Mapping “Post-Conflict” Cities



Geographical Information Systems for understanding the geographies of the past

Ian Gregory (Lancaster University)

Geographical Information Systems (GIS) provide a digital platform to store, manipulate and visualise data linked to locations on the Earth’s surface. As such they should provide an ideal tool to understand the geographies of the past. However, GIS was developed by computer scientists and others to work in modern, data rich environments such as the Earth sciences or the commercial sectors. They have rarely been designed with the humanities in mind. As a result, historians wishing to use GIS appropriately in their research must apply the models and techniques in a critical manner that is sympathetic to humanities research paradigms. This may involve adapting the approaches as appropriate to deal with the types of sources more frequently used by historians. While this poses challenges, it also provides opportunities. If done well, the use of GIS in the humanities provides new opportunities to understand the past, and also to change the use of GIS to make it more usable with sources such as texts on which many humanities scholars rely. This paper will present an overview of the opportunities and challenges of using a range of humanities sources to better local geographies of the past and how these have changed.

Ian Gregory is Professor in Digital Humanities at Lancaster University. He is particularly interested in using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) with a wide range of humanities sources including texts, maps and quantitative evidence. He has used these approaches to study a range of topics from historical demography to Lake District literature. This research has been the subject of a number of major projects including the European Research Council funded Spatial Humanities: Texts, GIS, Places, the Leverhulme Trust funded Geospatial Innovation in the Digital Humanities, and the ESRC/NSF funded Understanding Space and Time in Narratives.

Planning and its Effects

A spatio-temporal analysis of the urban fabric of Nuremberg from the 1940s onwards

Carol Ludwig (GESIS) and Seraphim Alvanides (GESIS)

This paper provides a spatio-temporal analysis of various aspects of Nuremberg’s urban fabric from the 1940s onwards. As one of the most heavily bomb-damaged cities in Germany, with around 90% of its historic city centre destroyed, Nuremberg (Nürnberg) provides an excellent example to explore the urban transformation of a postwar city. We bring together heterogeneous and under-researched data sets and archival material from the postwar period and convert urban features depicted in historic maps and scanned documents into geospatial data that is analysed with a Geographical Information System (GIS). Building on Conzen’s historic-geographical approaches (1960), we combine morphological variables of townscape analysis to present three different transformations over time. First, we examine the varying extent of bomb damage across Nuremberg at the detailed district level. Secondly, we focus on land-use units, comparing the prewar spatial land-use distribution from 1940 with historical maps of land-use/cover from 1956 and more recent land-uses in 1969. Finally, building on the characteristics of urban form described by Hanson (2000) and Ferm et al (2021), we categorise prewar and present-day urban block typologies to examine urban morphological change. In doing so, we make a contribution towards a new framework for the analysis of postwar cities. We demonstrate how postwar planning decisions made since the postwar period, enable a plan-based interpretation of the planning strategies to have guided postwar planning in Nuremberg. Providing an alternative appraisal of postwar city transformation, this diachronic research offers insight into Nuremberg’s under-researched past, which is also of interest to planners and policy makers seeking to improve future cities.

Post-war spatial transformations of small towns in the context of spatial policy challenges on the example of Węgorzewo

Łukasz Musiaka (Uni. Łódź)

The warfare of the Second World War and the period of post-war devastation destroyed many European cities and towns. Apart from the destruction of the cities of strategic and economic importance, small towns also suffered significantly.

An example of such town is Węgorzewo (pre-war Angerburg, East Prussia), where the scale of damage of the urban fabric exceeded 80% and the built-up area of the old town practically ceased to exist. In this town most of the spatial transformation processes and problems characteristic for the destroyed cities of the Central and Eastern Europe are concentrated. The post-war urban development in the period of the Polish People's Republic, in the spirit of building a socialist city and ignoring the original spatial layout, caused irreversible changes in the urban tissue, such as destruction of the pre-war landscape and creation of modernist architecture. These changes were consolidated during the economic and political transformation of the 1990s in Poland.

