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Designing Ecological Peace in The Koreas

During the Fall Semester of 2011, I had an opportunity to serve as visiting critic at Cornell University for a design studio featuring the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. As the world watches and waits for transitions in North Korea, following the death of Kim Jong Il, the faculty member who led...

During the Fall Semester of 2011, I had an opportunity to serve as visiting critic at Cornell University for a design studio featuring the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. As the world watches and waits for transitions in North Korea, following the death of Kim Jong Il, the faculty member who led the studio, Yehre Suh provides a guest post for us on how design might be used to catalyze peace in this troubled part of the world.

Guest post by Yehre Suh, School of Architecture, Cornell University

Yehre Suh is the Studio Director and received the 2008 Graham Foundation Research Grant and the 2010 Rotch Travelling Studio Grant for the project. Saleem H. Ali and Kyong Park are Advisory Critics to the studio. The Investigators are Burcu Bicer, Michael Cabrera, David Chessrown, Caroline Corbett, Patricia Echeverria, Aura Maria Jaramillo, Christine Kim, Yihua Li, Tansy Mak, Denise Pereira, Aiheidan Rouzi, Alexander Smith, Jeremy Tan

For the past three months, an architecture design studio was progressed at Cornell University Department of Architecture that developed projective design scenarios for the border areas between North and South Korea. The studio, Parallel Utopias: Strategy of Normalcy and Exception, speculated upon the dystopic, utopic status of the divided Korea to propose divergent, architectural scenarios of immanent parallelism and emergent processes of productive integration. The parallel existence of the two Koreas provides an intriguing juxtaposition of escalated reification of dreams that are uncannily similar and interdependent, in which architecture becomes its key organizer. It is the objective of the studio to understand the myth of architecture’s political immediacy and its critical career within the state propaganda machines to analyze the current status of the two parallel worlds. Although the recent death of Kim Jong Il brings renewed urgency towards reunification as an end in itself, it is important to remember the death of his paternal predecessor Kim Il Sung 17 years ago and the continued path of determined separatist parallelism in its aftermath. In this light, it is more important that we address the parallel trajectory, not as a means of division and separation, but as a means to construct productive, infrastructural, transitional processes that become the basis of an integrative relationship for an indeterminate yet constructive future.

Competitive Flags

The parallel existence of the two Koreas requires a spatial condition that is adaptive to the extremities of the political environment at large. In such states of flux, the transformative capacities of ecological systems become key mechanisms of architecture as agencies of negotiation for political, social, economic scenarios. If architecture is a discipline that deals with built environments, it is imperative that we utilize the potential of architecture as a critical apparatus to coordinate the construction and organization of artificial and natural ecological systems. Therefore the investigation of the studio revolves around the political immediacy of artificial and natural ecologies and its ability to negotiate and choreograph the economic, scientific, agricultural and educational interaction and production, not only between the governing entities, but also between the people of the two Koreas. The key premise of the projects is to investigate the realm of transformative possibilities under the realities of the state apparatus, to build upon the plausible, yet expand upon its interpretive potentials.

Challenging Design with Divisions

Three representative typologies of the border conditions as defined by the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement have been specified as the three sites. The first type is on land and is what we now call the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). According to the Armistice, “A military demarcation line shall be fixed and both sides shall withdraw two (2) kilometers from this line so as to establish a demilitarized zone between the opposing forces.” The second type is the Han River Estuary. Once the DMZ intersects the Imjin River, the border widens into the thickness of the river itself and connects into the Han River. Per the Armistice, “The waters of the Han River Estuary shall be open to civil shipping of both sides wherever one bank is controlled by one side and the other bank is controlled by the other side.” The third type is is in the open waters of the West Sea. “…(A)ll the islands lying to the north and west of the provincial boundary line between Hwanghae-do and Kyonggi-do shall be under the military control of the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army and the Commander of the Chinese People’s volunteers, except the island groups of Paengyong-do, Taechong-do, Sochong-do, Yonpyong-do, and U-do, which shall remain under the military control of the Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command. All the island on the west coast of Korea lying south of the above-mentioned boundary line shall remain under the military control of the Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command.”

One of the scenarios, Agro-logical Landscapes, is situated at the buffer zone between Kijong-dong and Daeseong-dong. It attempts to expand the current stagnant separatist border condition into an integrative, production oriented landscape. The agricultural intervention promotes local biodiversity by merging agricultural systems with existing ecological conditions of the water system. The topography is manipulated to accommodate a diversity of agricultural crops, and promote experimental farming techniques to establish opportunities for cooperation and exchange for the local farming communities while maintaining the high level of military security. The project speculates on how the agricultural cycle becomes an integrative mechanism of the political cycle and how landscape becomes the key organizer of the various actors of site.

In another scenario, Residual Fields, the tidal flats in the middle of the Han River mouth area, which remain neutral and cohabitual territories according to the Armistice, are utilized to create an air and water pollution monitoring clam, rice farming cooperative. The cooperative is to be administered by the two sides as a small test case project whose objective is agricultural exchange and collaboration for ecological conservation. The project proposes a scenario where the daily, seasonal cycles of the tidal lands and its ecology function as the main negotiators of political, social, economic interaction and how its organization can be utilized to initiate collaborative production.

Adaptive Territory, a scenario in the West Sea near Yonpyong Island, proposes a series of artificial floating islands as a sovereign nation that are mobile within the disputed waters. The Islands are the territories occupied by the virtual citizens of a Unified Korea to act as the neutralizing entities as they claim territorial waters under the International Law of the Sea. Based on political climates and natural ecological cycles, maritime boundaries in the West Sea are in constant flux. In such a state of continuous ambiguity, the Islands functions as political, military and ecological monitors of the sea. They allow for shared occupation of the disputed areas during high fishing seasons, while monitoring sustainable fishing practices. During times of conflict they will function as the third neutral party to create buffer zones in the open waters to police and mitigate the tension.

Built environments as spatial products become important tools of analysis in conflict zone politics. Architecture is an active agent through which we can delaminate and evaluate geopolitical complexities as a means to identify the realm of reality and fiction to envision possibilities of constructive intervention. In Korea, ecological conservation and spatial interventions have become important tools in transborder interactions, where ecological concerns and economic incentives become key mechanisms of discourse and collaboration. Internationally this is an important transborder prototype condition and along with NGOs, state agencies, environmental policy makers, ecologists and conservationists, architects and planners can become active participants who can project beyond the politics to investigate new spatial opportunities for the border as not only physical sites of intervention, but also to address the social, cultural boundaries that exist beyond the physical border. As an investigation into the possibilities of architecture and planningʼs political agency and its potential strategies of operation, the Parallel Utopias project actively engages the geopolitical to envision the border not as a means of territorial separation but of productive integration and constructive cooperation.


Scenario Videos and Posters:

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Saleem Ali
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.