Following a decade of U.S. bombing campaigns that obliterated northern Vietnam, East Germany helped Vietnam rebuild in an act of socialist solidarity. In Building Socialism: The Afterlife of East German Architecture in Urban Vietnam (Duke UP, 2020) Christina Schwenkel examines the utopian visions of an expert group of Vietnamese and East German urban planners who sought to transform the devastated industrial town of Vinh into a model socialist city. Drawing on archival and ethnographic research in Vietnam and Germany with architects, engineers, construction workers, and tenants in Vinh’s mass housing complex, Schwenkel explores the material and affective dimensions of urban possibility and the quick fall of Vinh’s new built environment into unplanned obsolescence. She analyzes the tensions between aspirational infrastructure and postwar uncertainty to show how design models and practices that circulated between the socialist North and the decolonizing South underwent significant modification to accommodate alternative cultural logics and ideas about urban futurity. By documenting the building of Vietnam’s first planned city and its aftermath of decay and repurposing, Schwenkel argues that underlying the ambivalent and often unpredictable responses to modernist architectural forms were anxieties about modernity and the future of socialism itself.
This interview is part of an NBN special series on “Mobilities and Methods.”
Christina Schwenkel is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Riverside, and author of The American War in Contemporary Vietnam: Transnational Remembrance and Representation.
Alize Arıcan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research focuses on urban renewal, futurity, care, and migration in Istanbul, Turkey. Her work has been featured in Current Anthropology, City & Society, Radical Housing Journal, and entanglements: experiments in multimodal ethnography.