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A Vietnamese perspective from inside North Korea – P9: Contrary, complementary architecture

Friday, November 25, 2016, 17:42 GMT+7

A seasoned Vietnamese architect has marveled at the flawless symmetry and chemistry between traditional and modern architecture in North Korea.

In early August 2016, Nguyen Quoc Thong, deputy chair of the Vietnam Architects Association, went on a one-week working trip related to architecture in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

Below is what he shared with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper regarding the architecture and zoning of Pyongyang, which has attracted mixed opinions.

Standard avenues

Thong became excited on catching his first glimpses of North Korea as his plane flew relatively low on the way from China.

What first struck the veteran architect was Pyongyang Airport, which is quite small in size and looks as if it is in a remote area.

The aerodrome is quite graceful and symmetrical, featuring linear and curved details of traditional North Korean architecture.

The airport, however, is also rich in modernity and exudes a fun feeling.

The structure, which looks impressive, is said by some to resemble a hat.

Thong arrived in Pyongyang in the afternoon, when most streets were empty of vehicles.

Several walked or rode bikes, their faces haggard, tanned and almost emotionless. 

Just like other tourists to the capital, the architect and his companions were guided to imposing, symbolic edifices on similar journeys. 

His initial impressions were of the lush greenery lining the streets and the perfectly linear roads which have separate sections for buses, trams, cars, non-motorized vehicles and spacious sidewalks for pedestrians.

The streets were exactly what Thong has always lectured about in standard urban planning to his students. The format is repeated in dozens of streets in downtown areas.

A cultural palace, the Arch of Triumph or a stately monument towers at the end of major streets and at large intersections.

Houses lining the streets are all symmetrical, neat and of similar sizes.

Several collective quarters are strongly reminiscent of Kim Lien Quarter in Hanoi.   

There are kiosks at intersections which resemble blocks in West European countries around 40 years ago.

The neatly arranged houses and proper infrastructure, which are the result of thorough urban planning, have, however, been in disrepair due to a lack of proper maintenance.  

Streets are now riddled with patches and worn-out vehicles.

Trees, however, have grown into century-old ones which add lushness to the city.

Thong loves the feeling of walking beneath the trees’ canopy and relishing the uniformity to the fullest.

New vs. old

The landscapes evoked profoundly nostalgic feelings in Thong, which would be the same for anyone who experienced the state-subsidized period between the late 1970s and the late 1980s in Vietnam, and those who went through the ‘heyday’ of socialism in Eastern Europe during the 1960s and 1970s.

Thong studied in Poland between 1968 and 1975.

After the Korean War came to an end in July 1953, Pyongyang was almost flattened, with sources revealing that the sole surviving structure in the downtown areas, Department Store No.1, has been under preservation until now.  

The then socialist bloc, led by the former Soviet Union, which considered Pyongyang the biggest outpost of socialism in the Oriental world, assisted North Korea in systematic urban planning and construction from the outset.

Orders are obeyed strictly in an army-like manner in North Korea, which also contributed to the seamless implementation of urban planning.

From Juche Tower, a monument named after the ideology of Juche introduced by the first leader Kim Il-sung, the capital city’s perfect planning is obvious, with the main axis from Kim Il-sung Square and the horizontal axis being the Taedong River and the two islands of Rung Ra and Yang Kak, symmetrically placed on each side.

The bird’s eye view provides one with a glimpse into the metropolis’ development.

Structural items and public spaces built in the initial phase strictly conform to the principles of symmetry and feature items neatly built in squares and on linear roads.

Thong was particularly amazed at the space within the city’s horizontal axis, which includes two banks of the Taedong River, parks, flower gardens, paths for strolls and luxuriant hills and lawns.   

Streets constructed in later periods, around the 1980s and 1990s, which are located in the downtown vicinity and boast dozens of floors, are congruous and pleasing to the eyes though they do not have a striking look.

Typical examples are Yonggwang Street, which heads to the riverbank from Pyongyang Station, with tall, well-organized buildings and ground floors used as less gaudy shops.

Newcomers, which are 40 to 60 floors high, are a far cry from those in the downtown areas.

Thong was certain that most of these buildings were designed by North Koreans themselves, as he had worked on several occasions with lecturers and officials of the architecture university and institute in the capital and personally met the architects in charge of such projects.

They generally work with a self-reliant spirit and lack access to the world’s state-of-the-art technology, resulting in their failure to visualize problems arising from major projects.

They produce many of their own construction materials and import several from China, Thong observed.

The materials, usually of mediocre quality, are conducive to weakness.

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