speaks of the holy Indian world and the schizophrenic European culture, the most visionary utopias of which it has implemented.
Pyongyang is the analogous constructed city. The archipelago of modern forms mixed with the spare local building tradition has generated disciplined compositions that are lyrical but not classical. Often the huge 2-D decorative panels integrated into the facades cancel the proportion of the whole to the advantage of a monumental symbolism that, in the celebratory constructions, is more or less a constant feature.

4.2.0 Utopia
The unique identity of every large building in Pyongyang also embodies the structures of Nervi, the projections of Mel’nikov, the plasticity of Niemeyer and the Brutalism of early Stirling. Every building bears singularity and affinity, an obvious, ostentatious identity and a latent one. The most recent portions of the city, those designed and constructed to accommodate the planned expansion, differ from the models drawn from the nearby Socialist countries. The street-districts constructed from the 1980s onwards produce a residential monumentality that makes them almost unreal. The white plaster of the immense housing blocks combined with the few vehicles in circulation makes the constructed cityscapes look even more like the early 20th-century drawings of architectural imagery. The architecture of the large city as theorised by Hilberseimer mixes with Le Corbusier’s redents: everything is possible in Pyongyang. The modernist utopia is accomplished in all its chilling abstraction; the people’s street constructed by the architects replaces the mule track destroyed by the war; density does not require congestion.

5.0.0 Troubleshooting

5.1.0 Playground
Pyongyang gives us a translation of the Modern Project that we proposed and abandoned. It is a city that North Korean urban planning has managed to construct over the war debris embracing the cause of modernity with absolute devotion. It is a place where architects have been given the mandate to rewrite the rules of the game, where nothing appears out of place, where the conflict is not displayed. Today, the city seems to be awaiting another new, radical change.
Small but unmistakable signs indicate that Pyongyang is being eroded by its gradual advance towards the world’s other capitals. How will its severe urban structure receive the next changes? Will the architects manage to preserve fragments of its constructed utopias?
After all, you don’t have to destroy a city
to invent it.