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It’s a passport stamp few can claim—in fact, if you aren’t Dennis Rodman, chances are you’ll never step foot in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, no matter how intrepid a traveler you are. So it makes sense that the country called the world’s most secretive has been a source of ceaseless curiosity, even as defectors describe the horrors of state-backed slavery and starvation at the same time leader Kim Jong Un embarks on an unprecedented new relationship with the U.S. President.
The latest look from the oppressive regime comes with the new book, Inside North Korea (available from Taschen on August 15), by Oliver Wainwright, architecture and design critic for British newspaper The Guardian. Armed with a camera, he traveled behind the border for a week in July 2015 as part of a tourist group organized by a Beijing-based travel company.
The photographs resulting from his visit are more than a tourist’s scrapbook, as Wainwright looks at the capital city of Pyongyang through the eyes of its idiosyncratic architecture (Wainwright himself was trained as an architect). “My photographs are an attempt to offer a glimpse inside North Korea,” Wainwright said in a statement, “revealing Pyongyang to be a place of candy-colored apartment buildings and pastel-hued interiors—a series of precisely composed stage sets that could be straight out of a Wes Anderson movie.” (Parallels to the twee auteur’s oeuvre are easy to see from the plum seats and teal rugs of an ornate theater to the rigid symmetry and flat artifice of an empty stadium—always under the eye of framed photos of the ruling Kim dynasty.)
That otherworldly effect created by the colorful interiors and cityscapes is a direct result of their making, Wainwright poses in the tome’s title essay. After the capital was destroyed in the Korean War, Pyongyang was rebuilt in 1953 as a symbol of national ideology, based on the plans of Kim Jong Hui, an architect trained in the Soviet style in Russia. The rapid development has continued as Kim Jong Un has made growth his mission with the propaganda slogan: “Let us turn the whole country into a socialist fairyland.” The result is what Wainwright describes as a “fascinating stage set” of eerily empty show spaces through which “the country’s unique attitude to space, power, and ideology can be understood.”
Over the course of more than 240 pages and photographs, with text in English, French, and German, Wainwright takes a look at North Korea’s past and present through the physical evidence of its architecture at all scales: city views and housing, monuments, museums and the arts, sports and education, leisure and hospitality, the Pyongyang Metro. It’s an interesting approach toward understanding an otherwise impenetrable nation, one where architectural achievements can be seen as an intentional public-facing propaganda effort.
After all, Prime Minister Pak Pong Ju declared that the 2017 completion of a massive apartment complex was “more powerful than a hundred nuclear warheads.” But including a 70-story tower built in a suspiciously short 74 days, that achievement may have been just another example of what Wainright calls in the essay “Pyongyang’s candy-colored mirage.”