Arts, Culture & Media

A glimpse of North Korea's surprisingly cute interior decorating style

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Rendering of an architectural project from the Paektusan Academy of Architecture in Pyongyang 

North Korea's seclusion makes pictures from inside the country irresistible novelties.

But while the country's borders are tightly controlled, visiting isn't as difficult as you might expect. Almost anyone with enough cash can book a tour (although the US State Department advises against it) and people even travel there to run in an annual marathon. Officially, North Korea says it hopes to attract 2 million visitors by 2020.

One of the tours available is an architectural survey of the nation's capital, Pyongyang. Oliver Wainwright, architecture and design critic for The Guardian, recently visited the country with that itinerary.

He's been posting photos of interiors of the city's buildings, and wrote a nice piece about his visit. It's a fascinating glimpse inside a closed society. The empty interiors look like they're part of an abandoned theme park from the 1980s.

A view of the Changgwang Health and Recreation Complex, Pyongyang (1981-86)

A view of the Changgwang Health and Recreation Complex, Pyongyang (1981-86)

The National Drama Theater in Pyongyang
The National Drama Theater in Pyongyang

Wainwright notes that pastel colors appear everywhere in the city and calls the aesthetic "kindergarten kitsch" — "the logical next step for a regime intent on projecting an image of carefree prosperity" that is also "a powerful tool for the state to infantilise its people."

But unlike Disneyland, the sparse design elements have a restraint that would appeal to many a minimalist and a simplicity that has a stark charm. Pyongyang owes much of its crisp new construction to the fact that most of the city truly is new: after an aggressive bombing campaign by the US during the Korean war, the city was rebuilt starting in the 1950s. Even buildings made after that time have been refurbished since, like the May Day stadium. Originally completed in 1989 for the Arirang Mass Games (an elaborate gymnastics and artistic festival), the stadium was converted into a soccer venue last year.

An interior of the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium (1989, renovated 2014
An interior of the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium (1989, renovated 2014)(Oliver Wainwright/Tumblr)

Rungrado 1st of May Stadium (1989, renovated 2014)
Rungrado 1st of May Stadium (1989, renovated 2014)

Wainwright writes, "In every refurbished building we visit, there is a peculiarly consistent style of preschool colour schemes and shiny synthetic surfaces, the pastel palettes and axial symmetry giving an eerie feeling of walking into a Wes Anderson film set, or a life-size Polly Pocket toy."

The decor certainly has a child-like quality, both in the color palate as well as in how each room has been pared down to a few essential elements, like a dollhouse. The photos make a very strange vacation album.

You can see more of Wainwright's pictures on his Tumblr here

This story was first published by PRI's Studio 360.