To be named “Building of the Week” is a good thing, but to be named “Worst Building in the History of Mankind” by a major American lifestyle magazine might be an even more prestigious distinction. This week our building is both! It also will hold the title of tallest hotel in the world when it opens. Its story is a real winner: a dictatorship, a telecom company from Egypt, and a luxury hotelier from Germany come together in the spectacular concrete form of the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea, also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The country is one of the most isolated places in the world, with single-party rule by the Korean Workers Party (KWP): it is a totalitarian, family-run dictatorship.
The construction of the Ryugyong Hotel began in 1987. Its triumphant mountaintop-spaceship form, made from concrete languished, unclad and weathering for almost thirty years. Now, in an interesting twist, the German branch of Kempinski Hotels plans to open a hotel in the newly glass-covered building, in cooperation with the Chinese company Beijing Tourism Group. The completion of the building was undertaken by Orascom Telecom, an Egyptian company which is also contracted to run the majority of North Korea’s telecom network.
The hotel is 330 meters tall, with 105 stories, and it was originally designed to have 1,500 rooms. The first 150 of these – with more possibly to come – are located at the top of the structure, slated to open to the public in July 2013. However, tourism in the DPRK is currently limited to sanctioned tour operators for pre-approved visa holders only. A new façade and top area look to be complete, having cost an estimated 180 million dollars; the expanse of glass covering the enormous edifice is so perfect that it almost looks like a rendering.
The hotel’s development was enabled through a 400-million-dollar mobile phone license won by Orascom from the KWP. Both the mobile phone license and the tie-in for the hotel are uniquely North Korean: the country’s mobile phone network is a closed system, a necessity in a country that drastically limits any influence or communication from the rest of the world. International calls and free internet access are completely inaccessible from North Korean networks.
In a seeming contradiction to this exclusionary attitude, the hotel development is part of an effort to bring outside currency into the coffers of the DPRK through tourism. The country essentially has no currency viable outside of its borders. Though the DPRK is willing to open its borders to tour groups, and it even operates special souvenir shops that sell model products from the DPRK, it remains to be seen if this is signal of broader changes in the openness of the country in general.
So why exactly would a luxury hotelier team up with a telecom company to open a hotel of this size in North Korea, a country that has about 2,000 international tourists every year? Speculation. Press materials provided by Kempinski Hotels clearly state their company’s history of being first-to-market in Moscow and Beijing. Clearly Kempinski likes to bet on the opening of economies to the capitalist miracle, and it would seem that they have the odds in their favor so far. In the words of Kempinski AG CEO Reto Wittwer, via Bloomberg news: “This pyramid monster hotel will monopolize all the business in the city. I said to myself, we have to get this hotel if there is ever a chance, because this will become a money-printing machine if North Korea opens up.”
Though few visitors have been able to experience the built environments of the DPRK, Philip Meuser's Pyongyang Architectural Guide provides a nice peek inside. The guide consists of two volumes: one written by Meuser and one officially sanctioned by the KWP, full of glossy PR photos. Perhaps one day we will sit in the lobby of the Pyongyang Kempinski, guide in hand, sipping cocktails.