Excerpted and adapted with permission from The Power of Art: A Human History of Art From Babylon to New York City, by Caroline Campbell, published January 2024 by Pegasus Books. All rights reserved.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
With this bleak sentence, at once familiar and dissonant, George Orwell begins his celebrated novel of life in a totalitarian state. I first read 1984 in the autumn of 1989. At the time, I was studying the beginnings of the French Revolution at school. At home, I was glued to the TV screen, watching the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Warsaw Pact. In 1989 it felt like the world was on the cusp of a great change—a moment as significant as 1789 when, as William Wordsworth wrote of his experiences in Revolutionary Paris, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!”
In 1989 it felt strangely comforting to be reading Orwell—his dystopian vision was one that, at least to my naive adolescent mind, had been decisively repudiated by recent events. But Orwell had written 1984 because in 1948 he could see that in spite of the fall of fascism, totalitarianism was here to stay. And he was right. As the first quarter of the 21st century draws to a close, it’s sobering to realize how many people across the world today live in countries where every aspect of life, public and private, is under state control. Added to which, new technology has made possible the surveillance of whole populations in a way that echoes the portrait of society Orwell envisaged in his novel.
No real place, however, is as close to Orwell’s fictional account of London, the principal city of Airstrip One, as Pyongyang, capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is the center of an isolated state, ruled by a dynasty with almost complete authority over most aspects of life. Pyongyang’s inhabitants are woken daily at 7 a.m. by an alarm call that penetrates every dwelling in the city (on Sundays, their day off, the alarm is somewhat muted). Life at work and home includes compulsory political learning sessions; participation in “spontaneous” processions and demonstrations is also the norm. The streets of Pyongyang are clean, empty, and carefully ordered. It is as if the people are subordinate to the urban plan and the architecture.
Everything, from how you dispose of your rubbish to how you spend your free time, is regimented. Most leisure activities take place in groups controlled by residents’ committees. Televisions and radios are sold locked to state channels. Mobile phone and Wi-Fi access, for locals, is restricted to a state network separate from the global internet. Clothing, hairstyles, and makeup are checked by the officials in each block of flats or district. Many women wear smart outfits with modest skirts below the knee, like those of a 1960s Western office worker, or Korean national dress. Men wear workers’ suits, familiar from 1940s and ’50s images of Soviet Russia, with caps or relics of uniform from their years in the army.
There is some—very limited—private enterprise and banking. People live in accommodation provided by the state and they do not (at least in theory) own property. Car ownership is still relatively rare, and people walk, cycle, or use the trams, buses, or metro line. Even internal travel, without proper documentation, is impossible.
Life and work in Pyongyang, the show city of North Korea, is dedicated to the maintenance of the regime established by the Kim dynasty. Devotion to the Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung, his son the Eternal Leader Kim Jong-il, and grandson Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader, is an essential part of life. In fact, it has become the state religion. Education, in school, university, and in later life, is focused around the god-like activities of the Kims, and in particular those of the Great Leader. No North Korean adult can leave the house without a Kim Il-Sung badge attached to their lapel. Time in North Korea, as measured by the Juche (Self-Reliance) Calendar, begins at the moment of his birth, and the Day of the Sun—April 15, his birthday—is the most important state holiday. On this day, you will see North Koreans, in their best clothes, processing to the nearest statue of the Great Leader. Only having paid him reverence, with an offering of flowers (ideally the Kim Sungia violet orchid, or the Kim Jungia red begonia), can their day of rest begin.
For over 50 years, the personality cult of the Kim family has increasingly been woven into the fabric of Pyongyang. This city on the wide Taedong River is the capital of two of the most ancient Korean kingdoms, over 2,000, perhaps 3,000, years old. Now the only “ancient” building in the city, the sixth-century Potong Gate, once the western entrance to Pyongyang and rebuilt at least three times, is deliberately used as the axis of a vista which leads to the futuristic (but unfinished) Ryugyong Hotel, a sci-fi rocket-like concrete structure which seems to pierce the sky. The contrast between the bright future offered by the Ryugyong Hotel and the small, encircled and unimpressive Potong Gate is brilliantly deliberate. Here, as all over Pyongyang, buildings are used to proclaim the irrelevance of previous history when contrasted with the progress and bright future offered by Juche and the Kims.
Many of the city’s half a million inhabitants had been left homeless, and an estimated 75 percent of the built environment destroyed, by bombing during the Korean War. For the new regime this catastrophe presented an opportunity. The old city was swept away, and Pyongyang reimagined as a paradise on a planned grid, on the model of Soviet metropolises. There was no issue with resolving who owned land, since everything was in the possession of the state, and the planners could do anything they wanted.