Today, several decades after the end of World War II, despite of some recovery measures, the town of Węgorzewo still suffers from the problem of spatial chaos. Its morphological and physiognomic manifestations are visible in the lack of central public space, the loss of historical character, the disharmony of the urban landscape, and the scattered buildings. The research employs a diverse methodological apparatus consisting of an analysis of the morphological transformations of the city, the physiognomy of the urban landscape and architecture, in situ research, analysis of urban documents and expert interviews. The research results are set in the context of cases of other European cities. Conclusions indicate threats to the shaping of spatial order in Węgorzewo and possible action paths.

Musiaka Łukasz graduated geographical studies and postgraduate study in the field of GIS science. He works as an assistant professor in the Department of Political, Historical Geography and Regional Studies at the University of Lodz. Chairman (2017) and vice-chairman (2021) of the Łódź Branch of Polish Geographical Society. In his scientific work combines urban geography, geography of tourism, historical geography and cultural heritage, particularly concerning architectura militaris and urban morphology. He focuses on the morphogenesis and spatial layout analyses of medieval cities and socio-spatial-economic role of cultural heritage. In recent years, he has focused mainly on the morphology, spatial transformations, post-war landscape, post-war recovery and revitalisation of cities destroyed by wars and armed conflicts.

ISUF member since 2016.

Some recent works:

  • Musiaka Ł., Sudra P., Spórna T., 2021, Spatial Chaos as a Result of War Damage and Post-War Transformations. Example of the Small Town of Węgorzewo, Land 10 (541): 1-34
  • Musiaka Ł., Figlus T., Szmytkie R., 2021, Models of morphological transformations of centres of the largest Polish cities after World War II, European Planning Studies, 29 (3): 511-535

Paweł Sudra (PhD) is a geographer, long-term employee of Institute of Urban and Regional Development in Warsaw, currently an adjunct on a post-doc position at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences (SGGW), as regards remote sensing. He has graduated geographical sciences at the Warsaw University and Utrecht University, specializing in geoecology and in geoinformation. The doctoral thesis at the Polish Academy of Sciences concerned the problem of urban sprawl in the Warsaw agglomeration. Significant part of his professional work concerned municipal spatial planning, as well as problems of local development of small and medium towns in Poland, as a project coordinator. He is also interested in revitalisation, especially of post-industrial areas and demolished towns and cities.

Tomasz Spórna (PhD) is a geographer, employee of the Institute of Social and Economic Geography and Spatial Management at the Silesian University in Katowice. He specializes in problems of post-socialist and post-industrial cities development. Particularly studies the development of cities of Katowice conurbation. He is interested in suburbanisation processes and the issue of urban polycentricity.

Continuities, changes and a narrative of normalization: post-conflict urban renewal and redevelopment in Belfast

Henriette Bertram (Uni. Kassel)

The term “post-conflict” has been called “the greatest oxymoron of them all” by John Paul Lederach (2005), indicating that signing a peace agreement is not the same as achieving a stable peace. Especially after protracted intrastate conflict, people’s attitudes and everyday behaviours do not change overnight. In cities, the former conflict parties have lived alongside each other as “intimate enemies” (Bollens 1999); and yet their narratives of the conflict as well as their use of city space differs fundamentally. The groups’ collective memories are connected to different events in history and different places in the city. Redeveloping places marked by conflict can therefore pose a severe challenge for “post-conflict” urban planning and renewal. It can reveal which of the group’s narratives wins recognition and how the dominant parts of a society see themselves.

