Pastel Brutalism: Figurative Architecture and the City of Abstraction

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Mirae Scientist Street (Photo by: Calvin Chua)


Calvin Chua


Continuing the studio’s interest in exploring the architecture of large scale territorial developments and the condition of the periphery, we will explore one of the most isolated countries in the world for this semester – North Korea.

With the warming of relationship between North and South Korea, a series of declarations on inter-Korea development projects were made over the past year. These projects include a railway line from Seoul to Pyongyang, new economic zones and the transformation of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) to a nature park. These discussion have been largely focused on the economic impact of such projects, in terms of the amount of investments and number of job they can potential generate.


Concurrently, North Korea have been embarking on its own “Golden Age of Construction”, at a breakneck speed where new 50-storey high-rise residential districts have been built within a short span of 18 months. In contrast to the abstract definition of the larger scale infrastructure projects, these new construction projects have taken on more figurative approach in linking the built environment to revolutionary political ideals and military might. Brutalist buildings have been cladded with a fresh coat of pastel paint, while the harmonious composition of streetscape through the choreography of building heights and massing gave way to stylistic differentiation of individual towers through figurative forms. Looking beyond the pastel aesthetics, the transformation towards more figurative architecture signals a new direction in the role of the built environment towards the construction of the state.

Against this backdrop, this studio will explore the inherent contradiction between the abstract nature of large-scale planning defined by economic indicators, and the figurative architecture as a resultant spatial product. Can new cities be defined according to specific social, political and cultural contents and manifested through its material form? What is the relevance of political ideals today in shaping the city? How can we go beyond generic real estate products of residential, commercial or mixed-use and invent new typologies that respond to new social / political definitions of cities and their resultant economic functions, while responding to traditional Korean cultural philosophy? How can we define a project for the city at the scale of architecture without reducing its complexity caricaturising it to a single theme?

Collectively, the studio will work along two territorial axes, the North-South railway corridor between Dorasan in the South and Pyongyang in the North and the East-West nature corridor along the DMZ. Working in pairs, each group will design a new settlement for 2000 inhabitants that will be inserted within an existing city or as a prototype that can aggregated in a new city in either territorial axes. Working at the scale of architecture and urbanism, each group will define their project through specific cultural narratives, socio-economic functions, architectural typologies and urban forms.


The first half of the semester will be dedicated to studying the way cities are made in both Koreas and the role of figurative architecture in the city. Through the analysis of scale, typology, narrative and development model of selected urban projects and figurative architecture, an research atlas will be produced. Supporting this initial analysis will be a recording of the territory of the project site. Zooming between the scale of the building, the city and region, the aim of this exercise is to uncover the relationship between the inherent socio-economic conditions, the resultant built environment and its development potentials. The first half of the semester will conclude with a publication combining the research atlas and project statements by individual groups.


The second half to the semester will be dedicated to the material and technical resolution of the project. Clarity in the project narrative will be established through working with models, images, drawings and photography at multiple scales, from 1:50 to 1:10000. In addition, we will also explore a form of representation that reflects the cultural context of North Korea.


In June 2019, the studio will travel to South Korea to understand the culture of making cities and exchange ideas with scholars on North Korea’s urbanism. The trip will include visits various cities that have been conceived over the past two decades, including Songdo, Sejong, Paju and large scale urban projects within Seoul. In addition, the studio will be attending two conferences on the urban transformation of North Korean’s cities and inter-Korea development projects. Selected student representatives will be invited to present the initial studio research to an audience of Korean academic scholars. (Estimated cost for trip: $1000)