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Seminar Explores Development of Cities in Relation to Nature

Visual arts professor Min Kyung Lee challenges students in "Making the Modern City: Imagined and Built Environments"
April 28th, 2017 by 
Students in Professor Lee's Making the Modern City class have class outdoors to discuss a sculpture made of sticks.

Syllabus, a feature in each issue of Holy Cross Magazine, takes readers in to the classroom to see what students are learning about on Mount St. James. Explore one of the College’s Spring 2017 courses below.


“Making the Modern City: Imagined and Built Environments” with Min Kyung Lee, assistant professor of visual arts

Course Description

Min Kyung Lee’s “Making the Modern City” seminar explores the emergence of the modern city in Europe and the Americas in relation to their natural environments. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism, the class studies how the planning, building and regulating of urban-built environments were and are embedded in practices to control, manage and consume natural resources, and ultimately define nature.

Objectives of the Course

Students develop an understanding that “nature” and “city” are reciprocally constitutive ideas, processes and spaces, as well as a language and framework to consider the place and role of art in changing and defining the urban environment.

Selected Required Texts

  • “What is Landscape” by John Stilgoe;
  • “The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century” by Wolfgang Schivelbusch;
  • “Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature” by William Cronon, ed.;
  • “Undermining: The Wild Ride through Land Use, Politics and Art in the Changing West” by Lucy Lippard;
  • “Imagining Landscapes” by Tim Ingold;
  • “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino;
  • “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard;
  • “Operating Manual for the Spaceship Earth” by Buckminster Fuller;
  • “Architecture in the Anthropocene” by Etienne Turpin, ed.


A paper on a landscape painting; the facilitation of class discussion on a reading; a collaborative urban landscape study of Worcester; a collaborative creative project addressing questions such as “What do you think Worcester will look like in 10,000 years and what will the role of nature be?”

On the Day HCM Visited Class

The unusually warm February day had melted the last traces of snow from Patrick Dougherty’s Stickwork sculpture, inviting Min Kyung Lee’s students outside with one task in mind: to observe.

Students and professor alike spent the first few minutes walking in and out of the castle-like structure, studying, stopping to point things out to Lee and to one another.

“What do you think this piece adds to the campus, and why this location?” Lee asked.

Without hesitation, the students presented a series of perspectives to consider: how the sculpture’s natural form stands as refuge in the midst of the rigid structure of the surrounding academic buildings; how the sculpture’s form plays on the towers in adjacent architecture; how it reimagines the use of the stretch of grass that otherwise goes unnoticed.

Each of the 12 students in the seminar — with diverse disciplinary backgrounds ranging from architectural studies to economics to anthropology — brought a different perspective, illustrating a major theme of the class: that the relationship between natural and built environments is complex.

Lee guided the students to consider Stickwork in the context of that relationship, pointing out that destruction of nature was an integral part of the creation of the sculpture. The sculpture is made primarily out of Norway maple saplings, which are invasive — not native — to the area, she noted, and were removed to benefit the surrounding environment. While the act is seemingly positive, Lee pointed out the irony of this forest management — that humans were helping nature solve a problem they themselves created.

“Do we as humans consider ourselves outside of nature?” Lee posed to the students.

Lee then stepped back, allowing students to lead the discussion for the greater part of the two and a half hour seminar. They drew from readings prepared for the weekly class, which examined other intersections between man and nature, such as New York City’s Central Park, national parks like Yosemite and Robert Smithson’s famous environmental installation “Spiral Jetty.” Classmates challenged each other with questions ranging from “How do you put a price tag on something as unquantifiable as the benefits of a park in an urban area?” to “Can anything beyond nature be considered sublime?” to “How accessible should nature be?”

Looking Beyond Today

Lee uses Stickwork and other constructed natural environments like Central Park to explore the nuances of this relationship. From there, she launches into the unknown territories of the earth’s future, where these interactions become even more abstract.

“I wanted to address the current literature on urban landscapes because there are so many new books and scholarship on what landscape means in the face of global climate change,” Lee says. “What are the contemporary issues regarding nature and the city? Every major city in the world has or is coming up with a plan to face global climate change, such as rising sea levels, whether people believe in it or not.

“The question is, what is the role of art in this? What is the role of architecture in this? How are people imagining unimaginable futures? What is the role of art, architecture and aesthetics in these larger social and political issues? What can art say about public space, about how cities are managed?”

Professor Bio

Min Kyung Lee earned her Ph.D. from Northwestern University and joined the Holy Cross faculty in 2013, after receiving research fellowships in France and Germany. Lee is a professor in the visual arts department, and also teaches courses in architectural studies as well as gender, sexuality and women’s studies at the College. Her research is in the area of European and American modern architecture and the built environment from the 18th to 19th centuries, especially in France, and she is thematically interested in the history of urban representations and their role in the production of spatial knowledge. Lee’s scholarship has been published in works including the Journal of Architecture and she is currently working on a book project titled “The Tyranny of the Straight Line: Mapping Modern Paris.”

Giving Direction

In 2015, when Caroline Hickey ’16 took the course, Lee incorporated a community-based learning project with the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor as a tangible way of bringing the course’s themes to life.

“Our goal was to create a park that would highlight local history while incorporating the landscape to welcome visitors from surrounding neighborhoods and beyond,” said Hickey, who enrolled in the course with an interest in learning about designing landscapes. “The course brought up many different design conflicts, including those associated with accessibility, social dynamics and environmental concerns. Professor Lee set up meetings with city officials, architecture firms and urban planners to facilitate our understanding of the site.”

Hickey credits this exposure to the field, along with Lee’s careful mentorship, as giving direction to her career goals: “Lee served as my academic adviser, helping me choose appropriate art and design classes, and went above and beyond to help me apply to summer programs, and eventually to graduate school.”

Hickey is currently in her first year at Harvard University Graduate School of Design as a candidate for a master’s degree in landscape architecture. She says she’s confident that Lee’s course was the bridge that connected her interests in design and environmental studies, ultimately clarifying her goals post-graduation.

Written by Evangelia Stefanakos for the Spring 2017 issue of Holy Cross Magazine

About Holy Cross Magazine

Holy Cross Magazine (HCM) is the quarterly alumni publication of the College of the Holy Cross. The award-winning publication is mailed to alumni and friends of the College and includes intriguing profiles, make-you-think features, alumni news, exclusive photos and more. Visit magazine.holycross.edu/about to contact HCM, submit alumni class notes, milestones, or letters to the editor.

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