Urban Visual Studies draws on interpretive practices developed by the disciplines of architecture, art history, cultural studies, film and media studies, gender studies, and literary studies, while locating analyses within larger structures of empire, globalization, cultural exchange, and migration. Urban history and urban studies traditionally utilized quantitative research and survey techniques to elucidate shifts in demography, economy, and class. The emerging paradigm of Urban Visual Studies retains these concerns but investigates visual and cultural forms in and of the metropolis such as buildings, plans, maps, models, mass culture, drawings, art objects, photographs, and moving images.

As complex systems of large-scale dynamics and local experiences, cities present a unique challenge to identify evidence that can be systematically (yet non-reductively) theorized and historically categorized.  Urban Visual Studies productively relates the abstract sense of space to the intimate notion of place, the global network to the everyday, and the micro cultural detail to the macro context.  As an interdisciplinary research field, it recasts questions about space, agency, power, status, gender, modernity, and consumption investigated by history and the social sciences in light of the specific objects and ways of seeing investigated by scholars of visual forms.  Three broad but overlapping approaches constitute its methodology. One interprets images, forms, objects, and archives.  Another investigates the everyday practices, rituals, and social dynamics of urban vision.  A third  involves mapping, diagramming, and creating spatial and temporal simulations and databases.

We seek students across the humanities and social sciences in anthropology, architecture, art history, film and media studies, geography, history, literature, planning, sociology, urban studies, and interdisciplinary graduate programs working on a wide variety of topics, media, regions, and periods. Investigations of objects in the fine arts, material culture studies, comparative or cross-cultural research, reception studies, the identification of new objects and archives, institutional histories,  genealogies of morphological or generic change, critical interrogations of distinctions between urban and rural, digital modeling, readings of mass cultural representations, the analysis of canonical material utilizing novel or non-standard methodologies, or redefinitions of the city in response to changing communication technologies are some of the directions this research might entail.  Our goal is to explore diverse examples of urban visuality utilizing a wide variety of methodologies and disciplinary traditions.


  • Jennifer Lynne Boles

    Indiana University / Bloomington, History

    “8 Millimeters Versus 8 Millions”: Superochero Cinema, Mexico City, and National Identity after the Golden Age
    My dissertation examines the connection between urbanization, national identity, and the rise of independent cinema in 1960s and 1970s Mexico. By contextualizing the decline of Mexico’s “Golden Age” national cinema in the 1950s and the rise of socially conscious independent genres in the 1960s, I propose to show how a group of filmmakers called the superocheros sought to expose what they saw as a contradictory dichotomy of urban progress and rural exoticism that lay at the core of Mexican identity. This became particularly clear in 1968 when the spectacle of modernity and cultural nationalism clashed with the most visible challenge to that image: the student movement and the state-sponsored massacre and imprisonment of hundreds of students. Inspired by 1968 and the regional genre of “New Latin American Cinema” that combined social activism with cinematic expression, independent filmmakers focused on the changing cityscape to critique their marginalized status. The superocheros, however, distinguished themselves with 8mm hand-held cameras that allowed them to move through the city streets. By using their cameras and their bodies to capture the city’s evidence of disparity and disillusionment, they renegotiated the abstract and material boundaries of modernity and national identity. My project combines the textual analysis of film studies with the disciplinary strengths of history to examine how a section of Mexico’s youth saw themselves through the lens of the city—a place that made transparent the contradictions between modernity and Mexico's national identity but that also served as a space for its very contestation and invention.
  • Mona Damluji

    University of California / Berkeley, Architecture

    Baghdad on the Big Screen: Iraq’s urban history through the lens of British Newsreels from the 1920s to the 1950s
    British colonial authorities declared the military occupation of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul provinces in the wake of World War I and a collapsed Ottoman Empire, just as British plans to inaugurate the extraction of petroleum from the region were coming to fruition. Meanwhile in London, the nascent British film industry had launched into regular production of popular cinemagazines, which featured newsreels showing the first moving images of people and places in Iraq to be exhibited to mass European audiences. The newsreels that were produced in affiliation with British military and petroleum industries between 1920 and 1960 focused on various representations of urban modernity, and therefore these films not only embody the radical transition of orientalist representations from literature and painting into the dynamic medium of moving image, but also offer a critical window into the earliest visualizations of the twentieth century urbanization in the Middle East as it developed in the context of modernist trends in architecture and planning. Underscoring my interest in tracing the evolution of imagined urban geographies of “Iraq” in contemporary western visual culture is the fact that the history of colonial intervention in Iraq by the military, oil and media industries remains a crucial precedent for understanding contemporary American and British engagement in the region.
  • Bridget Gilman

