Dictator kitsch is oddly consistent, from Hitler to Stalin and on to Mao and the Kim dynasty. Gargantuan stone buildings designed to crush the individual, broad avenues for parades, vast squares for rallies, towering monuments and oversized statuary. Add colorful posters of orgasmically excited workers and peasants, soldiers and rosy-cheeked kids hailing the beloved leader, whose portrait is ubiquitous. Albert Speer never got to transform Berlin and the loser in the White House has nothing to show but the gilded trumpery of his hotels and failed casinos. No wonder he is so keen to cozy up to Kim.

Oliver Wainwright, architecture critic of The Guardian newspaper in Britain, took a one-week guided tour of North Korea. Despite the close monitoring of official guides, he was able to take revealing photographs of the socialist fairyland of Pyongyang with its pastel towers and mind-numbing vacant spaces, plus a few glimpses of the bleak hinterland. His observations on this dystopia are as sharply focused as his images and one feels relief that he got out alive.

Lenin mocked the starry-eyed Westerners who flocked to Moscow in the 1920s to extol the regime even as the country was succumbing to famine and mass murder. Useful idiots, he called them. Wainwright is perfectly aware that he is in a Potemkin Village, a showcase for the regime’s elite, and he is a dispassionate observer, allowing the absurdities to speak for themselves. He notes the shoddy construction resulting from the race to complete every building in record time, and the ham-fisted attempts to create a distinctively Korean brand of modernism in a city master planned by a Moscow-trained architect.

Wainwright’s book is illuminating, and it saves the rest of us from the risk-prone ordeal of visiting the hermit kingdom. Instead, go to the Wende Museum in Culver City, to see the wickedly funny paintings of an artist who created propaganda posters in North Korea before defecting to the South.

Inside North Korea. Oliver Wainwright  (Taschen, $60)

Michael Webb

Author: Michael Webb

Michael Webb Hon. AIA/LA has authored more than twenty books on architecture and design, most recently Moving Around: A Lifetime of Wandering, Architects’ Houses, and Building Community: New Apartment Architecture, while contributing essays to many more. He is also a regular contributor to leading journals in the United States and Europe. Growing up in London, he was an editor at The Times and Country Life, before moving to the US, where he directed film programs for the AFI and curated a Smithsonian exhibition on Hollywood.

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