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.
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.
Archipanic – How did Pyongyang developed its own distinctive character?
Raphael Olivier – The 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.
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.
• 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”.
• 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.
• 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.
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.
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.
• 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.
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.
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.
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”.
All images by Raphael Olivier.