    University of Michigan, History of Art

    Robert Bechtle’s Painted Streets: Tracing the Shifting Realities of Northern California’s Urban and Suburban Landscapes
    The focus of my proposed project is representations of spatial environments in 1960s and 70s California art movements. The core of this work centers on the paintings of Robert Bechtle, a member of the Photorealist movement and prolific documentarian of his own Bay Area surroundings. Bechtle’s work is significant not merely due to its skillful illusionism or its convincing “realness,” but also because of the unusual nature of the subjects he has chosen to depict. Concentrating on the seemingly banal spaces and objects of daily life, Bechtle’s artworks, though the rigor of their transformation from photograph to painting, elucidate the signification of “ordinary,” lived spaces. Moreover, working from the 1960s through the present day, the artist has recorded subtle shifts in landscape that demographic statistics fail to capture. Encouraging the viewer to think across the seemingly discrete categories of “city” and “suburb,” the artist illuminates how the history and current reality of such spatial boundaries is much more fluid than their respective terms imply.
  • Zachary Michael Hilpert

    College of William and Mary, American Studies

    Picturing the American City in Peril: The aesthetic of urban devastation and its role in American culture
    Why do we choose so often to understand our cities through images of their destruction? Our society has nurtured an aesthetic of devastation specific to American cities that plays on a deeper fear of the urban environment. In what ways do these images reveal our greatest fears within the urban landscape? Why do we document the worst moments of a city’s history before we rebuild, and does this aestheticization serve our collective memory, or our collective amnesia? I will explore images created in the wake of such iconic events as the 1865 intentional burning of Richmond and the unintentional 1871 Chicago fire, the 1889 Johnstown flood, and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. My work will also cover images of more gradual forms of urban decay, such as the effects of the Depression in urban centers and the mid-century ghettoization of Detroit, and representations of twenty-first century events like the September 11 attacks and the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. These instances of catastrophe produced images that shape the historical narrative for viewers. Understanding the cultural work done by these images will allow us to comprehend how we have collectively understood and reshaped urban America in response to our own fears.
  • Max Hirsh

    Harvard University, Architecture and Urban Planning

    High-Speed Urbanism: The Infrastructure of International Mobility in Frankfurt and Hong Kong
    My research focuses on the ways in which the built environment engages with questions of mobility and more specifically on the architectural and planning strategies that are designed to attract or retain skilled migrants. This summer, I would like to analyze the visual and social dimensions of three urban typologies that promote the circulation of people, goods, and information: 1) the global transit hub; 2) the international business center; and 3) the short-term residential complex. My initial hypothesis is that these mobility-driven environments are interrelated and can be understood as the physical interface between the global and local scales of urbanism. Mediating between these scales, they generate urban environments that are globally accessible while being rooted in a local sociocultural context. In so doing, they create synthetic urban spaces that attempt to provide a sense of visual and aesthetic coherence in the face of cultural and geographic discontinuities. Focusing on several sites in Frankfurt and Hong Kong, I hope to analyze the syncretic results in order to better understand the impact of international mobility on the built environment.
  • Nathan Holmes

    University of Chicago, Cinema and Media Studies

    Scenes of Crime: The Cinematic Aesthetics of Criminality and City Space
    My project seeks to explore the ways that crime and detective films construct and imagine a particular vision of urban space and life. In my research I propose to look at a number films and directors, primarily French and American, in order to understand how particular film styles both manifested and were inflected by transformations in urban space. It is my idea that particular tropes developed in crime films – such as displays of burglary and pursuits through city streets – supply both pleasurable spectacles as well as visual metaphors for understanding the complex relation between architecture, individual movement, and the social relations that are produced by, and produce, urban life. To ground these ideas, I would like to trace the ways that these films sustain and transfigure ideas of criminality developed in the nineteenth century through popular literature, the press, and the emergent field of criminology. It is my hope that this study will not only inform ideas about urban sociality, but, in that it traces these ideas out of a history of cinema, it will also be able to make claims about the ways that film optically produces and reproduces types of visual perception that enable us to see the modern world with different eyes.
  • Alfredo Rivera

    Duke University, Art, Art History & Visual Studies

    Re-Envisioning Cuba: Art, Architecture, and Visual Culture in Havana, 1955-1970
    My project explores the relationship between aesthetics and ideology in post-revolutionary Cuba by mapping various visual documents of the era against the politics of the Cuban Revolution. Focusing on Havana, I consider shifts in the city’s architecture, the reconfiguration of urban spaces, developments in poster and billboard art, and changes in the fine arts. How early- to mid- twentieth century Cuban modern art and architecture deployed the avant-garde in revolutionary Cuba, as well as how Soviet Realism was adapted and resisted is central to my project. The new Cuban government placed particular emphasis on the cultural development of the island; it was during this early, experimental era that the debate around Cuban aesthetics was most in flux. My thesis will explore investigate such questions as: How did the Cuban government develop an aesthetic of the revolutionary? How were architectural spaces from the island’s capitalist pasts re-inhabited, and how did the government envision the future of Cuban architecture? What was the status of artists after the revolution, and how did the government use the arts for ideological ends? Lastly, how does Havana serve as a model for analyzing the relationships of politics, representation, and the urban imaginary?
  • Annis Sengupta

