A rare glimpse inside the candy-colored ‘socialist fairyland’

Editor’s Note: Oliver Wainwright is the architecture and design critic at The Guardian. The views expressed are his own.

Pyongyang, North Korea CNN  — 

“Let us turn the whole country into a socialist fairyland!” declares one of North Korea’s 310 official patriotic slogans published this year on behalf of the country’s young leader, Marshall Kim Jong-un.

It’s an unlikely sentiment to be found alongside mottos urging a stronger army, better harvests and the crushing of US imperialists.

But, judging by some of the new buildings and spaces I found on a recent tour of Pyongyang, Kim is deadly serious about transforming the Hermit Kingdom into a kitsch pastel-colored fantasy world.

To begin with, there’s the recurring color palette. Most western visitors who come to North Korea on these strictly-controlled trips, accompanied by three official guides at all times, expect to find a drab grey world of crumbling concrete and monumental Stalinist slabs (of which there are, of course, plenty).

But what stands out is the color – both inside and out. Apartment buildings are painted in mustard and terracotta, turquoise and baby blue.

New towers springing up along the riverfront are dressed in lurid costumes of orange and green tiles, or decorated with spiralling candy stripes. From the top of the Juche Tower in the centre of Pyongyang, the view looks like someone has emptied a packet of fruit pastilles out across the city.

The emphasis on color continues inside the buildings, where interiors appear to be conceived as carefully composed stage sets. The spaces tend to be symmetrically aligned along a central axis, directing your gaze to what lies at the end – invariably an image or statue of one of the beaming leaders.

The effect is no accident. As Kim Jong-il wrote in his 160-page architectural treatise, which acts as a manual for all new development: “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.”

In all of the public buildings we visited, from libraries and stadiums to grand theatres and concert halls, the entrance halls were always dominated by a vast painting or mosaic of the “eternal president” Kim Il-sung and his son, the “eternal chairman” Kim Jong-il, usually flanked by vases of their respective flowers – the pink blossoms of the Kimilsungia orchid and the red petals of the Kimjongilia begonia, colors that are often picked up in the paintings’ dramatically swirling skies.

The same colors spill out into the rooms, glowing from the new vinyl floors, pastel-painted walls and brightly upholstered furnishings, thereby extending the symbolic space of the leaders throughout the entire building.

The oranges and yellows of the fiery sunsets and blues and purples of the momentous skies seem to saturate every bit of the surroundings. As Kim Jong-il put it, “This will help people to look up at the leader’s image at all times and inspire them with the pride and consciousness that they are happy in the leader’s embrace.”

It is interior design as anaesthetic – a consciousness use of kindergarten color schemes to distract from the reality of mass poverty, food shortages and deteriorating standards of education and healthcare that is crippling the country outside the showcase mirage of Pyongyang.