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> architecture
Lifestyle
Asia’s Craziest Buildings

A ranking of Asia’s five most spectacularly strange buildings, from the quirky to the downright ugly to the utterly forsaken.

By Newley Purnell

Posted: March 20, 2007


IN MANY RESPECTS, Asia is at the forefront of world engineering: the region is home to the world’s current tallest building—Taipei 101—and the fastest train on the face of the earth, Shanghai’s Maglev. And many more ambitious projects are under way. But in addition to its ability to build gargantuan, sophisticated constructions, Asia also seems to have a penchant for producing bizarre structures. Here’s a ranking of Asia’s five most spectacularly strange buildings, a list of follies, failures, and fiascos, from the quirky to the downright ugly to the utterly forsaken.

1. The Ryugyong Hotel, Pyongyang, Korea

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WELCOME TO PYONGYANG. Pay no attention to that enormous, unfinished pyramid you see over there! Kim Jong Il’s hermetic, totalitarian cult of personality—perhaps the most bizarre city in the world’s most bizarre state—is a fitting place to find Asia’s weirdest construction. The Ryugyong Hotel is much like the North Korean regime itself: it’s monolithic, unstable, and menacing. Construction began on the building in 1987; it was abandoned in 1992, presumably because funding ran out. Perhaps due to bad concrete used in its initial construction, some think it’ll never be open as it’s currently designed. To this day, a crane sits at the top, 330 meters above Pyongyang, a dormant antenna perched on the half-built, ghostly hull. The edifice lacks windows, fixtures, and fittings; that it was never finished didn’t stop the government from adding it to maps and official currency, or from manipulating it in official images so that it appears to be lit up at night. Why would an isolationist state like North Korea—a country with perhaps the world’s tightest controls on tourism—undertake the construction of a hotel with 3,000 rooms? One can only guess. “There is nothing more uncommon than common sense,” said Frank Lloyd Wright. Lord only knows what he’d say if he laid eyes on the decrepit Ryugyong Hotel.

2. The Ocean Dome, Miyazaki, Japan

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FROM THE NATION that gave the world chindogu—or the art of creating useless inventions—comes the Miyazaki Ocean Dome, the world’s largest indoor water park, at 300 meters long and 100 meters wide. It has a retractable roof that, when closed, displays an enormous mural of a blue sky. The internal temperature is kept at 30 degrees Celsius. It has a volcano that spits fire on the hour. A wave machine churns the surf predictably. The “sand” is crushed white marble. And it is an absolute abomination—not because it’s a structural failure, but because it succeeds at its purpose of providing a sanitized, ultra-safe, utterly ridiculous beach experience: no bugs, no undertow, no pollution. Worse yet: it’s built within spitting distance of a real beach. Why, Japan, why? Just because you can build it doesn’t mean you should.

3. The National Grand Theater, Beijing, China

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IN ADDITION TO GIVING the world the wacky Oriental Pearl Tower, the Middle Kingdom is also slated to produce what will soon be one of the world’s oddest constructions. But rather than going up in Shanghai, this one’s being built in the comparatively staid Beijing, long known for its drab Stalinist architecture. The National Grand Theater—or, as it’s more commonly known, The Egg—will open in time for the 2008 Olympics; it will resemble something straight off the set of a sci-fi flick. The 2,400-seat opera house’s semi-transparent, dome-shaped exterior consists of titanium and glass, and the whole thing is designed to appear as if it’s floating above a man-made lake, under which visitors will walk when entering. The Egg, which was designed by French architect Paul Andreu, has drawn criticism from local people who feel its brash design is insensitive given its location, near Tiananmen Square.

4. The Oriental Pearl Tower, Shanghai, China.

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IF THIS IS WHAT A SYMBOL of the new China looks like, then you may wish to shield your eyes. Completed in 1995, Shanghai’s tacky Oriental Pearl Tower looms some 468 meters (1,535 feet) over the bank of Huangpu River, making it the tallest tower in Asia and the third tallest in the world. It’s design is supremely garish: It features 11 spheres—or pearls—of varying size that are supposed to look as if they’re dropping down onto a jade plate—aka the river. (Yes, it’s a stretch—the whole conceit is based on a Tang Dynasty poem). At night, all lit up in its multiple colors, the construction resembles nothing more than a hideous syringe pointing skyward. The Oriental Pearl Tower’s saving grace, however, is that due to its supreme clunkiness, many Shanghainese seem to have rallied around it, figuring that it may be a monstrosity, but at least it’s their monstrosity.

5. Suvarnabhumi International Airport, Bangkok, Thailand

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NOTE TO ENGINEERS WORLDWIDE: Never, ever build an airport on a place that locals refer to as “cobra swamp.” Despite it’s blinged-out blue neon lighting and expansive glass walls, Suvarnabhumi—pronounced “suwannapoom”—has been beset with ills since it opened in September. There are ruts and cracks on parts of the tarmac. There have been a series of thefts committed on its premises. And worst of all: there simply aren’t enough bathrooms. The military-led government has blamed the airport’s hiccups on ousted Primer Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who they accuse of ignoring corruption during the construction process. The latest twist: Thai officials say they’ll have to re-open the old Don Muang airport to relieve bottlenecks at Suvarnabhumi. The Kingdom’s new airport is a fitting metaphor for many Asian construction woes, as it contains no small bit of grandeur, but crucial elements are off-kilter. Case in point: Suvarnabhumi boasts the world’s tallest control tower, and yet most arriving flights rely on old-school stairways for passenger deplaning due to an apparent lack of jetways.

Newley Purnell is a freelance journalist. His blog is at newley.com.

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