Pyongyang takes its architecture very seriously

‘Let us turn the whole country into a socialist fairyland!’ urges one of the 310 official patriotic slogans published by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea this year. Let us usher in a great golden age of construction,’ declares another, ‘by thoroughly applying the Party’s idea on architecture!’

Despots tend to have a thing for buildings, and North Korea is no exception. Indeed, its stance on the built environment is a good deal more sophisticated than many dictatorships, coming complete with a 170-page treatise, On Architecture, penned by former leader Kim Jong-il himself. The text reads a little like one of Prince Charles’ outbursts, a mix of straightforward common sense and unbridled lunacy, written with a keen sense of urgency.

‘Architects must make strenuous efforts to create masterpieces,’ Kim exhorts, explaining that the leader’s statue must be at the centre of all architectural creation as the fundamental driver for urban development.

‘The leader’s statue must be erected in the best part of the heart of the city, where people can look up at it from every spot in the city, and as large a crowd as possible can gather,’ he says. ‘This is the basic condition for harmonising all the city’s architectural space with the focus on the leader’s statue and ensuring that the statue plays the leading role in the architectural formation of the city.’

The leader’s statue must be erected in the best part of the heart of the city, where people can look up at it from every spot

After spending a week in Pyongyang this month, I can vouch that his word has been followed to the letter. Utterly flattened by US bombs during the Korean War, the city was entirely built from scratch from 1953 according to the principles set out by the founder of the North Korean dynasty, Kim Il-sung. It is a typically Soviet conception (built largely by Russian-trained architects) of grand axial boulevards terminating in monumental public buildings, a painting or statue of the leader enshrined at the centre of it all, their grandeur magnified by theatrical forced perspectives and marching colonnades. But from the 1980s onwards, things begin to get a lot more interesting, with some wildly experimental structures. The national ice rink, completed in 1982, could be a distant cousin of Frederick Gibberd’s Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral – Paddy’s Wigwam interpreted as a steroidal concrete teepee. Then there’s the gargantuan May Day stadium, its vaulted metal shell billowing like a parachute caught in full flight, recently refurbished and optimistically adorned with the Olympic rings and FIFA logos. And of course the magnificently evil Ryugyong ‘Hotel of Doom’ looms above it all, a pyramidal spaceship begun in the 80s, and recently clad in mirrored glass, but which remains a concrete ruin within.

In 1989 Pyongyang hosted the World Festival of Youth and Students, a kind of socialist youth Olympics, for which it built an entire new urban quarter. The sports buildings included a gymnastics arena shaped like a set of dumbbells and a badminton stadium modelled on the arc of a flying shuttlecock.

It is a kind of representational architecture that today’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is clearly keen to continue. On our tour we marvel at his new Dolphinarium, a building shaped like a big white whale, where Chinese dolphins perform tricks. There are a cluster of tapering orange and green apartment towers shooting up on the riverfront, to house university academics, designed ‘in the shape of an intellectual’s brush’ our guide tells us. The new cylindrical Changjon Street apartment towers, nicknamed ‘Pyonghattan’ by foreign diplomats, could be a stack of coins – perhaps a symbol of the huge amounts of Chinese cash now flowing into the city, which is fast seeing it change from a sleepy time-warp to something resembling the outskirts of Shenzhen. The dream of a socialist fairyland is certainly well on its way, as long as you don’t look too closely behind the shiny new facades.

Oliver Wainwright is architecture critic at the Guardian. Read him here every other month and at

Cutting edge designs

Kim Jong-il appears to have been an enthusiastic champion of participatory design and public consultation: ‘We must encourage the masses to take an active part in the work of architectural creation,’ he wrote. ‘We must adopt various methods such as the masses’ joint evaluation or assessment of draft design plans and make it a rule to assemble their opinions, analyse them, sum them up and incorporate them in architecture.’ He failed to add that anyone who didn’t agree, like the architect of the new Pyongyang airport which his son and successor Kim Jong-un took against, would be swiftly executed.