SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea’s phantom hotel is stirring back to life. Once dubbed by Esquire magazine as “the worst building in the history of mankind”, the 105-storey Ryugyong Hotel is back under construction after a 16-year lull in the capital of one of the world’s most reclusive and destitute countries.
According to foreign residents in Pyongyang, Egypt’s Orascom group has recently begun refurbishing the top floors of the three-sided pyramid-shaped hotel whose 330-metre (1,083 ft) frame dominates the Pyongyang skyline.
The firm has put glass panels into the concrete shell, installed telecommunications antennas — even though the North forbids its citizens to own mobile phones — and put up an artist’s impression of what it will look like.
An official with the group said its Orascom Telecom subsidiary was involved in the project but gave no details.
The hotel consists of three wings rising at 75 degree angles capped by several floors arranged in rings supposed to hold five revolving restaurants and an observation deck.
A creaky building crane has for years sat unused at the top of the 3,000-room hotel in a city where tourists are only occasionally allowed to visit.
“It is not a beautiful design. It carries little iconic or monumental significance, but sheer muscular and massive presence,” said Lee Sang Jun, a professor of architecture at Yonsei University in Seoul.
The communist North started construction in 1987, in a possible fit of jealousy at South Korea, which was about to host the 1988 Summer Olympics and show off to the world the success of its rapidly developing economy.
A concrete shell built by North Korea’s Paektu Mountain Architects & Engineers emerged over the next few years. A proud North Korea put a likeness of the hotel on postage stamps and boasted about the structure in official media.
According to intelligence sources, then North Korean leader Kim Il-sung saw the hotel as a symbol of his big dreams for the state he founded, while his son and current leader Kim Jong-il was a driving force in its construction.
But by 1992, worked was halted. The North’s main benefactor the Soviet Union had dissolved a year earlier and funding for the hotel had vanished. For a time, the North airbrushed images of the Ryugyong Hotel from photographs.
As the North’s economy took a deeper turn for the worse in the 1990s the empty shell became a symbol of the country’s failure, earning nicknames “Hotel of Doom” and “Phantom Hotel”.
Yonsei’s Lee and other architects said there were questions raised about whether the hotel was structurally sound and a few believed completing the structure could cause it to collapse.
It would cost up to $2 billion to finish the Ryugyong Hotel and make it safe, according to estimates in South Korean media. That is equivalent to about 10 percent of the North’s annual economic output.
Bruno Giberti, associate head of California Polytechnic State University’s Department of Architecture, said the project was typical of what has been produced recently in many cities trying to show their emerging wealth by constructing gigantic edifices that were not related in scale to anything else around them.
“If this is the worst building in the world, the runners up are in Vegas and Shanghai,” said Giberti.
Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Alex Richardson