Pyongyang’s Urban Future

Calvin Chua is an architectural designer and writer based in London. He spent the last two years researching on urban regeneration strategies for various European and Asian cities and designing new housing models that accommodate contemporary work-life patterns.

The BBC recently ran a story on the correlation between the construction of skyscrapers and the subsequent economic crash. While the correlation could be purely coincidental but it nonetheless points to the fact that symptoms of political and economic policies can be revealed through the urban built environment.

So how would Pyongyang’s urban environment change under the new leadership? Will there be more grand monuments and civic buildings or will we see the construction of office and commercial towers?

While many critics commonly read Pyongyang as a theatrical stage set aimed to impress and intimidate its subjects through monumental architectural and urban gestures, its urban planning logic is much richer than these simple assumptions. It is thus more important to understand the context behind Pyongyang’s built environment, which provides insights into its hidden potentials.

Razed to the ground after the end of Korean War, Pyongyang was built from scratch based on the urban model of the Superblock, with rows of austere residential buildings fronting wide roads, and hiding low-rise buildings that have been added over the years. Public spaces on the other hand are choreographed into well-distributed sequences of civic buildings and plazas - ranging from celebratory monuments to sport halls, theatres and museums. Such forms of development, a combination of large scale mass housing and monumental icons, embody the main ideals of Juche Architecture, a concept found in a book titled “On Architecture” by Kim Jong Il.

On a more practical level, the model of the superblock holds the key for future urban development.

1) Small Scale Development within Neighbourhood Blocks

Small scale developments can be developed within each neighbourhood block (dong) without affecting the overall logic of the urban landscape. The existing low rise buildings behind the rows of residential towers can be altered to accommodate different small scale private businesses, such as convenience stalls and restaurants, or provide civic amenities and parks. In this way, each neighbourhood block can develop its own unique identity while preserving the overall monumental image of the city.

2) Development vs Preservation

Heritage preservation is normally done in a selective manner, where only iconic monuments are preserved, while other parts of the city are redeveloped to accommodate new economic and social needs. In Pyongyang’s case, it is as just important to preserve the neighbourhood blocks as the civic monuments as they form the characteristics of the capital. The existing layout of the neighbourhood blocks allows new development coexist with existing residential towers and without interfering much with the overall urban fabric. New buildings can be constructed within big plots of land between residential towers.

3) New Sustainable Neighbourhoods

Concepts of sustainable development are already in on the agenda of planners in the country. In a recent planning exhibition and conference in Berlin, architects from the Paektusan Architectural Academy (the state’s design and planning body) exhibited plans for a green housing project while a sustainability conference was held in Pyongyang two years ago. To develop and implement sustainable urban technologies further, planners could tap on the gridded configuration of the neighbourhood blocks. The block layouts allow sustainable initiatives to be tested out incrementally within each neighbourhood block before efficiently rolling out to different other blocks and eventually the entire city.