Monday, April 16, 2012

Views of Skyscraper News

It was supposed to open yesterday.

April 15, 2012.  Tax day in the United States.  The Ides of April.

Except it was supposed to open in Pyongyang, North Korea, as part of this past weekend's 100th anniversary celebrations of the birth of Kim Il Sung, father of that country's despotic Communist dynasty.

What is it?  Well, that depends on whom you ask.  Several years ago, Esquire dubbed it the "Hotel of Doom," an unfinished luxury hotel of a "brutalist" aesthetic (to use a slang architectural vernacular) in one of brutal Communism's final wastelands.  Derided for decades while its hulking, 105-story concrete shell decayed, unfinished, an Egyptian conglomerate has apparently slathered some sleek glass panels across its tetrahedronical form and come close to polishing it off.

Close, yet apparently still not in time for this weekend's pageantry, which included, among other bizarre flops, North Korea's self-destructing rocket.  As of today, there's still no word that the hotel managed to open on what would have been the latest deadline for a project doomed from the start.

Ryugyong Hotel, as it sat for years: just an enormous concrete shell.
Back in the 1980's, Ryugyong Hotel would have been the world's tallest hotel, had it been completed on its first official timetable.  But its construction stalled, after two years of heady - and hefty - concrete sculpting couldn't keep pace with dwindling financial and materiel infusions from the crumbling Soviet Union.  By the mid-1990's, after being abandoned for several years, experts were dubious that it could be salvaged.  Rumor had it that elevator shafts were crooked, concrete had been mixed inaccurately, and that being left open to the elements during North Korea's extreme temperatures for so long would make any reasonable attempts at finishing the project unlikely.

And they were right - at least when it comes to "reasonable."  A term which, of course, had already been stretched to the limits of its legitimacy, since this was a frivolous hotel being built in one of the world's most impoverished countries.  Skyscraper technology - like rocket technology - is not North Korea's strong suit.  Instead, oppression, deprivation, and severe order are North Korea's strong suit, even as the Ryugyong's new, glassy facade beams ever still lifelessly over the hapless residents of Pyongyang.

Impressive it may have always been, whether in the foreboding despair of its formerly unfinished shell, or the surprisingly modern stance with which its Egyptian contractors have managed to sheath it.  But in terms of meeting a need, when starvation is rampant across North Korea, wide boulevards are eerily devoid of life, no private corporations function north of the De-Militarized Zone, and the country is officially closed to non-Communistic tourism, does a 105-story hotel with a revolving restaurant qualify as progress?

Ryugyong Hotel with glass facade installed.
Estimations by experts in South Korea and other First World nations put the costs at salvaging the Ryugyong in the billions of dollars, a sizable chunk of what anybody can realistically identify as North Korea's economy.  Even if Orascom, the Egyptian firm which invested a minimum of $400 million to assume the project and install telecommunications equipment at its apex, manages to finish-out the interior into a lodging facility worthy of any star, will it ever achieve 100% occupancy?  On a regular, profitable basis?

Critics pan Orascom's inclusion of telecommunications equipment into the project as dubious, considering the fact that ordinary North Koreans are prohibited from owning cell phones or accessing the Internet.  Indeed, Pyongyang is not one of the world's major iPhone markets.  It's been suggested that the Ryugyong is simply an Orwellian icon for the relentless government spying and personal intrusions to which North Koreans have already become acclimated in their totalitarian regime.

If it ever gets built-out inside and furnished as a hotel, having a foreign telecommunications company helping foot the bill for its completion should make any potential customers think twice.  Who would assume that their every move inside the Ryugyong won't be watched meticulously via sophisticated cameras, sensors, and other bugging devices?  Even North Korea's own government elite, the folks Pyongyang will most likely recruit as guests for their charade at the Ryugyong, would probably prefer to spend their free time in their own apartments where they already know where the secret microphones are located.

The Shard, a glassy obelisk of sorts, in London
Oddly enough, the North Koreans, who have a variety of traditional alcoholic beverages they enjoy, may run into some stiff opposition if the executives at Egypt's Orascom impose strict Sharia standards to their towering investment.  Turns out, the latest controversial skyscraper being erected half a world away in London right now, the Shard, is owned by Qatari Muslims who have already restricted alcohol consumption in their yet-to-be-completed trophy.  It's made for some secretly difficult attempts to fill the building's lower floors with posh restaurants, since they make significant chunks of their profits from alcohol sales.

Fortunately for the Brits, the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, which also owns England's iconic Harrod's Department Store, is obtaining a special Islamic "dispensation" so it can sell alcohol in their home country during its hosting of the 2022 World Cup in Doha.  Maybe it can still do the same for its Shard.

And maybe Egypt can piggyback on the dispensation for the Ryugyong.

Last week, the Shard, designed by celebrity architect Renzo Piano, unofficially became the tallest building in Europe when the final steel framing for its superstructure was welded into place.  While it's easy to poke fun at the Ryugyong as being completely frivolous, the Shard is being constructed in a hot commercial office district in one of the most cosmopolitan cities on Earth.

As if, from out of nowhere, the Islamic domination of the world's haughty skyscraper race increases its reach from Pyongyang to London.  For them, the sky apparently is the limit.

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