In a globalised world, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is utterly unique. Hermetic, heavily censored, and dominated by the cult-like image and ideology of the Supreme Leader, the Juche nation has become more open to tourists in recent years—but only on guided tours.
In a new book by architecture and design critic Oliver Wainwright – Inside North Korea – the world’s most secretive country is explored in photographs (also taken by Wainwright) of its architecture, sports grounds, museums, theatres and public monuments, most of them eerily empty and unanimated. The somewhat morbid attraction abroad to North Korea and the idea of the Hermit Kingdom as what he describes as ‘fascinating stage set’, is at odds with its deeply controversial politics and human rights violations.
The recently renovated support rooms of the Rungrado May Day Stadium embody the essence of the current North Korean interior aesthetic. Built in 1989 and used for the Mass Games performances for years, the stadium reopened in 2015 with a new football pitch and running track, as well as the addition of the FIFA and Olympic logos. Courtesy of Taschen
Wainwright conjures a picture of North Korea you might not expect: he writes of a visit to Pyongyang in 2015 and encountering its pastel-coloured cityscape for the first time; he notes the nature-oriented planning of the city, built from scratch in 1953, surprising for a Soviet city. Other surprises are glimpses of the striking exteriors of the Pyongyang Circus; the Rungna People’s Pleasure Ground, a theme park completed in 2012 offering a mini-golf course, swimming pool and 4D cinema with moving seats; and the Yanggakdo International Hotel, with its bowling alley and sauna, and over 1,000 rooms for foreign guests.
Despite the ethics of celebrating these government sanctioned buildings, the book draws you in to the sci-fi beauty of the distinct North Korean aesthetic. ‘Architectural space must be composed to ensure that the leader’s image dominates all the elements of the space, and that all the architectural components throw the leader’s image in bold relief,’ declaimed King Jong Il.
With principles such as these, the buildings and their interiors are a conditioned kind of architecture, designed with one person in mind – and this is the version of ‘inside North Korea’ that a guided tour in the country will allow. As Wainwright reminds us, in such a controlled and isolated environment, there is possibly far more to see than meets the foreign eye.
An interlocking composition of two buildings, one semicircular, one rectangular, the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre from 1989 houses an auditorium with an audience capacity of 3,500, along with dozens of rehearsal rooms. Renovation in 2007 saw the lobby fitted with plaster mouldings, highly polished stone tiles and a huge relief mural on the wall, while the theatre was decorated with scalloped peach-coloured walls, purple-upholstered seats and a bright-blue vinyl floor. Courtesy of Taschen
Inside North Korea, £40, published by Taschen (opens in new tab)
Charlotte Jansen is a journalist and the author of two books on photography, Girl on Girl (2017) and Photography Now (2021). She is commissioning editor at Elephant magazine and has written on contemporary art and culture for The Guardian, the Financial Times, ELLE, the British Journal of Photography, Frieze and Artsy. Jansen is also presenter of Dior Talks podcast series, The Female Gaze.
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