As a result, parts of Pyongyang feel more like the new conurbations in the former Soviet republics than an East Asian city. The winding alleys and organically shaped streets you see on maps and photographs from the early 20th century were replaced with grand boulevards, straight lines and angular intersections (although the practicalities imposed by the river and geology, as well as the existing rail network, meant that some small vestiges of the former city remained). Most accommodation was provided by concrete housing blocks: Each housing area was arranged into groups of about 5,000 people, with shared facilities, such as shops, nurseries, schools, and chemists. The inspiration is not very different from the superquadratas in Costa and Niemeyer’s Brasília.
Pyongyang was rebuilt as a living—and changing—expression of state ideology. From the beginning, the street plan was organized in conjunction with the sites for major monuments, which dominate the city’s vistas. The city is packed with monuments, squares, and public buildings, axially linked and interlinked, so that you look, for instance, from the Grand Monument to the Kims on Mansu Hill on the west side of the river to the Workers’ Party Foundation Monument on the east. Another axis takes you from Kim Il-Sung Square on the west of the Taedong to the Juche Tower, directly opposite on the east side. Standing on parts of Kim Il- Sung Square, you feel as if the Juche Tower is part of the same structure, and the powerful and otherwise omnipresent river is invisible, subordinate to the power of the state.
The main boulevard, Sungri (Victory) Street, runs from the Triumphal Arch in the north, past the Mansu Hill monument to Kim Il-Sung Square at the ceremonial heart of Pyongyang. This is the largest space in the city, the site of parades and rallies, and capable of holding up to a hundred thousand people. Looking towards the river, at the top of the square is the Grand People’s Study House, built using a neoclassical plan in a traditional Korean style, but on a grandiose scale, with 34 green-tiled saddle roofs. Study, while working, is a cornerstone of Juche ideology, and the Study House, completed to celebrate Kim Il-Sung’s 70th birthday in 1982, dominates the square. The pavements and roads are marked out, so that everyone knows where to stand on parade days. Kim Il-Sung Square reaches down to the Taedong River, looking directly over to the Juche Tower. Built from granite (there is allegedly a block for every day of Kim Il-Sung’s life) and also completed in 1982, it stands 560 feet tall, a memorial to the power and ideology of the first Kim leader. At the bottom, three bronze figures hold the hammer, sickle and brush: the symbols of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
Ideology and architecture are combined in North Korea. Kim Jong-il is even credited with writing a treatise, On the Art of Architecture (1991). Some of the text is standard Marxist-Leninist thinking: Architects must reject bourgeois ideas, and their buildings must remain revolutionary. Other parts are equally hackneyed, reflecting what most modern architecture students would have been taught anywhere in the world; namely, that architecture is closely related to social history, and architecture must combine national sensitivities with modernism. The most interesting parts of the book explore Kim Jong-il’s views on monumental space, as this is the template on which Pyongyang has been laid out. Space needs to have a focus point—for instance a portrait, or sculpture—which the surrounding area must not dominate. Behind this, there should be a backdrop that blocks off the surrounding building or landscape, further framed by a number of symmetrical elements, which achieve the essential balance of respect and dignity. This serves to concentrate attention on the focus point. The space must have one side open, enabling it to project out and dominate its environs, and to let people in, symbolizing the future.
You can see this approach in the construction of many of the city’s architectural set pieces, such as the Mansu Hill Grand Monument. Here, the focus has evolved from one enormous bronze statue of Kim Il-Sung, sculpted to mark his 60th birthday in 1972, to two. A companion bronze of Kim Jong-il was erected in 2012, the year after his death. Standing 66 feet high, they make not just ordinary people, but even the figures in the accompanying sculptural friezes (themselves over 15 feet tall) seem miniscule. Both are shown as active, open leaders. The elder Kim is speaking, gesturing with his right hand, pointing “the way ahead” and receiving the adulation of the people, while he looks directly at the Monument to Party Founding, a stone sculpture of three vast hands clutching the hammer, sickle and brush, on the other side of the river. Kim Jong-il smiles warmly, as if listening appreciatively to his father’s wise words.
Father and son stand in front of a giant mosaic of Mount Paektu, the birthplace of Korean socialism, which itself falls away into insignificance before their superhuman powers. At the sides, two appropriately symmetrical and dynamic sculptural groups, representing Liberation from Japan, and the Achievements of Socialism, show the North Korean people moving to glory under the Kims’ leadership. The vast square in front of the monument is normally populated by North Koreans making their ritual bows. Visitors are obliged to buy a bouquet of plastic flowers and lay it before the statues, before kowtowing reverently to them. (Prudently, the flowers are recycled and resold.)