In my presentation at the conference, I am going to focus on the redevelopment of Belfast after the end of the Northern Ireland conflict. I will show how strategies of urban planning and renewal were mostly continued from the early 1980s but could only gain traction after the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998 and the societal, political and image change that followed. Even though some of the segregated and deprived inner-city neighbourhoods of Belfast were among the most affected places by the conflict, urban planning concentrated on creating “normal” – politically neutral and attractive – event spaces that could potentially appeal to investors and tourists. Even though this strategy was quite successful in changing the image and the “look and feel” of Belfast, the narrative of normalisation has made it difficult to actually start coming to terms with the past and to develop places that acknowledge the conflict while at the same time aim to bring a better quality of life for all inhabitants.

Henriette Bertram is a Post-Doc researcher at the Department of Architecture, Town and Landscape Planning at Kassel University. She has studied Cultural Sciences at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) and the Universidad Complutense in Madrid. Her research interests include post-conflict urban reconstruction and regeneration, (dissonant) heritage and localized memory cultures, but also gender-sensitive planning and the reconciliation of home and work, especially in suburban residential areas. She has authored the book “Schattenorte in Belfast. Stadterneuerung nach dem Karfreitagsabkommen” (2018, transcript).

Narrating Post-Conflict Cities

Narrating transformation and catastrophes: The perception of Western Polish cities by German and Polish maps and texts

Elisa-Maria Hiemer (Herder-Institut Marburg)

In my presentation I will take a look at the different perceptions of towns that became Polish after 1945 and suffered massive war damage: Kołobrzeg, Brzeg and Elbląg. The shift of the Polish border to the west meant a relocation of citizens from the former Polish Eastern Borderland (Kresy) to the former German territories, which now had to be quickly turned into Polish towns. Therefore, a reinterpretation of the city's past and character was necessary, which was achieved through strong socialist propaganda for the " regained territories". On the other side of the Oder, the German media and political discourse still felt entitled to these territories.

I would like to examine the rhetoric of gain and loss through newspaper clippings, tourist materials, and maps. I am particularly interested in the different forms of representation on maps and in texts: maps can represent simultaneity (past, present, future), while texts can only tell linear stories. Nevertheless, they must interpret the past, describe the present state, and create a future vision of the city. My goal is to find answers to the questions: How is responsibility for the damage discussed? Are there discourses that have only taken place in one medium?

Iconisation of war destruction images: The case of Szczecin

Tabitha Redepenning (Herder-Institut Marburg)

Urban representation is a major public discourse, powerful driver of heritage debates, and cultural change. My thesis takes an interdisciplinary approach, incorporating urban studies, culture of remembrance, public history, and tourism theory, to explore this subject. In my dissertation I analyse the concept of urban authenticity through the unique example of Szczecin on the grounds of its transnational history, its access to the Baltic Sea, the impact of World War II destruction and the shift of the Polish border.

Drawing from post-war discussions about the de- or reconstruction of individual buildings, I highlight the connections between buildings, urban structures or districts and overarching narratives, in terms of the staged city image. Striking in the visual discourse regarding Szczecin is the captivating presence of war destruction images since their taking and their visual repetition up until today. In my presentation, I will show examples of war destruction photos and their rise to become an image icon due to their specific visual imagery leading to their constant repetition in the discourse. I will show the conflicting use of war destruction images by different actors linked to the city, namely German expellee organisations (Vertriebenenverbünde) and local actors like the Polish Tourist and Sightseeing Society (PTTK).

Additionally, I analyse the visual discourse of images compared to the discourse created in maps or textual descriptions. I am showing how narratives differ depending on the medium.

Using iconic image analysis, and visual and textual discourse, I focus on Polish and German civil society actors after 1945. My sources are tourist publications relating to Szczecin (including maps and actors’ reports), supported by analysis of newspapers and images from social media.

Tabitha Redepenning studied book science, German studies and European studies in Mainz, Frankfurt (Oder) and Wrocław. Finishing her Master’s degree with a thesis on "Entangled cultures of remembrance in the German-Polish context on the example of the remembrance day of the Auschwitz liberation", she afterwards was working as an Educational Project Specialist at the Krzyżowa Foundation for Mutual Understanding in Europe. Since June 2020 she is working as research associate and Ph.D. student at the Herder Institute for Historical Research on East Central Europe as part of the project “Urban Authenticity: Creating, Contesting, and Visualizing the built Heritage in European Cities since the 1970s”.

