I don’t know if anybody reading this has ever visited skyscrapercity.com. I feel as if you probably haven’t—it’s a bit of a niche internet destination. Whilst admittedly more acceptable than anything pornographic, skyscraper enthusiast forums are still not exactly the kind of site you want to be caught browsing on. In essence, the website allows members with names like i_love_supertalls and GeoDude to follow the daily progress of their favourite skyscraper project. Those who live nearby offer pictures of construction taken on their mobile phones and those further away offer commentary and words of encouragement. The projects they follow are divided into highrises (less than 100-200m,) skyscrapers (200-300m) and supertalls (the big daddies at more than 300m—and hence i_love_supertalls’ chosen appellation.) Like I said, it’s kind of a niche destination.
As a former architecture student I have at times searched the website for photos of buildings and places to use in my own projects. There are some exotic corners to be found, including a thread dedicated to photos of animals in urban settings, or this strange one where you have to guess the city that the photo has come from. But on a recent visit attention was caught by an entry into the coveted supertalls section from North Korea—and, my interest piqued by the unusual country of origin, I clicked on in.
Sure enough the thread (now on the way to it’s fifth birthday) has been obsessively documenting the construction of the bizarre, pyramidal Ryugyong hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea. At 330m, this building will stand as the tallest hotel in the world. How the extensive photo documentation of the building’s progress is smuggled out of one of the world’s last remaining totalitarian states is anybody’s guess, but I doubt heavily that it’s in any way legal. Regardless, the thread has an active and lively community discussing the latest developments on the cladding, arguing about it’s depiction in a North Korean videogame, and generally having a great time following the construction of what is in effect the largest structure built by a totalitarian state in the history of the world. Genuinely, the internet never ceases to surprise.
But before we get further into this long-distance digital devotion to buildings of dubious political association, some background on this bizarre, and slightly appalling, building.
Its construction actually began way back in 1987 on the command of Kim Jong-Un’s grandfather, Kim Il-Sung. Initiated to outdo the neighbouring 1988 Seoul Olympics, the plan backfired when, following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the funds required for it’s construction totally dried up. Looming on the skyline of Pyongyang for over sixteen years as an ominous concrete shell, it was assumed that the project would eventually be demolished. An inspection by a European delegation in the 90’s highlighted poor quality concrete and crooked elevated shafts among numerous seemingly irreparable structural issues facing the hotel. And with a state more interested on spending what remained
of it’s wealth on botched missile tests, any rescue seemed unlikely.
To the world’s surprise however (and to our forum member’s complete delight) work resumed on the building in mid 2008. Befittingly, for a building shaped like a pyramid, the rescue funds apparently came from the Egyptian telecoms company Orascom, who is reportedly allowed to run a mobile phone network in the country in return for their investment. In the space of a few months the dull concrete was shining with new external glass panels and by mid 2011 the building was finally made waterproof, after twenty four years. Whilst information is predictably difficult to come by, the interiors are apparently due for completion by June this year, when the international hotel operator Kempinski will officially move in. Quite who will be staying there when the hotels 1500 bed capacity neatly matches the number of foreign tourists the North Korea typically receives in year is a question you could be forgiven for asking.
But concerns like this are of little interest to GeoDude et al. In fact, their indifference to the political system that lies behind their ‘supertall’ is striking. Whilst some ‘trolls’ frequent the discussion suggesting that the skyscraper might be a dubious political symbol or a waste of resources they tend to be roundly decried or told unironically to leave politics at the door. Enamoured as they are with the building’s progress, it’s size and it’s dramatic presence on the skyline of the Pyongyang, they are content not to think about the oppressive and violent government that is its patron.
I could at this point be accused of being pious, or of taking the internet pastimes of nerdy enthusiasts too seriously, but their attitude raises an ethical question that architects must face with every new project. Simply put, who is my patron and how much should I care?
In the case of Ryugyong the ethical appraisal of the architecture is relatively clear cut—working for comic-book evil one-party states is a relatively easy no-call. But in other situations the judgements are more complex. Is it ethical to build for large corporations? For millionaires? Is good architecture worth it whatever it takes?
For, like it or not, architects depend on the patronage of the rich and powerful to realise their buildings. The sheer complexity and expense of construction means that it is the prerogative of those with substantial means and sometimes questionable agendas. Behind every Renaissance masterpiece lies a wealthy Florentine banking dynasty cementing its control over public life, and we have Emperor Napoleon’s riot control strategy to thank for the boulevards of Paris. If we were to deprive the world from beautiful buildings funded from sketchy sources or for vain or oppressive ends, there might sadly be few left.
The skyscrapercity forum-goers’ total pre-occupation with the architectural object to the exclusion of any other concern is one slightly extreme response to the question of whether to build. Their breathless enthusiasm, which might be forgiven in some quarters if the outcome was an architectural masterpiece, is, in this instance, easy to condemn. The Ryugyong hotel is a mess: kitsch hybrid of a Bond villain’s lair and cheap resort, it can make no pretensions to architectural quality. But the judgements are not always so easy.