Inside North Korea

Guardian writer and architecture critic Oliver Wainwright’s new book offers a rare look inside hotels, stadiums and leisure centres in the totalitarian state

The phrase ‘socialist architecture’ tends to evoke images of utilitarian buildings: imposing high rises and squat concrete structures devoid of all colour. But this is not the case in Pyongyang.

The city’s skyline is dotted with tower blocks in bright yellows, blues and greens. The pastel-hued interiors of its leisure centres and theatres look as if they belong in a Wes Anderson film. Landmark buildings such as the Pyongyang Circus have a sci-fi feel, combining retro futuristic elements with features inspired by traditional Korean temples, while the Metro is decorated with lavish chandeliers and colourful murals. The city presents a fascinating mish-mash of styles and its idiosyncratic buildings serve to promote the ideals of the ruling Workers’ Party.

A swimming pool at the Changgwang Health and Recreation Complex, built in 1980. All images © Oliver Wainwright and provided courtesy of Taschen

Oliver Wainwright visited North Korea for a week in 2015 with Beijing travel company Koryo Tours. While there, he photographed cultural venues, hotels, educational buildings and high rises. His images are brought together in a new book, Inside North Korea, which offers a rare look inside the secretive state.

Wainwright’s photographs are arranged by type. There are chapters on housing and city views, monuments, sports and education buildings, museums and Metro stations. His introduction provides a brief guide to North Korean architecture – from the key principles that have shaped the design of its buildings to the influence of Soviet town planning on Pyongyang’s layout. (The city had to be rebuilt after it was destroyed by US bombs during the Korean War.)

The Rungrado May Day Stadium was built in 1989 and reopened in 2015 with a new football pitch and running track (FIFA and Olympics logos have been installed in the newly renovated rooms – an indication of North Korea’s hopes for the venue) © Oliver Wainwright
The Changgwang Health and Recreation Complex © Oliver Wainwright

Wainwright also explores how the city has been designed to enforce power structures and assert control over its residents: 20-metre high statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il dwarf visitors to Mansu Hill and the country’s leaders look out from paintings and murals in every public building – giving the effect that those in charge are ever-present and always watching.

His images show a surprisingly colourful and, in many ways, beautiful city – one that is surrounded by rolling hills and is home to some impressive venues (the May Day Stadium is said to be the largest in the world, with 114,000 capacity, while the Grand People’s Study House can hold over 30 million books). “The capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea isn’t the monotonous grey world that you might expect it to be, and this book is an attempt to offer a glimpse behind the closed doors of the Hermit Kingdom, providing a snapshot of the reclusive country in all its kaleidoscopic colour,” he writes in an introduction.

Cylindrical apartment blocks for the Pyongyang elite. The buildings are located on Kwangbok Street – a 4km long boulevard built for the 1989 World Festival of Youth and Students © Oliver Wainwright

Pyongyang is filled with trophy architecture. Expensive projects – such as stadiums built to host the 1989 Olympics and a theme park created as part of a plan to attract 2 million visitors to the country by 2020 – act as symbols of wealth, progress and modernity.

But as Wainwright points out, Pyongyang is a wealthy bubble in an otherwise very poor country. It is an idealised vision of life in the DPRK – and life for people outside of the capital remains very different. “Outside the pleasure dome, in zones off limits to foreign visitors, most of the socialist fairyland still suffers from frequent power shortages, chronic food insecurity and deteriorating standards of healthcare and education – realities that are safely obscured inside Pyongyang’s candy-coloured mirage,” writes Wainwright.

The Changgwang Health and Recreation Complex © Oliver Wainwright
The Arch of Triumph (modelled on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but reputedly 10 metres taller) is built from 25,550 blocks of white granite © Oliver Wainwright
Above and lead image (top): The breakfast buffet at the 45-storey Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang. The hotel is made up of two towers with revolving restaurants at the top. Only one tower is open to foreign visitors © Oliver Wainwright

The book is a compelling look at Pyongyang’s varied buildings and life in the People’s Republic  and Wainwright’s commentary puts photographs of the city’s architectural landscape into context. “The North Korean interior is a fascinating stage set, a precisely choreographed world where an idealised image of power and order is played out. It operates to command emotion, devotion and disobedience.”

Inside North Korea is the second book in just over a year to explore the eccentricities of North Korean design – Nicholas Bonner’s Made in North Korea, published by Phaidon, offered a guide to graphic design and visual culture in the DPRK.

View from the top of the Tower of Juche Idea in Pyongyang © Oliver Wainwright

Inside North Korea is published by Taschen on July 12 and costs £40. You can pre-order copies at taschen.com

SENIOR DESIGNER

London (Euston)

MID-WEIGHT DESIGNER

Harpenden, Hertfordshire

DESIGNER

Witney, Oxfordshire

HEAD OF DESIGN

Winchester