Muslim Women and Spaces: Mapping Cartographical Changes in the Post-Partition Cities

Sana Asif (National Institute of Technology Patna)

Muslim women, space, gender, Partition, city, cartography

1947 was the year that forever changed the map and impacted the course of political and social history of South Asia. Significant changes happened in the cartography of the prominent cities of the erstwhile British India when it was partitioned into two sovereign nations. Transfer of power from the British, migration of people, influx of refugees, communal riots, arson etc. were some major reasons behind these changes. Cultural and demographical changes in cities are represented in the works of Muslim women writers, for instance, the post-partition change in the culture and geography of Lucknow is depicted in Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Hossain. The portrayal of these changes in the social and geographical space provides critical insight into the understanding of Partition.

This paper aims to investigate these transformations employing the theories of feminist geography and postcolonialism through the works of these writers who wrote from a distinctive perspective. It further intends to spatially analyse the complexities of Partition and its aftermath from the standpoint of Muslim women whose voices are underrepresented in Partition Studies.

Sana Asif is a Research Scholar at National Institute of Technology Patna, India and is working as a Teaching Assistant and conducting Language Lab classes. She is working on Partition writings by Muslim women for her PhD under the supervision of Dr Sukhdev Singh. Her research interests include Memory Studies, Spatial Studies, Popular Culture and Partition Writings. Recently, she has presented her paper on “Memory of COVID-19 through Memes: A Brief Analysis” at Chesapeake Digital Humanities Consortium 2022 Conference hosted online by Marymount University, USA.

Residues of the Past

Capital, small town and reconstruction. A report from ongoing research on war-torn cities in Austria

Birgit Knauer (TU Wien)

planning strategies and building traditions in post-conflict cities; defining and redefining built heritage in the context of post-conflict cities; actors shaping the post-conflict urban landscape

The reconstruction of war-torn cities in Austria had to take place under difficult conditions: the lack of building materials and work capacity was a major handicap, as in other heavily damaged areas in Europe. In addition, in Vienna there was the special situation because of the influence on building industry by the four occupying powers, who not only divided the city into occupation zones, but, as records of the Federal monuments office prove, also involved themselves in the reconstruction of individual buildings organizing amongst other things materials for restoration. In the four occupation zones other destroyed cities were located, including smaller cities such as Wiener Neustadt in the zone occupied by the soviet army. This lecture explores the question of different reconstruction strategies in the metropolitan area and the periphery, while also trying to shed light on the political dimensions of reconstruction. Are there parallels or differences in the reconstruction planning, which in Vienna has certainly been perceived – for both urban planning and heritage conservation – as an opportunity to make structural changes. Which form of reconstruction was chosen, which actors were involved and in which character destroyed buildings were actually rebuilt? Examples are Vienna and the small town of Wiener Neustadt, about 60 km south of it, which was very important for military reasons and therefore heavily destroyed.

Birgit Knauer studied art history and romance studies at the University of Vienna. Afterwards she was assistant at the Chair for Preservation of Monuments and Building in existing structures at the Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien) and finished her PhD studies in 2018. From 2020-2021, research assistant at Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg. Since 2020 she is researching and teaching at the Chair for Preservation of Monuments and Building in existing structures at TU Wien (ad interim in charge of the department), focusing on architecture of post-war modernism in Austria and on the discourse and practice of urban planning and preservation in the 20th century. Ongoing project on reconstruction of historic city centres in Austria during and after the Second World War (associated subproject of the Urban Meta Mapping collaborative project).

Post-war Reconstruction Strategies and Effects on Historic Urban Texture: Beirut/Lebanon Case Study

Bilal Bilgili (Uni. Bingöl)

Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, located on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, has a multi-religious and multi-sectarian social structure. Since the 19th Century, Beirut has been suffered by numerous political, military, and economic regional disorders. As a result, Beirut's social and physical fabric has changed.

