Pyongyang suffers from a brand problem. The city is known as the capital of a neo-kingdom run by a bizarre dynasty of ill-tailored dictators, overseeing an army of impeccably synchronized goose-steppers, a network of missile and nuclear sites and a gulag that is the setting for hideous human rights abuses.
But – at least, optically – Pyongyang defies this image. It is the futuristic, showpiece capital of a “socialist fairyland,” says Oliver Wainwright, the author of a book on the capital’s architectural landscape, “Inside North Korea” which is published in London today.
Wainwright, the architecture and design critic of UK-based broadsheet The Guardian, visited Pyongyang with the intention of writing a piece on urban planning – but unlike most reporters, decided not to do pre-tour research.
“I went without any expectations, I wanted to go with an open mind,” he told Asia Times. Even so, he conceded that he harbored certain preconceptions. “In the back of my mind, I expected a monumental city: marching blocks of monotonous concrete blocks, the typical idea of a bleak, Soviet place.”
What he discovered was radically different. “I expected to enjoy it out of perverse fascination, but I was astonished,” he recalled. “There is color anywhere! It is of the most colorful cities I have ever visited.”
‘Rocket Man’s’ retro sci-fi city
The idea for the trip, and subsequently the book, came when Wainwright met Nick Bonner at the Venice Biennale. Bonner, the founder of Beijing-based Koryo Tours – a travel agency specializing in North Korea – was curating the Korean pavilion and had imagined the future of tourism in North Korea.
“There were retro futuristic sci-fi infused visions of hover-ship hotels and so on, that would remind you of a ‘Dan Dare’ comic – incredibly retro!” Wainwright recalled. “[Bonner] said: ‘This is not too different to what they are building in Pyongyang at the moment,’ so I thought, ‘There is only one way to find out.’”
Bonner, in coordination with the North’s Ministry of Tourism, was organizing an architectural tour. Wainwright duly flew in for an eight-day trip.
He was immediately impressed. “The level of originality and invention was surprising,” he said. “I had no idea they would have quirky buildings.”
Coloration alone raised his eyebrows. “In terms of apartment blocks, there are these chalky pastel palettes – baby blue, mint green, terracotta, yellow ochre,” he said. “Inside, it is very contrasting. There are opposite colors on the color wheel: you would have salmon walls and then a mint green floor, which is something I had never seen before.”
A key stop on the trip was the Baekdusan Academy, to meet leading state architects. “We met some guys with laptops who were zooming in and out of 3D architectural projects,” he said. “We heard about an underwater hotel for [the east coast resort of] Wonsan, all these big trophy projects. The style of the images on the walls of the academy were similar to what I had seen in Venice – these retro, sci-fi images, with retro pastel colors.”
The trip was a packed schedule of museums, libraries, nursery schools, circuses, theaters and cinemas.
Planned city, strong messaging, quirky design
Overall, Pyongyang is a carefully planned showpiece. As it was bombed flat during the 1950-53 Korean War, the leadership had a blank canvas on which to paint.
An immediate impression is the amount of open space; a post-war regulation demanded that only 24% of land area could be buildings. “You see these large parks and the riverside promenades which are quite busy in the evenings,” Wainwright noted.
Overall, the cityscape is informed by “theatrical” urban planning. “You have monumental boulevards terminating in statues of the leaders, Workers Party monuments and official buildings,” he said. “These very strong perspectives and vistas around the city make you feel very small.”
Inside, power messaging continues. “The first thing inside a public building is a statue or portrait of the leaders – and these walls are not allowed to have anything else hung on them, they are sacrosanct,” he said. “All the interiors are designed – with columns, or just arrangements of chairs – to direct your gaze straight ahead.”
Such visual techniques are traditionally used in set design, Wainwright noted. The second-generation Kim, Jong-il, was a known movie fan – who also wrote a 160-page treatise on architecture. “It is an interesting read,” Wainwright said. “It shows you how aware they were of using architecture as political and ideological tools.”
The foundation of state ideology is nationalism. “All architecture and design must be self-generating, and specifically Korean,” Wainwright said. “It draws on ancient forms, so there is lots of use of octagonal columns as a reference to old Korean temples, and they have these [traditional-style] overhanging rooftops; things should be modern but have a paternal Korean air, and be nationalist in form and socialist in content.”
According to state founder Kim Il-sung’s philosophy of juche, or self-reliance, Pyongyang’s architecture “is very explicit about not relying on outside help.”
