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Thesis | 38 Parallel Part 2

38 Parallel is an investigation into the role of architecture + urban design as a catalyst for mediation between two opposing forces and interests.


38 Parallel

5th-year undergraduate architectural thesis

Part 2: Proposal and Thesis


Proposal Narrative


The Port-City is created by the North Korean government as a Special Economic Zone, designed to be a conduit for international trade. Its harbors are to distribute the manufactured goods produced in the surrounding Kaesong region to the global market. To do this, a portion of the city is authorized by the state to operate under capitalist form of economy.

 The overarching goals are to attract more foreign investments to the economy of North Korea, while promoting cultural awareness and tourism to the city. These goals are contradictory to the conventional operations of the State and what the North Koreans are accustomed to.


The Special Economic Zone of the Port-City is established along the waterfront of the city perimeters. Similar to the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the capitalist zone is isolated from the rest of the city. As the SEZ experiences economic success, pressures of expanding the SEZ arise.

This is the story of the Port-City: a communist city is forced to adapt to capitalist inclinations driven by its need for economic development. The areas of friction, the points where capitalism and communism converge, are where the two sides must negotiate their interests to coexist in a common space.




The vision for the Port-City of Kaesong is rooted in the idealist hope for a united Korea—where elements from the two ideologies and tradition coexist.

What happens when a capitalist economy and the culture it entails is imposed on a North Korean city inhabited by people accustomed to a communistic way of living? What does the city look like? How does it operate? What role does the traditional culture of the past play?

Can a method of architecture/urban design resolve socio-political issues?

An early speculation was that a careful curation from each category that represents portion of Korea’s history could result in a harmonious and holistic future of Korea.

The thesis is an investigation to these questions, depicted through the story of the Port-City and its development.


Process / Studies


The first approach to designing the Port-City involved deducting urban design rules from precedents from communist modernism (North Korea), capitalist post-modernism (South Korea), and Hanok (traditional Korean) practices in city making. For example, Byung-Joo Park’s New Seoul Plan, a proposal for the reconstruction of Seoul in 1966, presented ideas derived from traditional practice of Pungsu (Korean equivalent of Chinese ‘Fengshui’) for proper city planning. The proposal anchors the center of the city with cardinal axes that are represented by four gates.

The intention was to find commonalities between the three types of cities and distinguish particular exemptions of “best practice” to codify a rule set for creating a new “Korean” city. However, the scope of this approach proved to be too broad and lacked a means to address the greater socio-political problems that the Port-City posed. Beside providing an instance of what the Port-City could look like, this method suffered from the arbitrary nature of collaging a city from rules, no matter how rigid the rules themselves were.

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New Seoul Plan by Byung-Joo Park (1966)




The second approach was to formulate a new architectural language built by a kit of parts from the three categories of Korean architecture. The concept with this method was to establish a coherent composite that was identifiably “Korean” from various components of post-modern, Stalinist modern, and Hanok architecture.

Although conceptually this method was closer to a way of negotiating between the three categories of Korean architecture, the manner of choosing the kit of parts was too arbitrary. Implications of architectural style and personal bias derived from the ideological meanings be- hind various components rendered the evaluation of a composite difficult.


Additional Studies


Additional studies examined Seoul’s royal palaces. The design logic found in the organization of these palaces, such as the axial connection of privacy to the hierarchy of occupants (royal family members) and the ceremonial progression of circulations (royals vs. commoners vs. servants), were studied as inspirations for informing the urban planning of the Port-City.

Precedents of various types of port-cities were researched in order to better understand how a port-city is organized. The precedent cities were mapped into a gradation of urban density levels and how they were related to the water surrounding them.
These studies helped inform the urban planning decisions for the Port-City.


Thesis Statement


The previous approaches to addressing the thesis question assumed a degree of assimilation between the North and South that was perhaps too encompassing or too absolute. Instead of forcing a coherence between the elements of capitalist or communist urban design, the final approach treats the negotiation of their differences as an active process. This acknowledges the validity of both forces without weighing in bias in architectural style, ideology, or discretion on design.

Public space should be neutral—absent of any extrinsic meanings that architecture may represent. Although the architecture near a public space may affect the way the public space is perceived, architecture cannot change the possibilities of a public space. The events and movements that can occur in one is not scripted, cannot be scripted. Hence, the public space acts as a perpetual stage of negotiation for the various interests that occupy its stage.

How we use the public space—to socialize, to exercise, or to simply rest—can change how we perceive and engage the urban context around it.


Elements of Public Space


The Elements of Public Space is a catalog of the various functions, forms, and programs of public space. Nine basic elements of Park / Square / Threshold / Barrier / Garden / Water / Stage / Monument / Market were identified as the ingredients to the hybrid types that result from a matrix of combinations.

A single type by itself may not constitute a public space, but the combination of multiple types suggest varying levels of ‘public-ness’. These elements were the building blocks to the design process of the Port-City.


The Port-City of Kaesong


The story of Port-City is told in three distinct phases of time and space. It follows the integration of the Special Economic Zone as it commences from the waterfront and expands inland. 

The three instances observe different urban conditions, where the interests of the North Korean government and the SEZ contest.


Phase 1: The Strip

The  first border between the SEZ and the North Korean city


What kinds of public space could The Strip be? The design of the public park is directed by the types of public events that could occur in the space.

The elements of public space are arranged in a manner that activate events of Recreation / Ceremony / Convention / Park (escape from urbanism) / Entertainment .


Program Breakdown of Public Space Elements


Phase 2:   The Stage

Copresence of the Communist Square and the Market