The modernization movement started in the Ottoman Period and continued in the French Mandate Period. The city began to expand from centre towards the peripheral areas. Regional politic and military tensions, migrations, sectarian conflicts, and administrative problems that resulted in the war lasted between 1975-90. The Beirut Central District (BCD) was largely destroyed during the war, and the post-war reconstruction process was initiated with the reconciliation reached by conflicting parties in 1990. Infrastructure projects, restoration of historic buildings, archaeological excavations, construction of new buildings and landscape projects continued until 2020 in the BCD. The reconstruction of the BCD was conducted by a comprehensive real estate developing movement. It is considered that this movement caused the deterioration or corruption of the traditional urban fabric and cultural heritage sites. The economic pressures and expectations of real estate sector threaten cultural heritage sites in the peripheral districts of the BCD that could be resulted in neglect or destruction.

However, the explosion in the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, was a disaster affecting the entire city. This explosion caused severe destruction in the port and nearby surroundings. Similar approaches towards the port and its nearby surrounding after the explosion will be certain risks for cultural heritage sites. Thus, the current risks, threats and potentials should be examined and discussed in detail considering the historical development and post-war interventions in the city so far.

This study examines the historical development of Beirut, specifically after the war of 1975-90, considering the historical and architectural background of the city since the 19th century. The destruction of the historic urban fabric and reconstruction practices that started in 1991 has been examined. The pre-explosion situation of the BCD was evaluated based on the in-site research and examinations in Beirut. The post-explosion reconstruction process and alternatives are discussed to propose possible results and interpretations.

Dr. Bilal Bilgili received his bachelor’s degree in Architecture from Karadeniz Technical University (2010) and MSc degree in Architectural restoration from Istanbul Technical University with his master's thesis titled "Conservation Problems in Rock Sites of Cappadocia and its Rock-Hewn Churches (2014)”. He holds a PhD in Architectural Restoration Program from Istanbul Technical University with his PhD thesis titled “Conservation and Management of Cultural Heritage in Post War/Armed Conflict Urban Zones: Beirut and Sarajevo Experiences (2021)”

He worked as a research assistant at Istanbul Technical University, Department of Architecture, and Bingol University, Department of Architecture. He is currently working as Dr. Lecturer in Department of Architecture and member of Energy, Environment and Natural Disaster Studies Application and Research Centre at Bingol University.

His major research interests include architectural and archaeological survey; documentation, preservation and restoration of historic buildings and sites; post-conflict reconstruction of architectural heritage; conservation and management of historic urban landscape in post-conflict zones; conservation approaches and solutions on ethnically, religiously and politically contested urban spaces; conflict, memory, identity and cultural heritage.

The Cemeteries of Izmir in the Post-war Era: Continuity and Rapture in Rebuilding the City and its Urban Environment

Selvihan Kurt (TU Istanbul)

Ottoman Izmir was not an active battle ground during World War I but the city experienced a more destructive catastrophe, the Great Fire of 1922. The city was held by the Greek army between 1919 and 1922 and the taking over of the city by the Turkish army was followed by the fire. The perpetrators of the incident is still being debated but it is certain that the fire destroyed the heart of the city, the commercial districts and non-Muslim neighborhoods except the Jewish neighborhood. Additionally, with the population exchange between Greece-Turkey (1923) , Izmir was ethnically and religiously homogenized.

The rebuilding plan of the fire zone was initiated right after the war but not limited to the fire zone. The Danger plan visioned a vast project that aimed to reorganize and modernize the whole city. Although the plan was not fully executed, it pointed out the vision of rebuilding the entire city. The rebuilding of the city was crucial for remaking the collective memory of the city and erasing the urban heritage of the departed non-Muslim groups.

