Urban encounters: How to ‘read’ a city

Written by
Jamie Saxon, Office of Communications
Dec. 16, 2019

Each fall, an urban studies research seminar, offered to juniors and seniors, dives into research methods in the field. This fall, 15 Princeton students delved into historical accounts, literary works, art and film that capture the communities and landmarks of two cities — New York and Moscow. Armed with this knowledge, the students visited both cities to experience firsthand the similarities and differences in the cultural, political and social worlds of the people who live there.

Through topics ranging from public housing to places of worship, students considered urban development issues past and present.

“There are moments when Moscow and New York are in direct conversation,” said Aaron Shkuda, program manager of the Princeton Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities, and a lecturer in architecture. “In the 1900s, the Lower East Side was defined by Russian immigration; Moscow’s 1930s ‘Seven Sister’ high-rises were designed to be the antithesis of a New York skyscraper; the United Nations headquarters [completed in 1952], was built with one eye towards Moscow, and both cities saw the construction of modernist public housing after World War II.”

He added: “We are in another moment of convergence, as international real estate capital flows through both cities, and the New York-based architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro [partner Elizabeth Diller is a professor of architecture at Princeton] designs iconic public spaces in both cities: the High Line in New York and Zaryadye Park in Moscow.”

Early in the semester, students took a self-guided walking tour of New York; over fall break, the class traveled to Moscow. “We wanted students to observe how people use public space and to think about what elements of urban life were consistent across both cities, and where local history, culture and built forms create divergent experiences,” Shkuda said.

Katherine Reischl, assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures, who co-taught the course with Shkuda, said the city becomes its own kind of teacher on these visits, allowing students “to reflect on [their] own cultural assumptions with a new perspective.”

She added: “It is one thing to read about the rules of using the Moscow Metro; it is another thing entirely to be part of the enormous crowd at rush hour, taking part in the ballet of movement that operates under its own sense of order — all the while admiring, or having trouble admiring in the jostle — the incredible underground palaces of that unique metro.”

Regardless of the students’ academic focus, Shkuda hopes they will take away from the course the ability “to read cities like a text — to peel back their layers and analyze how elements like medieval walls, grand boulevards built during the 19th century, Soviet-era urban planning, and modern gentrification all shape the built environment … and how people live, work and play in cities.” The course is part of the Humanities Council's Magic Project, a program that encourages global and engaged innovation in the humanities. The Humanities Council supports interdisciplinary team teaching and develops a wide array of "breakthrough" seminars, each offering experiential or fieldwork components and moving outside the traditional classroom setting. The course is also part of the Exploration Seminars, a new initiative of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS) and the Office of International Programs in offering semester-long courses that incorporate a faculty-led international travel component, often during fall or spring break.

The students captured the Moscow experience on the course's Instagram account, with an Admission Office blog post by junior Roberto Hasbun, and through photos, with selections shown below:


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