Since 1953, the 160-mile (260 kilometer) strip of land along the Korean Peninsula's 38th parallel has served as a Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. The DMZ is more than a border; it's a heavily guarded, nearly four-mile-wide (6 kilometer) buffer zone between the two countries. Each military stays behind its own country's edge of the zone, perpetually awaiting potential conflict, and access to the interior of the zone itself is unyieldingly limited. Apart from the landmines and patrolling troops, the interior of the DMZ also holds thriving natural ecosystems that have been the subject of studies on what happens when wildlife is allowed to flourish in the absence of human contact.
In a competition that asked participants to design an underground bathhouse near the Kaesong Industrial Park, a (currently suspended) cooperative economic project that employs workers from both North and South Korea, research initiative Arch Out Loud imagined a DMZ that accommodates non-military structures that are typically seen as out of place in areas of such sensitivity and tension. The winning proposal by Studio M.R.D.O and Studio LAM utilizes the performative element of a bathhouse, where visitors are both audience members and actors, to the address the tensions—both geopolitical, from its surrounding environment, and personal, from the related emotions visitors carry with them—between both groups.
From the beginning of the experience, visitors from North and South Korea move through the bathhouse in the same way they move through the Korean Peninsula: separately. Visitors enter the small above-ground portion of the bathhouse via two different entrances that correspond to their respective sides of the 38th parallel. While checking in, they may catch a glimpse of a visitor from the other side, but immediately move to separate changing rooms where they put on contrasting robes.
After entering, they begin a winding journey down the bathhouse's underground dome structure, descending down a set of two spiraling ramps. As they walk, visitors from each side of the DMZ remain on their separate paths. North and South nearly meet, where the two ramps cross, and view each other from across the space at others. The process physically confronts each participant with their own apprehensions, bringing them close enough to touch the other side before pulling them apart and back into the role of spectator and spectacle.
At the bottom, after being guided through an exacting and meditative experience, visitors from each side join in the waters of the bath. The emotions that have been conjured and processed on the walk down dissipate through the liquid, and tensions from North and South blend and drift away.
The space creates its own narrative through the movement of bodies, one that defies the parallelism of the DMZ outside. It makes no attempt to ignore or chase away the nerves that visitors will inevitably carry with them from outside, but rather provides a physical means by which to explore them. It speaks to the intensely personal component that the conflict carries for many Koreans: family members trapped on one side of the 38th parallel, a feeling of loss in the separation of a country that used to be one unit, or even general disdain for the other side. The firm's renderings focus on the older generation of Koreans, who are perhaps closer to the emotional fallout from the split and continued conflicts after having spent their childhoods in and out of war.
Studio M.R.D.O and Studio LAM's commitment to creating this narrative experience for Korean visitors also makes the project unsuccessful for visitors who bring a different background to the space. To put aside for a moment the feasibility of building a cultural project in the DMZ, there remains one key issue with the site. Unlike the ability of a museum or monument to provide viewers with a shared context, the bathhouse relies on the expectation of a certain unity—even if it is one that comes from disunity. Although the DMZ is one of the most heavily visited destinations for tourists in the area, the spatial experience of the bathhouse as it was designed is, psychologically, almost entirely inaccessible to foreigners. This decision is a politicized one: what does it mean to make space for one cultural group, to prioritize the needs of locals over the potential for colossal tourist revenue? The bathhouse proposal is humbly unapologetic in setting its scope to fully encompass only the people closest to its context, and is all the more poignant because of it.