Symbolic Infrastructure

Symbolic Infrastructure

The idea of a “model city” has recurred in history, from the Renaissance towns of Pienza and Ferrara, built to reflect the philosophy of classicism, to the modernist utopias of Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasília and Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh. Often intended as the blueprint for a new kind of society, cities can indicate a lot about the creators’ ideologies, which is the primary focus of Model City Pyongyang, by Italian architects Cristiano Bianchi and Kristina Drapić, and writer Pico Iyer.

Described as a “photographic journey through the architecture of North Korea’s ‘model’ utopia,” the publication is a deep dive into the buildings of its secretive capital, Pyongyang, which is referred to throughout the text as a “showpiece city.” With 200 colour illustrations of buildings rarely seen by those who live outside its proverbial gates, the book weaves together architectural drawings and diagrams with rare excerpts from On Architecture by Kim Jong-II. Together, it reveals symbolism beneath the capital’s infrastructure, which was mostly rubble 65 years ago.

As the text notes: “Pyongyang embodies the dream of total planning, to which every architect secretly aspires: jettisoning restrictions, space-ratio guidelines, land costs and all of the other constraints that govern modern architecture, and returning to the idea of a city of people, in which everything is designed in a single, cohesive vision.” In it, we’re told that Kim II-Sung Square, the geographic and symbolic centre of the city, is purposefully symmetrical to achieve “balance and a sense of dignity within the monumental space,” whilst the juxtaposition between the sixth century Potong Gate – known as the western entry point to the ancient walled city – and the futuristic-looking Ryugyong Hotel, a glass-encased pyramid with a concrete shell, represents the past and a “yet unrealised future.”

Another main theme discussed is the idea of Pyongyang as “part theatre, part reality,” a pastel-tinted showcase city, where essayist Pico Iver says, “citizens are encouraged to visit, and be awed by, but where only a privileged few are permitted to live.” Arguably, it’s this contrast (and absurdity) of having new, impressive infrastructure with no purpose other than as a showroom to foreigners that adds to the city’s fiction and allure. Iver details a 105-storey hotel in the shape of a rocket ship, an Arc de Triomphe that is 10 metres taller than the one in Paris (“If you replicate everything everyone has made – and then surpass it – how can anyone possibly call you backward?”), pastel-coloured sport centres and pizza parlours, and yet, a distinct lack of life.

With its focus on a country known mostly through fiction and rumours, Model City presents Pyongyang as an ideological showroom that, despite its complex infrastructure, lacks the life it needs to function, begging the question: can a utopia be called a utopia if there are no people in it?

Published by Thames & Hudson. Find out more here.

Gunseli Yalcinkaya

Lead image: Ryugyong Hotel, 2019. Image: © Cristiano Bianchi.