The cemeteries of the city was subjected to urban intervention starting from the late 19th century as a part of the urban modernization and sanitization vision. In the post-war Izmir, interventions toward cemeteries became part of the reidentifying the city considering the commemorative character of cemeteries. In my presentation, I aim to explore and narrate the continuity and rapture in the interventions towards the Izmir cemeteries before and after war. The focus of my presentation is how the cemeteries were projected and reshaped or preserved in the post-conflict environment of Izmir with regard to the rapture in the spatial memory and the continuity urban modernization and the public health and hygiene trends in Izmir.

Selvihan Kurt earned his MA degree in 2015 from Boğaziçi University with his MA thesis The Founding of the Izmir Museum: A Preliminary Narrative based on Aziz Ogan Archive. She is currently a PhD candidate at İstanbul Technical University at the Department of Art History. Her PhD research focuses on the burial sites of Izmir, especially the cemeteries of the non-Muslim religious communities, during the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries in relation to the urban transformation of post-war Izmir, rapid urbanization in the city from the perspectives of spatial memory and urban environmental history. Her research focuses on museology, urban history, nationalism during the late Ottoman and the early republican periods (the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries).

(Un)Democratic Reconstruction

Redesigning Post-Conflict Cities of Turkey: A Comparison

Gözde Orhan (Altinbas Uni.)

This paper focuses on the spatial aspect of the never-ending post-war era in eastern Turkey. The Eastern provinces of Turkey, whose populations are predominantly Kurdish, had been subject to the state of exception since 1980s. Cities categorized in the 1982 constitution as places where the government had “doubts about the emergence of acts of violence intended for the abolishment of the democratic system or of fundamental rights and freedoms” were redefined by the SoE law and added to the SoE region. The SoE region was both a “combat zone” and a living space and ruled via exceptional measures not enforced in the rest of the country.

The process of the rescission of the SoE coincided with the coming to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002. Until 2015, the normalization of the regime with the removal of the military tutelage system and governmental attempts to solve the Kurdish question are welcomed. The peace process aimed to resolve the long-running Kurdish-Turkish conflict was officially declared by President Erdogan in 2012; however, the government denounced the peace process was ended in 2015. In response to Kurdish resistance, blanket curfews were imposed on several Kurdish provinces and residential areas were destroyed between August 2015 and March 2016. In 2016, after July 15 Coup Attempt, SoE was declared one more time which provided a basis for withdraw of mayors of the pro-Kurdish municipalities.

This paper scrutinizes two different post-SoE periods spatially in Turkey. The first is the period (2002-2015) when the AKP made democratic initiatives against military hegemony and the space was opened to the will of local initiatives. The second is the period when AKP showed its authoritarian face and reshaped the region with trustees instead of elected local administrators. This study aims to compare these two periods by investigating spatial representations, designs and symbolic/ideological regulations in the urban space created by both central government and local initiatives. It problematizes two different “reconstruction” processes by competing actors and seeks to uncover new codes, values and discourses that produce post-SoE spaces.

Gözde Orhan an assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Altinbas University, Istanbul, Turkey. Her main areas of research are urban studies, urban transformation, space, ecology, and Kurdish studies. After having completed the undergraduate degree in Economics Department at Yıldız Technical University, İstanbul in 2006, she holds a Master’s degree (2008) and a PhD degree (2017) in Modern Turkish History from Boğaziçi University.

Potentials for peacebuilding through heritage management in Lahore (Pakistan)

Helena Cermeño (Uni. Kassel) and Katja Mielke (BICC)

The violence-ridden partition of British-India in 1947 and Pakistan’s evolving approach to urban heritage management laid the foundation for large-scale neglect and transformation of previously shared heritage between Hindus and Muslims. After the population exchange in Punjab, the new state subjected built- and previously multi-cultural and multi-religious quarters of Lahore – in particular the Old/ Walled City – to partial ignorance and the intentional neglect of, e.g., housing premises inhabited once by Hindus and other non-Muslim minorities. This not only threatens shared heritage but also prevents any constructive confrontation with the past and is assumed to have adverse effects for peacebuilding prospects between India and Pakistan.