But there is surprisingly abundant playfulness and creativity. “The sports buildings are very original … some are designed to embody the sports they contain, so the badminton arena follows the arc of a flying shuttle-cock,” Wainwright said. “It’s kind of post-modernism before post modernism!”
He was awed by the May Day Stadium – which North Korea claims is the world’s biggest. “They describe it as a parachute that has just landed: It has these billowing metallic arches,” Wainwright said. “There are not many stadiums in the world as elegant as that.”
The quality of material and attention to detail is also impressive. The city’s central Changwon Health and Recreation Center offers mosaic walls, fluted marble columns and fountains, while the swimming pool offers a diving board with a mechanical elevator; even the windows have hand-colored glass blocks which are “layered to create really interesting light effects,” Wainwright said.
And it stands up to close scrutiny. “I wish we had longer to study the mosaic work,” Wainwright said. “The level of craftsmanship is astonishing – they have even gradated the colors on the cheeks of the leader.”
Still, there was much he did not see. “When we were there, Future Sciences Street was under construction – the one with a giant tower shaped like a pagoda and crowned with planets; more ‘Jetsons’ symbolism!” He also cited Pyongyang Zoo, which offers a building shaped like a terrapin or tortoise and an entrance like a tiger’s head – visitors enter through the mouth.
Nor did he see inside Pyongyang’s tallest landmark, the Shard-like Ryugyong Hotel. Its construction is famously off-center, so elevators cannot operate – though the vacant building recently had LEDs added to its facade. “I would love to see inside it,” Wainwright said.
Behind the façade
With so much of the country dilapidated and so much of its infrastructure decrepit, there is enormous pride in the showpiece capital. “Few countries are as proud of their infrastructure as [North] Korea,” Wainwright said.
This is particularly so of the Pyongyang metro – which reportedly doubles as a bomb shelter. “There is no way of verifying it, but they say it is the deepest metro system in the world and you sense that this thick steel door is ready to close at a moment’s notice as a bomb shelter,” he said.
Even there, form hides function. Compared to what he calls the “dingy” subway in London, Pyongyang’s metro is palatial: “You are greeted with socialist realist mosaics covering the wall and chandeliers!” Wainwright said. Stations even have themes. “One is themed around agriculture and so the chandeliers are like grapes, and there is a mosaic of Kim Il-sung offering on-the-spot guidance to farmers in the fields.”
Indeed, the ubiquity of the leaders’ iconography and the power of their personality cult is inescapable. “The leaders are treated like semi-religious figures,” Wainwright said. “The degree of devotion is similar to what you will find in the Catholic Church.”
Despite the brightness of Pyongyang’s palette, there was murkiness in official explanations; Wainwright admits he is in the dark about much of what he saw. “You get very vague and prosaic answers, there is no way of telling when this or that color scheme happened,” he mused. “It could be part of this official slogan, of turning the country into a ‘socialist fairyland.’”
That 2014 slogan explains the aesthetics. “You get a sense all this architecture and planning has one purpose: enforcing the status quo and reinforcing the omnipresence and power of the Kim dynasty,” he said. “But they are always beaming – you don’t see Stalin or other autocratic leaders looking so happy.”
The concept of benevolent, fatherly leaders caring for child-like citizens is central.
“This architecture is being used as a saccharine salve to distract people from realities in this authoritarian regime,” he said. “It feels sweet and kindergarteny. Many color schemes – baby blue and pink – impart a preschool vibe. Everything is a kind of sugary fantasy, trying to keep people slightly infantilized.”
As a reporter, he was keenly aware that he was on a carefully monitored tour. “We kept asking our guides to please take use to a regular apartment, we just wanted to see inside the house of an everyday Korean family,” he said. It did not happen.
Only on short excursions outside Pyongyang, did he got a hint of conditions in the hinterland. “We got glimpses through windows of the bus as we passed crumbling concrete apartments and children wearing ragged clothes,” he recalled. “Pyongyang is a bubble.”
But it is a bubble he admires – at least, physically.
The idea of turning his trip and photos into a book came after he returned home in 2015 and posted a Tumbler page with some of his work. “It was picked up by media outlets around the world as everything about these images seemed so unlike the usual parades of tanks and crumbling concrete,” he said.
Wainwright’s dominant observation is certainly out of synch with most global coverage of Pyongyang. “I would say it is one of the great undiscovered architectural gems of Asia,” he said. “You can only equate the level of spectacle to Dubai or Abu Dhabi.”
Inside North Korea by Oliver Wainwright, is published by Taschen on July 12, 2018