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