A Guide To North Korea’s Eerie Architectural Propaganda

A new guidebook about the North Korean capital comes in two volumes: one is state-censored, the other is “illicit.”

It’s a question that lingers over modern architecture like a specter: are architects complicit in the crimes of their clients? History gives us conflicting precedents. We indict Albert Speer for building monuments to Nazism. We celebrate contemporary architects for building monuments to the Chinese state. How you feel about the issue probably depends on whether you see architecture as a tool of state control, or a superfluous decorative art. And then there’s North Korea, whose architecture is meant to glorify the state, but is hardly seen owing to travel restrictions, and hardly used, since it’s all basically one big showpiece, since few North Koreans work in offices and almost no North Koreans are in the market for things like hotels or restaurants.


Pyongyang Architectural and Cultural Guide examines the architecture of North Korea, a nation under such tight state control that it’s tough to distinguish architect from client. The guide was released earlier this spring by DOM Publishing and edited by its founder, Philipp Meuser, a Berlin-based architect who’s worked in locales as far flung as Kazakhstan, Sarajevo and Bosnia/Herzegovina and India.

Meuser has devised an ingeniously simple method of making the guide functional for people actually visiting the country: he’s separated the objective content (images, maps, state-mandated information) from the subjective (commentary, criticism, non-state-mandated information) in two distinct volumes. So you’d be able to carry Volume One, which contains content provided by North Korea’s outward-facing propaganda arm, the Foreign Language Publishing House, into the country without being questioned. Volume Two is another story – Meuser introduces it as “The Illicit Guidebook.”

Meuser calls Pyongyang “probably the world’s best-preserved open-air museum of socialist architecture.” The old city, which was razed during the war in the 1950s, was replaced with buildings that generally fall into two categories: prefab plattenbau housing, similar to the blocks still found in Germany and Russia; and glassy, bombastic monuments to the state. The most recognizable building in the latter category is the Ryugyong Hotel, a 75-story glass pyramid that as meant to be a hotel for an Olympic games that never materialized, and took more than twenty years to complete. But beyond that, many of the buildings in Meuser’s guide are little known to foreigners not familiar with the country. The book frames the buildings around Kim Il-sung’s concept of Juche, a mantra of self-reliance and autonomy that he invented in the 1950s. Meuser also examines the city on an urban scale, concluding that “the fathers of modern architecture would have approved of Pyongyang.” Sure, Le Corbusier’s urban schemes were tinged with fascism, but I’d question whether some of the other “fathers” would have embraced the ideology that informs Pyongyang’s rigid grid.

Which brings us back to the relationship of the architect and client (in this case, the state). Meuser separates them neatly into two books: one addresses form, the other addresses socio-political context. In the Guide, they’re divided for pragmatic reasons relating to censorship. But it’s worth noting that architects–working far away from North Korea–have relegated themselves to a similarly apolitical place for decades.

[Images courtesy of Philip Meuser; h/t Architizer]


About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.