Pyongyang’s metro system is, in its totality, an underground monument to the glories of the Kims, the achievements of the DPRK, and the natural beauties of North Korea. The murals and mosaics which decorate hallways and platforms emphasize the message that the underground was built “with our own technique, our own materials, and our own efforts.” It is a physical manifestation of Juche—although the model is of course not North Korean but the Moscow metro of the 1930s and ’40s. The metro was constructed from high-quality materials, and is carefully maintained. The platforms are vaulted halls held up by columns decorated in traditional architectural form; beautiful multi-colored glass chandeliers, reminiscent of the work of the North American glass artist Dale Chihuly, are suspended from the ceilings. It is said to be the cheapest system to travel on in the world.
At Yonggwang station, there is an enormous mural of Kim Jong-il in a 1970s parka, open-necked shirt and slacks, standing on an outcrop of land carefully chosen so that he doesn’t just loom over the trees in the valley below him, but over the mountain range in the middle distance. Framed by the backdrop of the snow-covered peak of Mount Paektu, he is both friendly, smiling as he takes his leisure in the great outdoors, and approachable (dressed not in uniform or a suit but in casual clothing), although monumental. People, traveling to work or home on the underground, only go up to his knees. His superiority is evident. This is the benevolent autocrat and dictator.
These monuments are meant to look as if they have always been there. But they have evolved, in keeping with new times and preoccupations. For instance, the statue of Kim il-Sung at Mansu Hill originally wore a Chairman Mao suit, but by 2012 he was in a more Western suit with tie. Kim Jong-il’s overcoat became a parka, more in keeping with his reputation for being a man of the people, tirelessly giving on-the-spot advice to his countrymen for even the most trivial of matters. This is typical of how Pyongyang itself has changed, moving from a classic Soviet plan to one that reflects the Kim dynasty’s brand of authoritarian socialism, as well as regional approaches to art and architecture.
Since the 1980s, the regime has concentrated on “iconic” buildings and monuments. Take the Arch of Reunification, which spans the main motorway approaching Pyongyang from the south. It is at the northern end of Tongil (Reunification) Highway, which—if Korea were to unite—would run from Pyongyang to Seoul. The arch consists of two Korean women, carved from huge blocks of white granite, their hands joining in the middle of the road to hold aloft a plaque adorned with a bronze map of the Korean Peninsula. They loom almost 100 feet above travelers as they drive along the mostly empty motorway. It is hard not to be impressed by the technical ingenuity required to build human figures as architecture on such a scale.
North Korea’s architects have shown ever more ambition and originality over the last decade. Under the rule of Kim Jong-un and his “Strong and Prosperous Nation” policy, the country has rebuilt its capital as a showcase for increasingly flamboyant architectural set pieces. The Supreme Leader’s 2016 architectural manifesto, For Building a Thriving Nation, wishes architects not just to combine tradition with modernity, as his father had done, but to build monumental structures that will surpass global standards and remain immaculate, even long into the future.
Changjion Street, on the west bank of the Taegon between Kim Il-Sung Square and the Mansu Hill Grand Monument, is a collection of strange towers that look as if they are made of striped Lego, framing the Okryu Bridge. These glossy structures, colorfully lit at night, unlike most of Pyongyang, were built at breakneck speed in less than a year during 2012, to house workers. They are now a high-class area where a cup of coffee costs about four times the city’s norm. Mirae Scientists Street, constructed three years later and intended to house the intellectual elite along the banks of the river, is an ensemble of high-rise flats in pastel turquoise and salmon pink, recalling the colors of national dress and the smooth sheen of traditional ceramics. Their curved, playful shapes are apparently based on the calligraphy brush with which Koreans traditionally write. More surprising, given its vast scale, is the turquoise and white Galaxy Tower at the end of the boulevard shaped (according to your taste) to resemble either a stretched atom or a modernist pagoda. Sunrise (Ryomyong) Street is full of buildings that resemble a giant toytown, from shops that take the form of giant petals to multi-colored towers patterned with geometrical shapes. Collectively, these streets and buildings express a sense of whimsy and playfulness which seems distinctive to this isolated country, separated by choice from most of the world.
The arts, and particularly the built environment, are of central importance to the regime because they beautify and give meaning to its mechanisms of control, making people “feel” and “believe” rather than think analytically. This is a government which will do almost anything to retain its power and to maintain its ideology, even subjecting its people to food shortages and famine to preserve the illusion of self-sufficiency. But even in this crooked and corrupt state there is some beauty. The Socialist Paradise of Pyongyang is only for the lucky few, a Truman Show version of the West, serving to keep the elite loyal to the Kim family. Yet there are things to learn—and even some to admire, in spite of everything—from this city that values architecture, urban planning, and community.