Pyongyang architrecture, Pyongyang Ice Rink - All photos by Raphael Olivier.

Pyongyang Ice Rink – All photos by Raphael Olivier.

Photo Essay – Austere monumental towers and pastel-coloured brutalist housing buildings but also large public spaces, mosaics and raw concrete. Archipanic speaks with French photographer Raphael Olivier who explored the Socialist vintage architecture of one of the most isolated and unknown capitals in the world: Pyongyang.


RELATED STORY: Korea Pavilion at Venice Biennale 2014 explored how North and South Korea different ideas of modernity shaped opposite cultures and architectures in much less than a century.

The Workers Party Foundation Monument, Pyongyang - Photo by Raphael Olivier.

The Workers Party Foundation Monument features granite sculptures which refer to the founding powers of the country: workers (hammer), intellectuals (brush) and farmers (sickle).

Almost completely destroyed during the Korean War (1950-1953), Pyongyang raised from its ashes in the 1960’s and 70’s with the help of architects often trained in the Soviet Union. They designed impressive structures marked by modernist, futurist and brutalist influences. Today the city is the home of over 3 million people living in a raw urbanscape with nor visual pollution nor neons and commercial advertising.


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Two Sisters Monument, Pyongyang - Photo by Raphael Olivier.

The Two Sisters Monument is made from solid granite stone and features bronze sculptures aspiring to united Koreas.


Archipanic – How did Pyongyang developed its own distinctive character?

Raphael OlivierThe general urban design of Pyongyang has been planned and laid out in a very particular way, largely due to the central role of the Regime in all aspects of society.

Pyongyang Ice Rink, Pyongyang - Photo by Raphael Olivier.

Modernist pool at Changgwang-won Health Complex.

Straight, wide avenues lined-up with colossal monuments are the norm. The result is a general sense of direction and leadership. Massive mosaics cover entire walls and subway stations, narrating the history of Koreans and their leaders. Buildings are arranged in geometrical patterns to frame a certain square or monument. This lay out further emphasizes the character of a rough strength radiating from the city.

East Pyongyang from the Juche Tower - Photo by Raphael Olivier.

View of East Pyongyang from the Juche Tower. Absence of visual pollution and commercial advertising reveal the city’s homogenous design.


• How did heavy economical sanctions and the country’s isolation shape Pyongyang’s architecture?

Materials and technologies used for construction are limited. This gives way to an all-around use of raw concrete. Most buildings feel incredibly heavy and extra-solid, matching the personality of resistance of North Korea”.

Pyongyang's Central Youth Hall - Photo bt Raphael Olivier.

Pyongyang’s Central Youth Hall.


• How do people relate with the city’s monumentalism?

I think there is a strong feeling of pride. The Koreans I’ve met were proud to show their theatres, stadiums and other monuments visible in Pyongyang. Architecture is a way for them to affirm their strength, courage, independence, determination and unity in a very tangible way.

Pyongyang Ice Rink, interior - Photo by Raphael Olivier.

Pyongyang Ice Rink, interior.


• North Korea highest building, the Ryugyong Hotel, is an uncompleted pyramidal tower in glass and concrete which somehow narrates a story of hope and doom. How do people relate to it?

The Ryugyong Hotel is definitely a bit of a taboo, but also a clear landmark of Pyongyang. Of course, the fact that it is still not completed after 30 years is somehow an embarrassment, but since the issue is too obvious to be hidden, the general attitude is about understanding that such large structure is difficult to build, especially under harsh economical sanctions.

Ryugyong Hotel - Photo by Raphael Olivier.

330 metres high Ryugyong Hotel is a heavy spaceship that will never take-off.

The interesting fact is the entire structure of the Ryugyong Hotel is actually completely made of concrete, making it so heavy that is was difficult to finish it as it threatened to collapse under its own weight.

Passers by in Pyongyang city centre - Photo by Raphael Olivier.

Passers by in Pyongyang city centre marked by textured facade with grid-like windows.

Raphael Oliver photographed also Seoul Brutalist architecture. Like Pyongyang, also the South Korean capital was heavily bombed during the Korean War. In few decades, rapid economic growth transformed a destroyed metropolis into an international epicenter for business and finance. The city’s metropolitan area, hosts today 26 million people and it is the second largest in the world.

Pyongyang metro - Photo by Raphael Olivier.

Pyongyang metro, one of the deepest in the world, is accessed by very long and steep escalators. It can also be used as a bomb shelter due to its depth.


• Do Pyongyang and Seoul have an architectural lowest common denominator?

I don’t think there is much in common in terms of the final form of buildings, but clearly there is a parallel in the taste of Koreans for bare, raw structures. Traditionally Korean architecture has always been naturalist, inspired by simplicity and using bare materials such as wood and stone.

Koryo Hotel, Pyongyang - Photo by Raphael Olivier.

45 stories high Koryo Hotel features two revolving restaurants, however only one is open.

Yet both North and South Koreans also see themselves as resistant people, who were able to preserve their unique culture and identity despite numerous invasions throughout thousands of years. So I think today the brutalist architecture matches very well the Korean taste for simple shapes and raw materials, while expressing the feeling of robustness and security.

Tower building viewed from Koryo Hotel, Pyongyang - Photo by Raphael Olivier.

A classical high ridsign residential building viewed from Koryo Hotel in the city center.

On both sides, brutalist architecture is also used to give a modern style to the city, in Pyongyang to affirm its almighty revolutionary spirit, in Seoul to be seen as a cool, creative, edgy city on top of fashion, arts and design trends.

Barbershop inside Changgwang-won health complex, Pyongyang - Photo be Raphael Olivier.

Barbershop inside Changgwang-won health complex.

Raphael Olivier is a French photographer based in Hong Kong and Singapore who travels extensively around the Far East. “From luxury hotels to dirty shipyards, I am always on the move and available for projects throughout Asia and beyond”.

Pyongyang sports village - Photo by Raphael Olivier.

Pyongyang sports village.

All images by Raphael Olivier.

Pyongyang International Cinema House - Photo by Raphael Olivier.

Pyongyang International Cinema House.

Overpass on the highway between Pyongyang and the border with South Korea - Photo by Raphael Olivier.

Overpass on the highway between Pyongyang and the border with South Korea.