Before joining the VCL family, never did it occur to me that there could be so many fantastic ways to visualize, analyze and understand a city. It is here that I got the chance to match demographic distribution with urban planning by employing data-driven platforms such as R and Tableau, to visually chart the everchanging typology of the cities in the Global South, and to analyze the pros and cons of debatable urban policies.
Focusing on Cold War media for broader academic inquiries, I have always been curious about how cities were envisioned during the Cold War years and how state ideology factored into urban planning. At VCL, I was able to put my interest into practice. Teaming with two wonderful undergrad fellows—Christina and Deepthi, we started our workshop by brainstorming what Cold War cities could possibly look like. It was not long before we realized that the Korean peninsula—with its rich history, enduring political division, and contemporary resonation in popular culture such as Crash Landing on You—could be a case in point in the discussion on Cold War cities.
In specific, we took Pyongyang and Seoul as two case studies and probed into how state ideology was intertwined with the urban planning that shaped the two distinctive cities during the Cold War. Through literature reviews and comparative analyses, it dawned on us that during the Cold War era, socialism in North Korea, or Juche ideology, exerted its profound influences on how Pyongyang was visualized, as can be evidenced by the government-supported uniform residential buildings, omnipresent statues of the leader that towered into the sky, and futuristic stadiums where socialist ambition was staged. By comparison, urban planning in South Korea, which was more affiliated with the United States as a bulwark against North Korea during the Cold War, took on a different look. One of the defining characteristics of the Cold War architecture in Seoul was the establishment of churches, a sign of support of Christianity and defiance against state oppression of religion in North Korea. The stark contrast between the two states cannot only be discerned in the architecture constructed in the Cold War; the political and ideological division in the Korean Peninsula from within has had its lingering ramifications on contemporary urban visuality as well. Based upon the division and differences as such, in the workshop, we catalogued a list of images of architectures of various forms and functions. These images covered some of the most idiosyncratic examples from both North and South Korea. We then invited the participants to imagine themselves being the urban designer and choose the images that befitted the state policy. Thanks to the insightful comments by our lab fellows, the workshop garnered much discussion and encouraged us to wonder how we should re-approach the architectural legacies even if the Cold War is nominally over.
The weekly gathering with the faculty and other students is indeed lovely. Although we could only meet each other virtually, VCL provided us with a place where we could chat, air our thoughts and feel connected in the pandemic. Each Tuesday afternoon, I left Zoom, gratified with what I had learn and yearning for visiting the cities after the pandemic.