Inside North Korea: a pastel mirage of sci-fi architecture

Rungrado May Day Stadium in North Korea
Designed to resemble the unfurling petals of a magnolia flower, or a parachute that has just settled on the ground, the Rungrado May Day Stadium is said to be the largest in the world, with a capacity of 114,000. Courtesy of Taschen
(Image credit: Oliver Wainwright)

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


(Image credit: Oliver Wainwright)

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.

North Korea’s East Pyongyang Grand Theatre with scalloped peach-coloured walls, purple-upholstered seats and a bright-blue vinyl floor

(Image credit: Oliver Wainwright)

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

Students’ and Children’s Palace in North Korea

With 500 rooms covering an area of 50,000 sq m, the Students’ and Children’s Palace was built in 1963 as a place for extracurricular activities after school, with a 1,000 seat theatre, an indoor stadium, library and rooms for science, literature, art, industry and agriculture. Courtesy of Taschen

(Image credit: Oliver Wainwright)

The planetarium at Three Revolutions Exhibition park in North Korea

The planetarium forms part of the Three Revolutions Exhibition park, a grand campus built in 1992 to showcase the ideological, technological and cultural achievements of North Korea, from heavy industry and mining to agriculture and electronics. Courtesy of Taschen

(Image credit: Oliver Wainwright)

Begun in 1987 but still unopened, the Ryugyong Hotel in North Korea

Begun in 1987 but still unopened, the Ryugyong Hotel was intended to house 3,000 bedrooms and five revolving restaurants. It stood on the Pyongyang skyline for years as a concrete carcass, nicknamed the ‘hotel of doom’, but was finally clad with mirrored glass in 2012 as part of a deal with an Egyptian telecoms company. Courtesy of Taschen

(Image credit: Oliver Wainwright)

Swimming pool and diving board at The Changgwang Health and Recreation Complex, North Korea

The Changgwang Health and Recreation Complex was the city’s flagship health centre when it opened in 1980. Covering an area of almost 40,000 sq m, it contains a sauna, bathhouse, swimming pools and hair salons. In a futuristic touch, the diving boards are reached by a mechanical elevator in a shaft faced with smoked glass. Courtesy of Taschen

(Image credit: Oliver Wainwright)

The hair salon at Changgwang Health and Recreation Complex, North Korea

The hair salon at Changgwang Health and Recreation Complex, where customers can choose from a range of officially sanctioned haircuts. Courtesy of Taschen

(Image credit: Oliver Wainwright)

INFORMATION

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.