With the goal of showing how the daily lives of North Koreans have changed since Kim Jong Un came to power, South Korean architect Dongwoo Yim has put together a rare exhibition: “Pyongyang Sallim” – meaning Pyongayng living or housekeeping – at this year’s Architecture Biennale in Seoul.
The idea dates back to his days at Harvard University, Yim told NK News on location at the Biennale.
Yim says his interest in North Korea began at an exhibition he attended on the transformation of Zagreb – former capital of communist Yugoslavia – following Croatia’s independence in 1991. It was “interesting” to see the changes in the city and to see the red stars of socialism replaced with advertising, he says.
For most South Koreans, Pyongyang is not seen as part of this same historical legacy, however.
“I started to see it as one of many socialist cities,” he says. “I think that was the turning point of my perspective on North Korea or Pyongyang,” describing it as a moment that “opened my eyes to the whole of North Korea.”
His interest in North Korea began at an exhibition he attended on the transformation of Zagreb
Yim, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Design at Hongik University and co-founder of the Progressive Research on Architecture, Urbanism and Design (PRAUD) design and research firm, says he always believed his interest in urban transformation and in North Korea could meet.
“Architects always deal with things that are being changed and things (that) will change, so that is something that interested me: how the city has developed and how it will develop in the future.”
Yim worked with colleague Calvin Chua of the Architectural Association’s (AA) Visiting School in Pyongyang – who NK News spoke to in September last year – to replicate the type of apartments found on Pyongyang’s Unha Scientists Street and Mirae Scientists Street: apartment buildings provided for North Korea’s middle-classes, including professors and scientists.
“Recent developments are a bit different from the previous ones – not just because they are taller than before or they are more freaky design-wise than before, but because they are somewhat giving up on the idea of the micro-district,” Yim says.
“North and South Korea cannot have a different living style because we share a similar culture”
He explains a “micro-district” is the traditional design style of residential districts in socialist countries, in which architects aimed to make a completely sustainable community within a certain area, including the provision of public facilities such as daycare services and schools.
Yim says the high-rise apartment buildings erected by authorities in Kwangbok and Mangyongdae districts and Tongil Street, Rakrang District in the late 1980s and early 1990s by North Korean authorities were based on the concept.
But under Kim Jong Un this style of architecture has taken a backseat, he says.
“I thought that it wouldn’t just be a short trend that Pyongyang would take, but be a turning point and the trend that Pyongyang will probably take for the next few years,” Yim says. “They will keep on developing this type of residential-focused development.”
Yim says he wanted to show the changing profile of the city through the Biennale exhibition.
“That is why I said it is a very crucial moment, not just because the regime has changed or they have a new leader, but because of this type of evidence that we can see: how the adoption of the market economy system is changing the cityscape.”
High-rise buildings are not yet the most common types of residence in Pyongyang, much like was the case in the Seoul of the 1960s.
Yim believes that, back then, many South Koreans wouldn’t have believed that apartment dwellings would have evolved to become the “lifestyle average,” but is “pretty sure there were people and architects who thought that this would become the turning point for Seoul’s urban development.”
But the exhibition has prompted criticism from South Korea’s defector community and media, who have said that the Pyongyang-style apartment doesn’t truly represent daily life in the North.
Yim accepts that professors and scientists are not average people, but says that what people should understand about the Architecture Biennale is that it is a platform for architects to discuss the futures of cities.
“It is a very carefully curated event that always tries to foresee what architects should do for the next generation,” he says. “‘If this is what’s been happening in the last five or seven years… what is next?’ That is what I’m trying to see.”
Apartments in Pyongyang and Seoul, Yim says, share “many similarities.”
“North and South Korea cannot have a different living style because we share a similar culture, except for the last 70 years,” he says. “But seventy years doesn’t mean much when considering thousands of years of cultural history.”
Visitors to the exhibition say they see some of the parallels.
“It has nothing to do with unification.”
“I opened a refrigerator thinking that the exhibition recreates the South in the 60’s and 70’s, but I saw the old-fashioned phrases such as carbonated sweet-flavor water which I haven’t come across and started to take photos to show it to my parents,” 23-year-old architecture student Maeng Sol-ji tells NK News.
“But I found the word Pyongyang, and I realized that I am standing at an exhibition on North Korea.”
FUTURE OF PYONGYANG?
Yim believes that North Korea’s market economy will open up “eventually” as it is “the natural flow of the world” and predicts two changes in North Korea’s architecture: more waterfront development and the emergence of more large shopping malls.
“So when people in Pyongyang have money, where do they want to live? Waterfront properties. That is so obvious. So I will see that Mirae Scientists Street will have a waterfront development in five or six years,” Yim says.
“It is just about how the city is moving forward and how the city is developing,” he says. “It has nothing to do with unification.”
Even though he reiterates that he is “not a specialist” in North Korean architecture, defining him as a “practicing architect,” who also teaches students and designs buildings, he also plans to push ahead with his North Korea research.
“Many people hesitated to do research on Pyongyang because of lack of information,” Yim says.
Yim hopes his students and colleagues will expand their research on DPRK design, which remains at a shallow level compared to other North Korea-related fields such as international relations and economics.
“I don’t want to say I’m the pioneer … but it is quite surprising that whatever I do – like the first book on Pyongyang or the North Korean Atlas or even this model house exhibition – people always say, ‘Oh it is so amazing as there is nobody who has done it before!’,” he says.
“I’m surprised as well.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)
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