How Architecture Changed My Perception of a Korean Drama

In the Visualizing Cities Lab, my team and I led a workshop about architecture in Pyongyang, North Korea and Seoul, South Korea. I convinced my team to focus on Korea because I was obsessed with the Korean drama Crash Landing on You at the time. For reference, the show is about a star-crossed love between a South Korean heiress and a North Korean elite/military captain. I wanted to use clips from the drama to show how life in Pyongyang and Seoul has many commonalities due to human nature; clearly, that is a must for the leads to relate to each other and fall in love.

During my team’s workshop, groups of participants role-played as urban planners from either Pyongyang or Seoul and decided on one of two structures to build in the following categories: skyline, arts institution, skyscraper, and science & technology. Even though incorporating clips from the K-drama did not work out (apparently, they were not reflective of Cold War ideologies), I learned a great deal: specifically, I discovered that my hypothesis was wrong. Even though human nature is similar for people in Pyongyang and Seoul, how architecture is used to influence human nature is quite different.

The main takeaway was that architecture is not simply about the appearance of buildings in place within cities. Physical structures are fundamentally tied to the power dynamics of who built them and why as well as their interactions with constituents’ emotions. Furthermore, no matter how strange a structure may appear, it is a part of a population’s “normal” with its effects intricately woven into how people act on their human nature every day.

Considering Crash Landing on You, the North Korean male lead’s “normal” would have been a utopia-like skyline of Soviet housing blocks painted with pastels—a futuristic reality constructed by the North Korean regime. Every day, he would have had his eyes subconsciously directed to a prominent statue of the regime’s rulers, the focal point of Pyongyang, and uniform streets pointing to an enormous though empty Ryugyong Hotel. That architecture embodying the Juche ideology of self-reliance and autonomy could have led to an array of emotions, including fear of the regime’s assertions of power, anxiety, indifference, a desire to shine through obedience, or even a leaning towards conformity.

On the other hand, the female lead would have had a completely different experience with “normal.” Seeing a skyscraper-laden skyline with lights, she would have likely developed a contrasting perception of “modern” as well as the success of democratic, capitalist societies. For instance, her values could have been shaped by seeing the open, transparent glass and precise, clean edges of structures like the Hyundai Motor Group Innovation Center, which is in stark contrast with the intimidating and secretive grandeur of Pyongyang’s premier nuclear facility.

The protagonists would have seen vastly dissimilar spaces during their daily commutes and even as they looked longingly out their bedroom windows; repeated every day, the interactions between space and emotions impact the very lens through which people see the world and themselves. In short, due to the dynamics of architecture and human nature, the lovers from Pyongyang and Seoul may be more star-crossed than we viewers initially thought.