Inside that Mecca to reading can be found a glimpse behind the curtain of one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
The hermit kingdom of North Korea is headline news at the moment for its military bombast, but it’s long been a lure for another reason — it’s architecture.
Your correspondent once organised a trip to North Korea — and ironically, getting a visa to visit North Korea was easier than getting the visa waver I needed to visit the USA. Sadly a medical emergency killed off that trip, which had I taken it, would have killed me.
Some years later, some friends made the trip, and bought back a goodie bag of transport souvenirs from the capital’s underground railway.
But above ground, the city is rich in monumental architecture of a style that is both utterly unreal, and yet instantly recognizable… as the architecture of a dictator.
Huge buildings, wide roads — which thanks to the poverty of the regime are largely empty — massive statues to venerate the leadership. The buildings are there to feed the soul and help the people forget the hunger in their stomachs.
Where I failed to visit, the Guardian’s architecture and design critic Oliver Wainwright succeeded, and now a large book has been produced of his photos from the visit — and an exhibition of some of them is currently on at Foyles on Charing Cross Road.
It’s a mix of huge blown up images of oh-so-typical mosaics showing the noble peasants striving towards a greater future. Think Soviet Union or Maoist China and you’ll get the picture.
The rest are much smaller photos of more intimate spaces, by the standards of North Korea, such as the huge dining area in the tourist hotel, or the football funded room, or the smaller foyers.
The concert hall is noted for having been modernised recently with the 1960s flooring replaced with modern washable vinyl — an act that would send the UK’s heritage lobby into meltdown if it happened here.
It’s architecture to diminish the person, to make them meek and small, so that they are crushed by the overwhelming power of the state.
The exhibition is on the 5th floor at Foyles, next to the cafe, where people sit eating meals that many North Korean’s can only dream of.