Besides being a good source of entertainment, the 2019 popular K-drama Crash Landing On You offers viewers a rare glimpse into the lifestyle and surroundings of North Korea and its people.
One of the world’s most secretive nations, the hermit kingdom operates on its own terms, with foreign influence not only frowned upon, but perpetrators caught listening to foreign broadcasts are subject to harsh punishment.
Despite all that, tourists are still allowed into the country, although their movements are strictly monitored, something North Korea tour leader James Scullin is well aware of.
Freely exploring the streets of Pyongyang in the evenings – after visiting permitted key attractions in the city – is not something that tourists can look forward to. That means they have quite a lot of time to spend in their hotels, exploring the facilities or conversing with the staff and their tour guides.
And that first gave Scullin the idea of a book that documents these hotels in terms of their historical architecture and unique interior design.
In Hotels Of Pyongyang, Scullin and award-winning photographer Nicole Reed visited 10 international hotels in the city that permit foreign visitors, capturing grand banquet halls, kitsch karaoke rooms and revolving restaurants that offer a bird’s eye view of the city.
They also visited the unfinished, futuristic-looking Ryugyong Hotel, which was first built three decades ago.
Launched online last July, the A4-sized book showcases a broad spectrum of North Korean designs, from historic Soviet-style exteriors to glistening, modern marble interiors.
In an email interview with StarLifestyle, Scullin gave an insight into the book and what he discovered while working on it.
“I find Soviet brutalist architecture fascinating. We simply don’t have that type of state-owned architecture in the West with the type of imposing, grand structures seen in highly centralised countries, ” said Melbourne-based Scullin, 37, who lived in China some years ago.
He added that while there has been much documentation of Soviet architecture in eastern Europe, the isolation of North Korea means that there has not been a lot of coverage of its particular architectural history.
“Simply put, I wanted to document these hotels. Despite periods of low tourist numbers, the hotels in Pyongyang are fully staffed all year round. I assume that even now with the Covid-19 border closure, the hotels in Pyongyang are being well maintained with full staffing.
“This means that even though the buildings are quite old, the North Koreans keep them in immaculate condition, preserving their historic look. I made the book so other people could witness this unseen aspect of North Korean design and architecture and its Soviet relics, ” said Scullin, who went to Pyongyang in April 2019, his eighth visit there, to work on the book.
The hotels’ facades are pretty much locked in time, defined by Soviet-style architecture from the 1970s and 80s.
“After the Korean War, up to 90% of Pyongyang was destroyed. The Russian army largely helped to rebuild the city, and their Soviet influence is clear, with large thoroughfares and countless monuments to the Party.
“This influence is also apparent in the style of the architecture as each hotel is built on a grand scale, mostly with concrete facades and large marble lobbies inside. Each hotel design is also quite unique and there is certainly no sense of the franchises that we are accustomed to in the West.
“A Russian tourist once commented to me that the hotels smelt like her childhood, ” shared Scullin.
Surprisingly, the interiors demonstrate more “colour and creativity”, a break away from the staid exteriors.
“Colour and sound play a large role in North Korean life. The soft pastel pinks and blues are seen throughout Pyongyang and the hotels are no exception. The same goes with sound – you hear music whether you’re indoors or outside.”
Scullin also noted a high level of detail in the interior design.
“Coloured fluorescent lights are fitted underneath tables that emit a soft glow of pink or blue on the floor. Some of the light fittings in the hotel dining halls feature hundreds of small lights that create a glowing pattern on the ceiling, while large murals are typically adorned on the dining hall walls, ” said Scullin, whose personal favourite is The Koryo, a luxurious hotel most visited by diplomats. Located in downtown Pyongyang, it boasts two revolving restaurants.
Hotels Of Pyongyang also depicts several photos of the hospitality staff, many of which were taken after much convincing.
“We took portraits of a lot of the hotel staff. They were quite reluctant to have their pictures taken at first, due to modesty mainly. We laughed a lot with them and the guides translated that we would do a good job making them look beautiful or handsome.
“But when we took the photos, they tend to have a serious expression on their face as having a straight face tends to be the norm when posing for a picture in North Korea.”
Overall, Scullin hopes the book will be able to offer a more balanced view of the country.
“There is such a high degree of creativity in the way the hotels are designed. That is a surprise, given that North Korea is such an authoritarian place with a seemingly top-down culture.
“Also, the country has been more or less culturally isolated for decades and the creativity seen in the hotel design is purely from North Korean minds, given the lack of external influences.
“North Korea is such a political place and people have very strong opinions about it. Through the book, I hope to present a neutral picture of the country, albeit through the restricted lens of hotels in Pyongyang, ” he said.