The difficult dialog between the Korean architects. Notes on the Biennial show of architecture of Venice 2014 | Jelena Prokopljević

Maxime Delvaux: Río Taedong en Pyongyang, 2012.
Maxime Delvaux: Taedong River in Pyongyang, 2012.

“Nobody till now could have spoken on both Koreas at the same time. Nobody has risked to a dangerous experiment as this one”,

They have been the words of Hyungmin Pai’s gratefulness, one of the commissioners of the pavilion of Korea, at the moment of being grateful for the prize of the Biennial show. Dangerous because to expose parallel the approximation to the modernity of both countries means to place the architecture in the plane of the geopolitical discussion.

It does more than 60 years that the Korean peninsula lives in a condition of fragile armistice – not of peace – that every spring, approximately, sees threatened by a few military maneuvers of both decrees. Both countries have laws that prohíben or they control any movement of approximation. If a South Korean possesses North Korean literature or has contacts with the people of the north, it it has to declare to the authorities. A North Korean cannot accede to publications sudcoreanas of any type and the entry of the people south is vetada for the authorities of the north.

The first approximation happened in 1988 when Storefront for Art and Architecture of New York organized an exhibition at the expense of the architect and artist Kyong Park, titled “DMZ Project”. DMZ (for his initials in English) designates the Demilitarized Zone, a band of 4km of width established after the devastating war of Korea (1950-53) that naughty the peninsula of sea to sea, some 250km, separating both countries. It is an euphemism: it is the band most militarized in the whole world and a mirror in which there look the hostile governments of Pyongyang and Seoul.

There were 68 offers in that exhibition, directly Korean none and very interesting some of Paul Virilio, Neil Denari or Lebbeus Woods who were studying to occupy this land of nobody, before eliminating it. In consequence, Woods was imagining a fantastic metallic structure that was recovering from the territory contaminated militarily and ideologically, being calling her “Terra Nova”.

It would have been a space of debate between the social opposite models and not a territory or a construction to fuse the differences and the structure would grow to cover, little by little to the whole peninsula.

The pavilion of the biennial show of Venice of 2014 is born of this idea of debate that includes and tries to understand the differences, without not fleeing of the similarities either. Nevertheless, it has finished being again an indirect debate: after thousand attempts, principally of the commissioner Minsuk Cho, of putting in touch with the architects of Pyongyang and initiating a direct process of reflection on both faces of the modernity, the exhibition had to be based on the investigations on the architecture on North Korea realized by the South Korean and foreign architects.

It is necessary to wait still to a sample of architecture realized by the architects North Korean and directed the world public. Preferably a sample or probably a meeting with the North Korean architects that it does not seek to exemplify a series of topics and to corroborate the prefigured images – and precious – of an architecture of great scale, monotonous and solitary, without maintenance, wrapped in the political kitsch of the socialist realism.

An enormous inflexibility and institutional North Korean inertia impede any professional contact with the foreigner, besides endless levels of control, censorship and autocensorship. The list of organisms or civil servants who have to put his stamp on an initiative of this type is so big that the resignation to the contact comes to be an act of auto-liberation and enclosedly of autoaffirmation. Another possible problem is the representative essence of the North Korean architecture and of his professional organization.

It is a hermetic and self-centred architecture, which it is born of the multiple examinations: it was doing the own bourgeois or religious past, the inheritance of the colonialism, was doing the capitalist world and the economic delay of his provinces. It develops parallel to the political speech of the new socialist condition (from 1948 and especially from 1953) and is called to represent the values of the modernity, of the technological progress and of exemplifying the equality and the social justice. By means of the constructed work, North Korea has approached the modern world competed with the socialist countries and has measured up to the capitalists.

The propaganda content associated with the architecture and the construction, orientated always more towards the interior that was doing the exterior, has turned them into beneficiaries of the maximum economic investment and of the maximum attention of the regime. The architecture concebida for the architects of Kim Il-Sung belongs more to an ideal future of the developed socialism that to the past, but at the same time he does not resign his roots in the tradition and his proximity with the tastes and popular habits.

The central point of the architectural creation in North Korea is the figure of the leader who is considered to be the supreme author of any construction. In fact, the most important theoretical book is “The Architectural Art” signed by Kim Jong-Il and published in 1991, in the culminating moment of the golden age of the socialist North Korean architecture. The figure of the architect is much more marginal (or non-existent) in comparison with the west, not to reduce importance to the initiative of the leader. The habitual complexity of the constructive process and his multidisciplinary character they extend also to the process proyectual, therefore, the architectural work it is considered to be a collective fact. The figure of the architect author vanishes between all the actors involved in the accomplishment.

They construct all of them following the mandate of the leader for the well-being of the people and, at the same time, as the representatives of the people, they work to satisfy the highest expectations of the leader and of the party. Architects like Paek Si Ha, creator of the first roofs of style neotradicional, Ham Ui Yon, designer of the Palace of the Study of the People or Yong Myong Ho, architect of the Tower Juche, would be in the west major architects. In North Korea,

“though they possess extraordinary wisdom and intelligence and deep scientific knowledge, they cannot design and project synthetically the works of long scope as the architectural creation”,


“Tthey are simple technical personnel who make real the thought of the leader”.

For Kim Jong Il, a work designed well only can generate the only interpretation, according to idea Juche, official ideology of the condition. Ambiguities, double readings, ironies or appointments, they are signs of deficient design or of bourgeois formalism. With the own simplicity of the socialist realism, the architecture Juche, native in the form and Socialist in the content, educates the masses, teaches them to understand and use the constructed space.

