Fantastical architecture reflects North’s ideals: In his photography book, Guardian critic Oliver Wainwright captures Pyongyang’s whimsy and ambition

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

Fantastical architecture reflects North’s ideals: In his photography book, Guardian critic Oliver Wainwright captures Pyongyang’s whimsy and ambition


The Guardian’s architecture and design critic Oliver Wainwright explains the East Pyongyang Grand Theater, which is introduced in his book “Inside North Korea.” It features more than 200 images he captured when visiting the country in 2015. [PARK SANG-MOON]

To people whose only interaction with North Korea is via critical news coverage, the “Hermit Kingdom” remains a mysterious place. They often think of dark and gloomy images of soldiers marching down eerily quiet streets filled with gray and dilapidated Soviet-style buildings and monuments.

This is how The Guardian’s architecture and design critic Oliver Wainwright imagined Pyongyang. So it came as a huge surprise when Nick Bonner, the founder of Koryo Tours, which specializes in tourism to North Korea, told Wainwright about the spectacular and futuristic complexes in North Korea when they met at the Venice architecture biennale in 2014.

Bonner was invited to the Korea Pavilion to display paintings by North Korean architects he commissioned. He asked them to imagine the future of North Korea and what the future of tourism would look like. These paintings showed “fancy architecture,” according to Wainwright, like mirror glass pyramid structures on the side of cliffs.

“They were very retro sci-fi like [the American cartoon] ‘The Jetsons,’” Wainwright told Korea JoongAng Daily in a recent interview.

So it came as a shock when Nick told him that the designs depicted in the paintings were not too different from the kinds of buildings being constructed in North Korea at the time. “I wasn’t sure if he was joking,” said Wainwright. “And the only way to find out was to visit there myself.”

The following year, Wainwright joined the first-ever architectural tour of North Korea, organized by Bonner. What he saw far exceeded his expectations, and what struck him the most was the use of color.

“When you’re standing at the top of the Juche Tower - the main observation tower - the city is like a pastel panorama, almost as if someone emptied out a packet of candies across the city,” said Wainwright.

During his one-week tour, Wainwright captured several hundred photographs of architecture and design he saw while he was in Pyongyang and Kaesong.

More than 200 of those photos are featured in the book, “Inside North Korea,” which was published in July. Of the images in the book, Wainwright selected around 50 for a display in Paju Architecture Culture Fair, which will run throughout Sept. 27.

On Sept. 14, the opening day of the fair, the Korea JoongAng Daily had an interview with Wainwright in central Seoul, who visited Korea in time for the exhibition. The following are edited excerpts.


Clockwise from top left are the view from the top of the Juche Tower in Pyongyang; the high-rise Ryugyong Hotel, which began construction in 1987 but is still unopened; cylindrical apartment towers that line Kwangbok Street in Pyongyang; the Planetarium, which is part of the Three Revolutions Exhibition park. [OLIVER WAINWRIGHT]

Q. North Korea is known for having little contact with the outside world, which means that people can only imagine what it looks like. What were your expectations before you visited the country? How did your thoughts change after the visit?

. I suppose the outside image is always very monotonous, grey, monolithic and concrete buildings with endless streets of Soviet-style blocks. But, the thing that shocked me the most was the color. I think it’s one of the most colorful cities I’ve ever been to. When you’re standing at the top of the Juche Tower, you can see so many diverse colors across the city, including pale pink, baby blue, terracotta, mustard and minty green. I’ve never seen this kind of color palette in the world. It’s like the Wes Anderson movies.

The second [surprising] thing was the originality of the buildings. The most famous example is the May Day Stadium - an incredible series of silver arches - that is still the largest stadium in the world. There is also the Pyongyang Ice Rink, a white concrete teepee structure, and the famous Ryugyong Hotel, which is like a mirrored glass spaceship. This style of architecture isn’t something you can commonly see elsewhere in the world. They are quite futuristic and sci-fi.

Why do you think they chose pastel colors?

