In 1987, ground was broken on a grand new hotel in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang. The pyramid-shaped, supertall skyscraper was to exceed 1,000 feet in height, and was designed to house at least 3,000 rooms, as well as five revolving restaurants with panoramic views.
The Ryugyong Hotel – named after a historical moniker for Pyongyang meaning “capital of willows” – was supposed to open just two years later. But it never did.
While the structure reached its planned height in 1992, it stood windowless and hollow for another 16 years, its naked concrete exposed, like a menacing monster overlooking the city. During that time the building, which dwarfs everything around it, earned itself the nickname “Hotel of Doom.”
The hotel has since been clad in metal and glass, and was later fitted with LED lights to turn it into a colorful nighttime spectacle. Construction work has started and stopped many times, fueling constant speculation over whether it will ever open to guests.
Still closed to this day, the Ryugyong Hotel is the world’s tallest unoccupied building.
A Cold War pawn
The Ryugyong Hotel was a product of the Cold War rivalry between US-supported South Korea and the Soviet-backed North. The year before construction commenced, a South Korean firm had built what was then the world’s tallest hotel, the Westin Stamford in Singapore. The South’s capital Seoul was meanwhile getting ready to host the 1988 Summer Olympics, with the country transitioning to a capitalist democracy.
As part of North Korea’s political response to the South’s achievements, Pyongyang organized the 1989 World Festival of Youth and Students, a sort of socialist version of the Olympics. The country planned to build the massive hotel just in time for the event, stealing the world record away from the South.
But due to engineering problems it wasn’t finished in time for the festival. The government had already poured billions into the event, building a new stadium, expanding Pyongyang’s airport and paving new roads. That put a strain on the hermit state’s frail economy, while the Soviet Union’s collapse left it deprived of vital aid and investment.
North Korea was bound for an economic crisis. Although the external structure had been completed, construction was halted in 1992 and a crane was abandoned on top of the building.
A concrete structure
The building consists of three wings, each sloped at a 75-degree angle, converging into a cone encasing the top 15 floors, which are intended for restaurants and observation decks.
The pyramidal shape is about more than aesthetics – it’s because the Ryugyong, unusually for a skyscraper, is made of reinforced concrete rather than steel.
“It was built like this because the upper levels needed to be lighter,” said Calvin Chua, a Singapore-based architect who has extensively researched Pyongyang’s urbanism, in a phone interview. “They didn’t have advanced construction materials, so it was built entirely in concrete. You can’t achieve a slender tower that way, you need to have a massive base with a tapered top.
“If you look at the history of construction in North Korea since the end of the Korean War, most of the buildings are made of concrete: That’s the material that they are familiar with, and the technology transfer between Soviet or communist states is purely based around concrete.”
According to Chua, who has worked in North Korea with local architects, the Ryugyong may have been designed to look like a mountain, not a pyramid, because mountains play an important role in the country’s symbolism. The official biography of Kim Jong Il, the deceased father of current ruler Kim Jong Un, states that he was born in a secret military camp on Mount Paektu, the tallest mountain in the Korean peninsula that is depicted in the national emblem of North Korea. (Many historians believe Kim Jong Il was actually born in Russia.)
“It’s a very iconic building, but I think it’s important to consider where it sits in relation to the entire city fabric of Pyongyang,” said Chua. “It’s like a sort of obelisk. If you think of the obelisk in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square, it provides a [beacon] for the city apart from its symbolism. The Ryugyong is similar, but it’s also more symbolically defined.”
A second start
In 2008, after a 16-year pause, construction unexpectedly resumed, as part of a deal with Orascom, an Egyptian conglomerate that was contracted to build North Korea’s 3G network.
The rusty old crane that had stood atop the building for two decades was finally removed. Workers aided by Egyptian engineers installed glass and metal panels to the concrete structure at the cost of $180 million, glazing it completely and giving the building a polished, sleek appearance. The project, completed in 2011, fueled speculation about the hotel’s opening. In late 2012, German luxury hotel group Kempinski announced that the Ryugyong would partially open under its management in mid-2013, but then pulled out a few months later, stating that entering the market was “not currently possible.”