Visitors to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, often report feeling as though they have landed in a Truman-Show-type setup, unable to tell whether what they see is real or put there for their benefit, to be cleared away like props on a stage once they have moved on. The recent transformation of Kim Jong Un, the country’s dictator, from recluse to smooth-talking statesman has heightened interest in the country but not really shaken the fundamental sense of bewilderment when trying to make sense of it.
Oliver Wainwright, the Guardian’s architecture critic (and the brother of The Economist’s Britain editor), who has compiled his photographs from a week-long visit to Pyongyang in 2015 into a glossy coffee-table book published by Taschen, starts from this initial sense of strangeness. He describes wandering around Pyongyang as moving through a series of stage sets from North Korean socialist-realist operas, where every view is carefully arranged to show off yet another monument or apartment building. But his eye is also alive to what the city, which was originally planned by a Soviet-trained architect, has in common with other places that were influenced by Soviet aesthetics.
When I went to Pyongyang for the first time, the pastel-hued tower blocks, the streetlight fittings shaped like blossom and the interiors decked out in retro colour schemes all seemed strangely familiar. I realised they reminded me of a mid-century-era theme park I’d visited as a child – it has long since closed down – on an island in east Berlin, where people crossed artificial lakes in swan-shaped pedal boats against the backdrop of a ferris wheel with ice-cream-coloured pods. It was only the parade-ready avenues, the enormous bronze statues of the great leaders and the giant monuments to the Workers’ Party and the country’s “Juche” ideology, that gave the game away that we were in the capital of a hereditary totalitarian dictatorship.
In his introduction, Wainwright coins the term “kindergarten kitsch”. This is architecture as anaesthetic, used by a murderous regime keen to project an image of carefree prosperity. Like all visitors on officially sanctioned tourist trips to North Korea, he was shown what the regime wants people to see: futuristic leisure centres catering to Pyongyang’s emerging middle classes, the intricate mosaics on the walls of the city’s metro stations, new apartment buildings for the elite. The images he brought back are all surface. Anyone looking for insights into North Korea’s human-rights abuses or its nuclear strategy will be disappointed.
But it is precisely their superficial nature that makes the photographs so effective at explaining the apparent incongruity of Pyongyang’s appearance. Divided into six categories ranging from “city views and housing” to “leisure and hospitality”, they show that the friendly colours and the giant statues are merely different aspects of the same aesthetic. No visitor could fail to notice that, like everything else in North Korea, architecture is meant to be seen a gift from the great leader to his people.
View from the top of the tower of the Juche Idea
The tower of the “Juche” idea, which celebrates North Korea’s official ideology of political and economic autarky, is a giant structure made of granite slabs that sits on the banks of the Taedong river. Its entrance is decorated with marble panes sent as tokens of appreciation from students of “Kimilsungism” from Paris to Lahore. Climb to the top and the whole of Pyongyang stretches out underneath you. Mint green, pale pink and ochre-coloured apartment blocks dominate the panorama, many of them arranged to create symmetrical vistas. But less deliberately representative bits of the city, hidden from view on the ground, are also clearly visible from above, nestled into the gaps between the tower blocks: squat one-storey houses with grubby exteriors and muddy yards, the occasional dog or chicken thrown into the mix. Outside Pyongyang, this is still how the vast majority of people live.
Work on the Ryugyong Hotel, seen here from the Tower of the Juche Idea, began in 1987 with help from the Soviet Union, with some estimates putting the initial cost of construction at a staggering $750m, about 2% of North Korea’s GDP at the time (shortly afterwards, the country’s food distribution system collapsed, causing widespread famine). For more than two decades, the giant pyramid structure, nicknamed the “hotel of doom”, towered over Pyongyang as a skeletal building site. Though glass panes were added in 2011, and a massive LED screen was fixed to the facade earlier this year, the building is still unoccupied. Visible from anywhere in the city, it serves as a constant reminder of the hubris – and the futuristic architectural tastes – of the North Korean leadership. Apart from the Ryugyong Hotel, this view from the Juche tower also shows the careful town planning of Pyongyang: the Taedong river is flanked by a promenade with mooring spaces for pleasure boats. Beyond the river, apartment buildings are interspersed with parks and greenery. Large murals of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the current dictator’s grandfather and father, are never far from view.
Koryo Hotel breakfast buffet
As Wainwright points out, this picture of the breakfast buffet at the Koryo hotel, Pyongyang’s ritziest hotel for foreign visitors, could be straight from a Wes Anderson film set. The garish plastic-flower arrangements almost take up more space than the food. The napkins behind the containers with warm foods are arranged into shapes resembling giant orchids. Against the backdrop of a shadowy forest theme on the orange wallpaper and offset by the electric blue table cloth in the foreground, whoever decorated it may well have been inspired by an issue of Good Housekeeping magazine from the 1970s.
Changgwang Health and Recreation complex
This image is taken in the waiting area of the hair salon at the Changgwang Health and Recreation complex, which was opened in 1980 as the city’s flagship health centre. (Others have since appeared.) The colours in the poster advertising the hair styles on offer complement the pink wallpaper behind it and even the green colour scheme of the chairs. The plastic flowers on the cabinet underneath the posters even seem to be matching the carpet. The colour-coordinated interior is typical of semi-public spaces in Pyongyang – the entrance halls of factory boarding houses and schools as well as the waiting areas in theatres and circuses are similarly decked out. The TV is also a common sight throughout leisure facilities in Pyongyang. Most restaurants have several screens showing old propaganda films or re-runs of concerts by Russian crooners, switching to state TV whenever there is an important news announcement.
Kwangbok Street apartments
The apartments of Kwangbok Street, a 4-km-long avenue, were completed in 1989 in time for the World Festival of Youth and Students. They largely house party members and other bureaucratic officials and come in a variety of shapes from cylindrical clusters to serpentine blocks. In this picture, about a third of the way up the middle tower block, solar panels are visible on some balconies. Mostly imported from China, they are used by wealthy Pyongyangites to retain a measure of independence from the city’s still erratic electricity supply. Three years after this image was taken, their use has become much more widespread. To the right of the apartment blocks, half obscured by trees, is an even commoner sight: a propaganda sign. In the foreground a group of pedestrians are using a variety of sun hats and glittering chiffon parasols – still a relatively new phenomenon – to protect themselves from the summer sun.
Inside North Korea by Oliver Wainwright (Taschen) out now