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Urban Studies and Planning

    Stories of trauma, visions of change: exploring how interpretations of Camden, NJ,'s decline are impacting its revitalization
    Camden, NJ, a city of about 80,000 located directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, PA, entered a period of intense revitalization efforts when its finances were taken over by the state in 2002. Since then, six years of visioning, planning, and political wrangling have met with only limited success. The population has continued to decline, and plans have met with significant resident protest. In his study of the history of Camden’s decline and renewal, Howard Gillette revealed the presence of narratives in the suburbs explaining the city’s problems in reference to the violence and instability of the 1960s and 1970s that culminated in the 1971 race riots (2005). He also identifies mistrust between community leaders and city and county decision-makers as a major factor stalling planning processes. In this study I will explore these narratives to understand how they are influencing planning processes. I will use theories of narrative construction of identity and theories of urban governance to understand how competing interpretations of the city’s history are shaping competing visions for the city’s future. I will also explore how the narratives are intertwined with images of the city’s past and future.
  • Joshua A Souliere

    Florida International University, History

    Religious Encounters, Political Authority, and Space: Urban Space in Zaria, Nigeria, 1500-1800
    This study will examine how the urban space of Zaria (Nigeria) was shaped by the conflict and negotiations between Maliki Islam and indigenous Maguzawa religious discourses from 1500 to 1800. It argues that the contours of encounters, negotiations, and interactions between these two religious traditions were inscribed on Zaria's urban landscape. As Maliki Islam and Maguzawa both held strong notions about the proper layout, configuration, meaning, and symbolic function of the physical landscape, urban space, architecture, and visual experience, I expect to be able to use the imprints of the ideologies and discourses of these two hegemonic cultural traditions on the landscape to develop a richly textured understanding of the cultural history of Zaria over a three hundred year period. This project will utilize the theoretical and methodological approaches in cultural history, architectural history, geography, anthropology, and archaeology to interpret the urban space of Zaria as an arena of sociopolitical conflict and cultural negotiation between two competing ideologies and discourses. Conceptually, it draws upon Antonio Gramsci’s theories of hegemony, Henri Lefebvre’s conceptualization of space as social production, Joseph Roach’s notions of urban space as cultural performance, and upon William MacDonald’s thesis on the culturally-didactic nature of urban layout and architecture.
  • Sara Stevens

    Princeton University, Architecture

    Space Rules: Aesthetic Regulation in the American Built Environment
    I propose to study the functional and visual effects of urban policies and regulations that have placed limitations on the aesthetics of real estate development in twentieth century America. For example, private developers who build large residential subdivisions usually write the deed restrictions that limit what the homeowner can do on the property—from building setbacks to paint color to clotheslines. These private contracts have profound effects on the built environment by establishing formal patterns which extend over large areas of land. This project stems from my growing interest in the interaction between real estate developers and business leaders on the one hand and local and national politics on the other through urban planning. The history of the planning discipline has fascinating ties to the rise in expert culture and scientific rationalization, but it also belies countless links to the business community and corporate influence. Seeing how these forces interact on the turf of regulations on the built environment might tell us more about the networks of power at play in urban space, about the role of planning in America, and about the historical development of our visual surroundings. Reading the visual landscape for clues about the underlying private contracts and business deals will further inform our understanding of the spatial practices that shape urban America.
  • Jia Tan

    University of Southern California, Cinema/TV

    Experimental Art/Film in an Urbanization Experiment: Contemporary Chinese film and art in Pearl River Delta Region
    This project focuses on the southern region of China—the Pearl River Delta Region, which is a geographical area including Macau and Hong Kong, and most part of Canton Province. Economically, this region has been one of the leading regions since China’s reform and “Open-up” policy in the late 1970s. Pearl River Delta Region has been a successful state-led economic experiment to “import” market economy. Culturally, it is a major Cantonese-speaking area with its own regional identity despite the fact that Hong Kong and Macau were not part of China until the late 1990s. With the rapid urbanization process in this region, experimental arts in various visual forms have begun to gain a presence in the global film and art market. My project will survey the historical development of experimental artistic practices (mostly in film, video, photography and interactive media) and how these practices response to or allegorize the urbanization process. This project will also examine the network and interactions of local Cantonese artists inside and outside the region and how they mobilize themselves across national boundaries and eventually involve in the international art market. In brief, this project intends to write a contemporary historiography on the social history of such experimental visual culture in a region of urbanization experiment.
  • Alla G. Vronskaya

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Architecture

    Landscaping Dictatorships
    What was the early Soviet landscape and what was it imagined to be? What was its place in the new socialist type of town? What was its role in the process of constructing the new Soviet identity? Contemporary scholarship still does not have answers to these questions. I aim to draw a comprehensive picture of Soviet landscape from the Revolution of 1917 until the death of Stalin in 1953 in all its aspects, including attitudes about the past and future (restorations, demolitions, and the polemics that surrounded them), questions of national and class identification, and development of the new (proletarian) style in landscape architecture. A significant part of research will be devoted to theories of town planning that determined landscape architecture, such as the polemics of socialist settling of 1929, the Stalin plan for Moscow of 1935, new town planning conception. Comparing Soviet realized and unrealized landscape projects with those produced in other, especially totalitarian, countries (Nazi Germany, Maoist China, Post-Soviet Central Asia) will form an important part of research.