Urban Development in North Korea - A Rosy Future?

Earlier this month, we conducted our first-ever architectural and urban design workshop in the DPRK, in partnership with the UK’s Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA). It was an intense 10-day event focused on developing proposals for a possible regeneration of a 3km long street in Pyongyang. The workshop began with two days of lectures on various concepts and tools for urban design and planning, followed by intensive design sessions complemented with site visits.

We focused on a proposal for a series of working spaces to be inserted within the existing fabric of the site.

We focused on a proposal for a series of working spaces to be inserted within the existing fabric of the site.

The 14 participants – comprising of 7 local and 7 foreign architects and students – were split into four groups and tasked with designing new learning, living, working and leisure spaces that could be gradually inserted within the 3km site. The result was a lively discussion with the existing building owners and 30 over local industry experts on the construction feasibility and ‘contextual harmony’ of the proposals in relation to the site.

While the proposals largely remain on the drawing board and there would have to be many more reviews and consultations to realise some of them, the interactions and discussions nonetheless provided some valuable insights into DPRK’s design, planning and construction industry.

So, what are some of these observations and their potential impact on future developments?

1. Streamlining of Design and Construction Processes

For a start, we were impressed by the advanced digital modelling skills of the Koreans. A few of the participants were able to design and whip out a relatively feasible building within a couple of hours. Their advanced skills stem from the fact that architectural training in the DPRK is both technically driven and practice-oriented.

Students are exposed to digital modelling software from their 2nd year of study and would begin to work on actual construction projects in their 4th and 5th year of study. For example, one of the workshop participants designed parts of the new Sunan International Airport when he was still a student. As such, architectural education in the DPRK is largely aimed at producing technically proficient architects that can feed into the construction industry.

Workshop participants collectively discussing their proposals

Workshop participants collectively discussing their proposals

In addition, the DPRK architects are working towards streamlining the design and construction processes through developing common standards and management processes. Firstly, we noticed that the local architects share a common database of architectural typologies, elements and spatial standards, which they frequently referred to during the workshop.

Secondly, there seems to be an increased amount of experimentation with Building Information Modelling (BIM) processes in their design and construction projects. Although they were not specific in the details of their experiments, they currently have a team of BIM specialists, comprising of architects and engineers. Students at the Pyongyang University of Architecture are also trained in a design software that is specifically built for BIM.

The Future?

In general, we think that BIM is important for the future of the DPRK’s development, as it is applicable to the design and delivery of buildings and other infrastructure. In particular, with the tragic building collapse early last year and subsequent reports on poor construction safety standards, we think BIM could play an important role in improving building safety.

Traditional building design depended mainly on two-dimensional technical drawings, while BIM allows the building to be visualised three-dimensionally alongside the costs and time factors of a project. As such, through the visualisation of a building’s 3D model, architects and engineers can better resolve any possible structural issues at the early stages of a project. In addition, it allows construction supervisors and builders to better visualise the worksite three-dimensionally beforehand and plan how to execute their work proficiently.

However, the DPRK’s experiments with BIM are only in early stages, further improvements to its current design and construction practices will be needed to reap the full benefits. While is important for architects and engineers at the planning level to be proficient with this construction management tool, it is also equally important to impart the knowledge and skills to the team of supervisors and builders on site, in order to execute their jobs precisely and safely.

A participant proposing a cultural corridor along Taedong River during one of the lecture exercises.

A participant proposing a cultural corridor along Taedong River during one of the lecture exercises.

2. Incremental Urban Development

Another important takeaway from our observations and discussions during the workshop was a better understanding of possible future forms of urban development, in particular an incremental pace and scale of development in the DPRK.

First, such form of urban development is intrinsic to the DPRK, especially in the case of Pyongyang. The city has been developed incrementally over the years, with different typologies of housing and public facilities evolving over the years; from the low-rise urban perimeter blocks built in the 1960s to the 1980s high-rise monumental slab blocks along Tongil Street and the current string of apartment towers sprouting out in various parts of the city.

Second, there is an increased number of non-state entities developing residential projects around the country and they typically take place at the scale of buildings.

Third, each neighbourhood has their own planning bureau. This would mean that each bureau has the autonomy in deciding what kind of projects to take on for their respective areas. However, their proposals need to fit within the state’s urban planning guidelines, in particular the ‘contextual harmony’ with the site.

Fourth, each design organisation has the ability to be attached to construction projects. For example, the Pyongyang University of Architecture, whilst being an educational body, is also involved in the design and construction of building projects. These organisations also tend to form a consortium with other engineering and construction entities. These relatively disparate consortiums of designers, engineers and builders may pose a limit to the scale of development.

The Future?

Projecting these observations into the future, we think that smaller-scale development may be better for the overall development of the country. Firstly, with new laws enacted to allow foreign investments in the real estate sector; smaller scale development will allow these foreign entities to test out different financing, development and operational models.

Second, the formation of a consortium is important as the management of design and construction processes can be merged within a single entity. This builds upon the above points on BIM, where a close working relationship between different stakeholders in a project may naturally improve coordination and efficiency in the construction workflow.

Third, these consortium entities could also offer more diversity to the physical urban environment. For example, consortiums could compete and differentiate from each other by building up a specialisation and unique architectural typological offerings. This could provide more choices for the state and foreign investors. In addition, coupled with the autonomy of local planning bureaus, more varied physical environments with diverse urban intensities could be created for local residents.