That’s a very good question, and I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of it. I think a lot of the color schemes relate back to ancient Korean designs. Kim Jong-il wrote a manifesto, “On Architecture,” in 1991, which is an unusual and detailed manual on how to make North Korean architecture. He says all the forms and colors should reference ancient history of Korea because Juche ideology [North Korea’s ideology on political, economic and military self-reliance] is all about everything being self-generated.

They also have the purpose [of creating a] kindergarten aesthetic. I think it’s to infantilize people. If they can make the population almost behave in a child-like way because the colors are very childlike, I think it helps to distract people from the realities of living in North Korea - the reality of the totalitarian regime.

The excessively organized streets and buildings seem to make the city look like a colossal stage with actors playing the roles of ordinary people, similar to “The Truman Show” (1998). What was your impression?

The city feels like a series of stage sets. It’s almost like walking through a series of set piece designs which have been conceived to focus your attention on statues of the leaders or something of political significance.

Some people say Pyongyang is just a false stage set to show off to westerners, and it’s true in a sense in that behind the modern apartment towers are much more informal and casual architecture such as shack-like houses that people don’t want you to see. But it’s also a very real city. People used to say [Pyongyang] metro was only used to show foreigners, and everyone that went on the metro was an actor employed to be pretending to use the metro. Things like that aren’t true. The metro’s very busy during rush hours, just like the Seoul metro. There was more life than I was expecting.

How powerful do you believe architecture and design are in enforcing ideology, especially for those living in a secluded nation like North Korea?

I think a lot. I think it’s a very powerful tool. The metro is an interesting example. When you go to Pyongyang metro, the official guides say the architecture and decorations are means of education. It’s like an ideological education. Each station is themed around a particular part of the ideology, so even the decoration and the symbolism is very much about reinforcing the ideology. The mosaics are incredible. It was one of the world’s most intricate mosaic works, even beyond what they have in Moscow. They’re all about reinforcing the [ideology] of the leader.

How do you think the architecture and design changed from regime to regime?

Kim Il Sung built [his] ideal city from the scratch. He described Pyongyang as a “great garden of Juche architecture.” He employed an architect, Kim Jung-hee, who was trained in Moscow [and took the helm in reconstructing Pyongyang following the Korean War (1950-53)]. So it feels very like Moscow, with the resemblance seen in the monumental boulevards and huge wide open public spaces for political roles.

Given his interest in cinema, Kim Jong-il was very aware of the power of architecture and designs to use them as political tools and make people obedient. And it is during his regime when the city becomes much more expressive and theatrical with [the construction of] unusually shaped towers marching all the lengths of the streets.

As for Kim Jong-un, his focus has been much more on leisure and about [projecting] the image of modernity. There’s an emerging middle class in Pyongyang and [the nouveau rich known as] donju. He’s aware that he needs to have a certain amount of fun facilities like a water park, bowling alleys, a ski resort and a horse-riding center for the middle class and elites. There are [now] many more restaurants and cafes.

According to the Juche Ideology, architecture should be very unique and creative. As a critic, what do you think about their level of creativity?

I think lots of the architecture is very unusual. Lots of people tend to think new development in Pyongyang is similar to anywhere else with rapidly developing cities. But they’re actually very specifically Korean, and that’s part of the reason I wanted to do the book. It’s interesting what they can do with the limited resources. It’s not world-leading architecture, but it’s very creative and impressive given the constraints they’re working under.

I’m fascinated by how the original Juche ideology is still present. [It’s] the only place in the world where the ideology which founded the city is still in control of the city. You can read that in architecture.

Many of North Korea’s buildings are made of concrete. How do you think that affects their style of architecture?

I think the construction method influences the nature of the design. I think the fact that everything is still made in concrete in North Korea encourages the architects to be quite sculptural because they’re using solid concrete as means to making the forms. They’re relying on the actual structure of the building to make the expression.

Through their architecture, they seem to want to be loved and feared at the same time. How do you think North Korea hopes to be perceived?

Their main ambition is to be seen as a modern country. When you arrive in the airport, it has polished marble floors and shopping areas where North Korean products are neatly arranged. I think a lot of it is about projecting the image of modernity and capability.


Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)