German architect and writer Philipp Meuser realizes that Pyongyang, North Korea, doesn't top many travel destination wish lists, but after looking at his Architectural and Cultural Guide: Pyongyang Volume 1 and 2, due out on February 28th from DOM Publishers, I was shocked at how much the book piqued my curiosity. Now, it's hard to imagine that Uncle Sam will let me, or any other Yank, north of the Korean DMZ anytime soon, but as a glimpse into a forbidden world, the book is fascinating. And as I learned from talking with Meuser, the origins of the book itself are as compelling, as they are strange.
Why an architectural tour of Pyongyang?
It's very difficult to get to Pyongyang and as far as I know U.S. citizens can't go at all. I've been five times, three of which were for the research for this book. Part of my motivation for this book was to do a guide book to a place that you can't even visit. I want to show that North Korea is real and that Pyongyang is real, but for an American they're also totally virtual. It's like Google Street View. You see things all over the world, but you never really leave your computer.
And this isn't the first architectural guide you've done, is it?
I've done architectural books in Moscow, Tashkent, which is the capital of Uzbekistan, and a book on Kabul. So I'm quite familiar with locations which are not on top of all the tourism lists. And because I'm an architect I see these books through the glasses of an architect.
When I was in Seoul I had the sense that the city was either very old or very new. Like there were centuries of buildings that just evaporated somewhere between 1550 and 1950.
Because of the Korean War so many cities on the Korean Peninsula were destroyed. In Pyongyang something like 90-95% of buildings were destroyed. You don't find a single structure older than 60 there. So the buildings that look historical are not; they're interpretations of historical Korean architecture. Which brings us to the question: What is the intention of the North Korean government when it comes to buildings? One aspect is this neo-historicism in buildings like the opera house or the theater that try to connect back to the history of Korean culture. And on the other hand you have these boring-looking housing estates with no ornamentation that look like modernist cities. These come from a way of thinking on communist countries where you have a cultural richness, but a poor private experience.
Your book comes in two volumes. Will you describe the pretty significant differences between them?
Volume 1 only showcases the official images and text from a North Korean publisher. I bought the license to use the content from a book published three or four years ago and as I looked at the contract I realized that I could only use the photographs if the entire context of the book was unchanged. So I was forced to use it as is. Volume 1 is just an English translation of an official book on Pyongyang's architecture.
And Volume 2?
Of course I had to do another volume with background information and commentary. Volume 2 would never have been approved so I didn't inform them that I was doing it. But I see it as a kind of parallel strategy to showing people the architecture, design, and society in Pyongyang. And no other book exists like this on North Korean architecture, maybe because no one is interested, but also because it is so difficult to collect all the information. I got a lot of my information and photos for Volume 2 from archives in the U.S. and Russia from the Korean War era.
It's almost as though you've done an architectural guide book to the moon.
Unfortunately there's no architecture on the moon. But if there were, I'd be the first one to do the book!