Based on empirical data collected on heritage practices and in heritage sites of the Old City of Lahore, Pakistan, the presentation offers (1) empirical insights on (1a) ruptures and continuities in colonial urban planning before and after conflict, and (1b) the Walled City Authority’s approach to heritage management. Against this backdrop the presentation discusses (2) the potential for agonistic peacebuilding between current and former residents/ Pakistanis and Indians based on the mutual recognition that a significant part of shared history is also a history of violence. The presenters argue that heritage management needs to be subjected to a constructive confrontation with the past in order to pave the ground for sustainable reconciliation. In conclusion (3) the need to decolonize built heritage management for peaceful heritage futures will be reflected. Lahore represents a peripheral city in a twofold way: albeit it was known the cultural capital of (what is today divided) Punjab, it was and remains a secondary city in the larger context of British-India and Pakistan; moreover, partition transformed it into a border city in close proximity to India.

Helena Cermeño is an Architect and Urban Planner, Lecturer, and Research Fellow at the Department of Urban Sociology at the University of Kassel and Junior Researcher at the Centre for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn, Germany. Her research on India and Pakistan focuses on urban governance and conflicts related to the politics of housing and service provision.

Katja Mielke is Senior Researcher at the Peace and Conflict Research Institute BICC in Bonn, Germany. She holds a PhD degree in Development Research from the University of Bonn. Her main interests are related to questions about entanglements of state–society intersections and local governance in conflict-affected settings with a focus on power relations, legitimation and representation mechanisms, social and political mobilization, and practices of knowledge production.

Parallel Cities: Memorialization and the Urban Landscape in Myanmar under Military Rule

J. Hoay-Fern Ooi (Uni. Tokyo)

Burma gained independence from the British in 1948. Following a military coup in 1962, the nation fell under the rule of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), during which its budding post-independence forays into architectural modernisation (a way of refashioning colonial traces) were immediately put to a halt. The urban landscape in the capital of Rangoon and most of Burma subsequently underwent a decades-long period of stasis. After the dissolution of the BSPP in 1988, Burma continued to remain under the military-led State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), but experienced a feverish period of development, facilitated by the influx of (now permitted) foreign investment. The SLORC sought to materialize the long-delayed manifestation of (the newly renamed) post-colonial ‘Myanmar’, through the construction of new townships, universities, hotels, and other tourist amenities, alongside Buddhist pagodas and stupas – most concentrated, and taking on most significance, in the lavish new capital of Naypyidaw.

We often speak of urban design as one dimension that nation-building can take, where particular national visions are inscribed into the built environment. The material presence of Burma/Myanmar’s urban landscape, however, belies a curious vacuum – (distortedly) echoing Burma’s pre-colonial dynastic glory, while suppressing its modern history (built upon narratives of resistance against illegitimate states) and the present reality of civilian unrest against military rule. New townships were constructed only to forcefully relocate nearly half a million away from Rangoon, where most of the anti-military protests in 1988 had taken place. Memorials were removed, and other historically significant sites built over. Pedestrian bridges and fences were likewise installed to curb the movement of crowds and facilitate shootings. Beneath this veneer of silence, enforced by totalitarian control over the landscape, however, lies another immaterial city – what Vaclav Havel terms a ‘parallel polis’, comprising of underground groups, acting through structures that remain unplottable on (the military’s) maps.

J. Hoay-Fern Ooi is a PhD student in English literature from the University of Malaya, and a research student based at the University of Tokyo. Her thesis looks at Georges Bataille’s anti-philosophical conception of the informe in relation to post-WWII experimental literature in English and French. She is also currently onboard Site and Space in Southeast Asia, a research project funded by the Getty Foundation which looks at the art and architectural history of three cities – Penang, Hue, and Yangon – from a cartographic standpoint.