What The Future Looks Like To North Koreans Who Have Never Left

What does a future imagined by someone living in a place that’s been cut off from the rest of the world since 1948 look like? Approximately 1958.

North Korea is the least visited country in the world, but Koryo Tours, one of the only companies to bring foreign travelers there, is trying to change that. One of its latest projects: Inviting a North Korean architect to imagine the future of local design for travel.


The Jetsons-style results include hovercraft hotel rooms and cone-shaped mountain villas connected by ski slopes. Nothing looks like it would be that out of place in a 1950s magazine, down to details like an old-fashioned rotary phone. This is what the future looks like to someone living in a place that’s been cut off from the rest of the world since 1948.

Every architect in North Korea is educated at a state-run school, without access to the Internet or other global media, and has little sense of how the field is changing. Koryo Tours tries to help by occasionally bringing some new design books from the outside world.

“We have developed an architectural tour to North Korea, and take in books on contemporary architecture when we go, which is one way that the architects there get to see new works,” says Nick Bonner, founder of the company. A small number of North Korean architects are also allowed to study abroad, though the anonymous architect who worked on this project has never left the country.

At Bonner’s request, each of the designs aimed for sustainability, though the architect also had limited knowledge of current sustainable design techniques. “They are not aware of the latest technology, which shows in some of the designs,” Bonner says. “However, the designs using wood and traditional construction methods do show great imagination of reusing natural products in a traditional way–like making use of natural cooling.”

One design, for a “silk cooperative,” an artisans’ commune that travelers would visit, uses solar power, wind turbines, and traditional Korean spinning wheels. Another, the Birds’ Nest Villa, focuses on building North Korean-style community. “We all are in the nest together and have to learn to be together harmoniously,” the architect writes.

Though the designs were meant to be speculative, Bonner says he’s interested in the possibility of building a set of the villas. “I would very much like to construct the Birds’ Nest Riverside Guesthouse, with its cantilevered rooms giving three-sided views to the woodland,” he says. “If anyone wants to work on them, and send over models, we would be happy to pass them on.”


This fall, Koryo will give a tour of some of Pyongyang’s existing architecture, including the uber-kitsch Chongnyon Hotel, built for a “world festival of communist youth” in the 1980s, and the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

“It is not just the individual architecture there that is remarkable,” Bonner says. “Pyongyang was totally reconstructed following the Korean War. It’s not only individual buildings that are of interest, but the ‘master plan’ for the city’s reconstruction as a modern socialist utopia.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.