For these determining all, the North Korean architecture rehúye the comparisons, does not accept parallel representations and his first exigency with regard to the biennial show was of being represented in a separated space. He feels that, as great part of the socialist architecture, not entendería only as form or as image, without the context that explains it.

XIII Festival Mundial de la Juventud y los Estudiantes: Villa deportiva Chongchun en Pyongyang
The XIIIth World Festival of the Youth and the Students: sports Villa Chongchun in Pyongyang

On the contrary, the South Korean architecture is to the agenda of all the events and the architectural world publications. Also it represents the ideal one of technological progress and of the most ultramodern modernity, with bases totally objected in the northern part. South Korea known as the Asian tiger has done the economic spectacular jump, coming from a country very punished by the war and up to entered well the 70s, less prosperous than his neighbor. In spite of the hostilities and ideological distances, both countries have looked in the well versed mirror of the DMZ.

The most known case was that of the Olympic Games of Seoul of 1988 that Pyongyang wanted coorganizar and before the denial, organized an almost parallel event: the Festival XIII World of the Youth and the Students, investing unthinkable quantities in the construction of equipments and new neighborhoods of Pyongyang. A similar effort returns to do with a view to Pyeongchang’s winter games (South Korea) of 2018 constructing a center of ski and winter sports in Maskyryong, near Kaesong.

XIII Festival Mundial de la Juventud y los Estudiantes: Estadio Primero de Mayo en la isla Rungna, Pyongyang
The XIIIth World Festival of the Youth and the Students: Stadium On The First of May in the island Rungna, Pyongyang

The exhibition of Venice stretches bridges been founded on the wide knowledge of the development of the modernity on both systems, which of certain way condenses the modernity of the cold war. In addition, it raises conceptual bases to establish the direct contact between the architects. A possible route departs from the individuality of the creative process that in North Korea also exists in spite of the colectivización of the architectural work. The initiatory so called Utopian Tours consists of Utopian projects that explore the future of the tourism in North Korea, commissioned individually, without the intervention of the condition.

The result they are enterteining projects, some similar to the architecture neo native, others who resemble big works of Pyongyang, but technologically very advanced and more respectful all with the environment in comparison with the existing work. Utopia that always makes move the ideological and, limits especially, the technological Utopia, is an area inclined to overcome the differences originated in the royal politics.

Returning to the DMZ Project 26 years later, Kyong Park imagines a trans-Korean auto-organized and anarchic movement called Occupy DMZ that bases on the collective disenchantment of both companies with his respective governments that alían, hypothetically, to perpetuate the conflict and to keep like that the electoral own interests.

The movement is raised over the governments dependent on the ideology Juche, of the church or of the multinationals and starts by occupying the land of nobody frontier.

Departing from the poetical idea (and politics) of that it is possible to cross the border legally as long as does not want to come near to another side, the Demilitarized Zone is started filling with contents and with a hybrid architecture developed based on residential macrostructure of both countries, raised on the area in the style of the Terra Nova de Lebbeus Woods, to turn the point of separation into the origin of reunification.

Jelena Prokopljevic. PhD Architect
Barcelona. Juny 2014


Kim Jong Il, Obras Escogidas 11, p. 129.


– DMZ Project 1988 – Lebbeus Woods,
Fotos de Pyongyang 2012- Maxime Delvaux, Crow’s Eye View: The Korean Peninsula, Hyungmin Pai, Minsuk Cho, Eds. Archlife, Seul, 2014. (The Korean Pavilion 14th International Architecture exhibition- la Biennale di Venezia)
– Works for the Festival XIII World of the Youth and the Students: Corea del Norte. Utopía de Hormigón, R. Mateos, J. Prokopljević, Muñoz Moya Editores, Sevilla 2012.
– Utopian Tours – Koryo Group, Nick Bonner, Crow’s Eye View: The Korean Peninsula, Hyungmin Pai, Minsuk Cho, Eds. Archlife, Seul, 2014. (The Korean Pavilion 14th International Architecture exhibition- la Biennale di Venezia)

Jelena Prokopljević

Arquitecta e investigadora serbia, titulada por la Universidad de Belgrado, y residente en Barcelona, miembro del Comité de Expertos del Premio Europeo del Espacio Público Urbano desde la edición del 2014. Se doctoró en 2006 en la ETSAB, ciudad en la que reside y trabaja. Ha colaborado con la plataforma Eurasian Hub en proyectos de transformación urbana y ha sido responsable del área de arquitectura y urbanismo en la Casa del Este, organización radicada en Barcelona y dedicada a promover la cooperación con la Europa Central y Oriental. Entre sus publicaciones más destacadas, consta el libro Corea del Norte: Utopía de hormigón; arquitectura y urbanismo al servicio de una ideología (escrito con Roger Mateos, 2012) y el artículo «Espacio público en la ciudad socialista: entre la abundancia y la indefinición», publicado en URBS, revista de estudios urbanos y ciencias sociales. Además, suele impartir conferencias y participar en coloquios en lugares como la ETSAB, la Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona (UAB), la fundación Amigos de la UNESCO de Barcelona o la Universidad Ion Mincu de Bucarest. Prokopljević es miembro del Comité de expertos del Premio Europeo del Espacio Público Urbano desde su edición de 2014.

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