In an exclusive visit to the most guarded nation in the world, North Korea, Oliver Wainwright was able to take a glimpse of the alien land with his own eyes. In his book Pastel Dreams, he documents the architecture of North Korea, noting whilst it’s easy to be charmed by the “lavish wonder-worlds of marble and mosaic” and “interiors in dazzling color palettes” – he could see that the architecture served as a plaster over the country’s gaping wounds.
The book is a gallery of 200 photos with comments about the architecture of a place searching to be a “socialist fairyland”.The country was descimated during the Korean War from incessant bombing and the crown jewels, Pyongyang, was completely rebuolt in 1953. The then leader, Kim Il Sung, set the tone for how the country was to look like and rebuilt it in lavish fashion. Despite many deaths across the country and widespread poverty and starvation, the leader created huge grand palaces and wide boulevards littered with statues and monuments. Serving as propaganda, the leader wanted everything to be “national in form and socialist in content.”
The new direction in leadership from the present leader, Kim Jong Un, has been at the forefront of recent news, meeting with not only the leader of South Korea in an effectual peace – but also meeting Donald Trump! The turn in diplomatic relations was quite remarkable, almost too remarkable. As the case with Kim Jong Un’s hell-for-leather approach to the country’s rapid construction. I a bid to “turn the whole country into a socialist fairyland”, he is rapidly transforming Pyongyang into a playground, conjuring a flimsy fantasy of prosperity and using architecture as a powerful anesthetic, numbing the population from the stark reality of his authoritarian regime.
Koryo Hotel, Pyongyang, 1985
As if out of a Wes Anderson film, the whole arrangement and the colours make it look like it’s about to have actors playing out a scene in it. Built in 1985, the Koryo Hotel is the premium hotel for foreign visitors, standing as a pair of 45-storey towers connected by a bridge and crowned with a revolving restaurant. With a total of 500 rooms, the hotel also has a bookshop, movie room, banquet and conference rooms, as well as a casino and “wading pool” in the basement.
Pyongyang Metro, Pyongyang, begun 1965
The grandeaur of this metro station with decorated walls and chandeliers could have you asking the question “why?”, and you couldn’t be blamed for asking it either. At 110 metres below ground, it claims to be the deepest subway system in the world, but there is a more sinister reason for the depth of the station – it can double as a bomb-shelter, a secondary function revealed by the thick steel blast-doors. Gilded statues of Kim Il Sung greet commuters, along with exquisitely detailed socialist-realist mosaic murals and sculpted reliefs depicting patriotic scenes.
East Pyongyang Grand Theatre, Pyongyang, 1989
The constrasting pastel colours of this theatre in the capital is what stands out at first glance and the 3,500-seat auditorium, built in 1989 was done up in 2007 with new polished stone tiles, a mural on the wall and new upholstered seats. Potentially in time for when tehe leader announced they were opening their doors to tourists for the first time…
Ryugyong Hotel, Pyongyang, 1987 – unfinished
A lot of the architecture in North Korea is built to achieve some sort of international status and achievement. Like the vast Ryugyong Hotel tower that was built as a statement of the country’s wealth and prosperity, but then they ran out of money and it has never been finished. The hotel is completely empty and has been crowned the tallest empty building in the world. The hotel is a huge, standing metaphor of what the grand architecture really means in North Korea; it is hollow, there for the appearance of strenght but not of much worth or use at all.
Rungrado May Day Stadium, Pyongyang, 1989
The May Day Stadium is another example of leadership trying to achieve a feat. Built for the 1989 World Festival of Youth and Students (a kind of communist Olympic Games), it is said to be the largest stadium in the world, with capacity for 114,000 people. It was used for the Mass Games gymnastic performances for years, and reopened in 2015 after a two-year renovation, which saw a new football pitch and running track installed, along with ancillary rooms for training and press conferences – together with the optimistic addition of the FIFA and Olympic logos.
Changgwang Health and Recreation Complex, Pyongyang, 1980
Following on the theme of sport, this huge sports centre covers an area of almost 40,000 square metres and can hold 16,000 people. It contains a sauna, bathhouse, swimming pools and hair salons – where customers can choose from a range of officially sanctioned haircuts. Attention was lavished on details, from a decorative terrazzo floor in the entrance, to coloured cast glass panels and mosaic floors.