Beijing has erected a dizzying array of striking architectural landmarks in preparation for this month’s Summer Games. Roughly 500 miles east of Beijing, in an aging city in North Korea, a similar attempt to capitalize on Olympic tourism two decades ago met a different end.
Hoping to lure travelers from Seoul, South Korea, who were attending the 1988 Summer Games—while also preparing to host the 1989 World Festival of Youth and Students— North Korea reportedly hired a firm called Baikdoosan Architects and Engineers to build a 4-million-square-foot, 3,000-room hotel on a hilltop overlooking the country’s capital, Pyongyang. The 105-story, rocket-shaped building—dubbed Ryugyong, or Capital of Willows—was to be a world-class destination, with luxury suites, casinos and seven revolving restaurants. At 1,082 feet in height, it would have been the tallest single-use hotel in the world, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. Some estimates put the project’s cost at $750 million.
But Ryugyong wasn’t finished in time for the Olympics. Then, in 1992, construction came to a halt when the government ran short on funding. The building’s concrete skeleton has loomed over Pyongyang ever since, a dismal reminder of failed ambitions. Once destined to become a superlative hotel, Ryugyong is now the tallest abandoned building in the world.
North Korea became tight-lipped about the project and allegedly removed Ryugyong from official Pyongyang maps. Its secrecy has only spurred international interest. The hotel has inspired Web sites, such as ryugyong.org, and is featured in several videos on YouTube.com. In June 2005, Italy’s Domus magazine put the building on its cover, after organizing a competition with the Politechnic of Milan that asked architects to submit ideas for hotel. This past January, Esquire magazine’s Eva Hagberg called it “the worst building in the world.”
Now, as Seoul once again prepares for international attention—after being named World Design Capital 2010—the Institute for Far Eastern Studies reports that North Korea plans to revive work on its monster building with the help of the Egypt-based development outfit Orascom Group. This report, however, picked up by various news outlets, appears to be false. “Orascom is not related to or involved in operations or hotel developments in North Korea,” says Mamdouh Abdel Wahab, the company’s director of investor relations.
For those fascinated with the “Phantom Pyramid,” as some have called Ryugyong, the rumor might be a case of wishful instead of rational thinking. Even if the government of North Korea—where 25 percent of the population faces famine, according to the United Nation’s World Food Program—had the estimated $300 million needed to finish Ryugyong, it could encounter big obstacles. First and foremost, it would need to repair an enormous structural frame that has been exposed to the elements for 20 years. “That can be tricky with a concrete building,” explains architect Eric Howeler, AIA, author of Skyscraper: Vertical Now. Plus there is no guarantee that the hotel would be profitable. Just 2,000 Westerners visited North Korea in 2007— a fraction of the number needed to keep the “Hotel of Doom” in business for the long haul, let alone fill it on a single night.