(Much of this originally written at the time, September 2009.)
A day trip to Seoul. Depart Sydney Thursday midday, arrive in Seoul Thursday night, depart Friday late-afternoon back to Sydney. I'm in international airspace for longer than I'm on Korean soil. Don't ask.
What follows is a series of thoughts, vignettes and photos from your tired but intrigued correspondent.
I'd love more time to even begin to explore this city, but not this time. And actually I'm not really in what most would think of as Seoul at all, but New Songdo City. (The taxi driver called it Songdo New City; others call it New Songdo City. Who knows. I was actually visiting the Songdo International Business District. Which is part of Incheon Free Economic Zone. There's a furious series of city branding skirmishes going on over here.)
New Songdo City is a vast new development on reclaimed land — the Song Do tidal flats, in fact, just on the edge of Incheon and Seoul. I arrive at around midnight on the Thursday night. My taxi driver waves his hand towards the lines of lights ascending into the murky sky, describing loose outlines of skyscrapers.
The driver had only recently put on his seat-belt, upon reaching the built-up outskirts of Incheon. We’d skimmed along the smooth infrastructure from the airport at 125kmh without him feeling the need for such protection. Perhaps this makes perfect sense.
Incheon Airport is rather good, though at night it feels essentially the same as most decent-quality contemporary airport projects. A few hours later, upon returning, I admire the fine view of hazy tree-covered hills out of the massive glass facade at the end of the departure hall. This places you somewhat.
On that return leg, as I’m in a different cab driving in the opposite direction, I can see that the sea either side of the bridge leading to the airport is rather beautiful. The vast bridge cuts between several sudden islands, rocky volcanic burps covered in feathery trees. These extrusions from the silvery dead calm of the sea remind me of the similarly sudden volcanic eruptions punctuating the plains glimpsed from the window of the shinkansen between Osaka and Tokyo.
Heading into Incheon in the dead of night though, none of that is visible, and the road is all I can see, a parabola of lights curving away into the darkness. In fact, other senses are more revealing, for as we zip along the bridge approaching the mainland, the driver apologises for the smell emanating from the more industrial parts of Incheon. It is rather fruity; not a smell you often get to experience in major western cities anymore.
Another immediate difference: I notice the resolution of the GPS on his dashboard is far greater than those seen in the west too, with richer sound. There’s more information here than out of the windows.
My flight from Sydney had been delayed by some hours due to a ground-crew strike, hence me arriving so late on Thursday night. Yet the flying experience had been rescued almost immediately be the restrained glamour of the Korean Air uniforms. The tailfins on the flight attendants’ hats would be one of the finest bits of architecture I encounter all trip. When the staff flutter through Sydney airport at the end of the trip, having quick-changed into their crisp away strip, the contrast with the dumpy, dull uniforms Qantas staff are lumbered with could not be sharper. Likewise Sydney Airport itself, and in particular its re-entry experience, hugely suffers in comparison with Incheon.
The Incheon Grand Bridge opens next month, and will cut journey time from the airport to 15 mins. Now however, the journey to New Songdo City takes around 45 minutes, racing through largely clear roads. The bridge is one of the major contributions of the various local and national governments to the development, along with other significant infrastructure such as a new subway, the airport itself, the Free Economic Zone which provides for tax and regulatory breaks for investors, and so on. Immediately, the level and quality of civic investment is impressive.
The cab drives through the outskirts of Incheon, briefly built-up backstreets that feel a little like a lower-density Tokyo, and then out into the mist once more, over long stretches of road whose edges fade into the night. Again, the driver gestures out of the window towards the lights of Songdo New City, emerging from the murk, saying that it was all ocean a decade ago.
The promotional video for New Songdo City gives some idea of the scale and nature of the development (see also the official site):
Yet as we’re slowing down outside the new Sheraton Incheon at the heart of this new city, it’s clear even on a foggy night that the development is half-finished. While the side of the road I step out on is complete, and home to several very tall buildings, the other side of an admittedly pristine main street is not really visible at all.
Looking out of my bedroom’s windows from the 13th floor of the Sheraton, it's difficult to discern much either. A carpet of lights might be a park. It could be a sequence of low-lying buildings. Whatever it is, there's a 10-lane road in-between me and it. It's still a little foggy. The air had had a salty tang to it outside the hotel.
WIkipedia suggests that New Songdo City is the largest private development project undertaken anywhere in the world (and the by now usual disclaimer: Arup are heavily involved, though the overall masterplanning and much of the architecture is Kohn Pedersen Fox.) Again, though, the public investment is significant too.
The next morning, with the yellow haze that typifies the lower atmosphere of an east Asian city barely making any impression against a perfect blue sky, it all becomes clearer. The space stretching out across the road without light was indeed a park, a large one too, and it’s surrounded by building sites furiously sprouting skyscrapers all around. It’s a quite extraordinary sight and the more I would find out about it, it feels very different to examples of speculative urbanism reclaimed from land elsewhere (cf. Christopher Hawthorne bearing witness on Dubai’s arrested development at Postopolis! LA.). This feels far more advanced and considered. Cranes are still slowly patrolling the skeletal upper reaches of their towers here.
The LEED-certified hotel was brand new, barely open, and the view from the room looked a little like this:
And I would later realise that the way the areas 'rez up' in that promotional video above, incongruously overlaid onto langorous Sigor Ros, is pretty much how it feels when you're standing and looking across to these giant cranes. You half expect a block to be completed, and then copy-and-pasted, right in front of you.
New Songdo City is a fascinating globalised interzone, designed specifically for international capital and its needs. And so ‘nonplace-making’ strategies include populating the development with a Canal Street, a Park Avenue, a Central Park, a Broadway (interesting to see that Manhattan is seen as the space to draw symbols from – rather than, say, Shanghai, Tokyo, or Beijing, never mind London, LA, Paris etc. It was planned by the New York office of Kohn Pedersen Fox, but still.)
I spend a lot of the day in the hotel — home to the a conference organised by Cisco, on “smart, connected communities” which is why I’m here (and thanks to Cisco for the invite and hospitality) — but manage to sneak out occasionally.
Walking across towards the park from the hotel later than afternoon, I take some sideways pictures of construction workers, though they quickly wave my camera away, and glare at me until it’s pocketed. The pavements are fairly deserted, and I’m fairly conspicuous as a result. There are a few people around, but not many. The form here is high-rise of course – the Z dimension.
Moving on, I come to a smart water taxi terminal by the lake. It’s well-detailed, with quality build and street furniture, and a few people actually milling about, as if it were already a real city.
Walking on through the ‘gate’ of rock formations, this end of the park is dominated by an elegant winding pathway through the trees. Central Park is rather good, actually, even at this early immature stage. It’s somehow deftly manicured and formal as well as rugged and organic. Like the other Central Park in fact.
As if a subtle nod to the arrays of scaffolding that surround the park on all sides, the young trees are supported, tied and pinned together horizontally. For some reason it reminds me of Steven Holl’s ‘linked hybrid’ scheme in Beijing (here's a subsequent post on that amazing piece of work.)
As I return from the lake to the hotel, I have to pause for some minutes at the pedestrian crossing across the 10-lane highway. It really is a very, very wide road, entirely out of kilter with the prevailing winds in western urban planning. In former Soviet republics, planning codes inherited from another age ensure that military aircraft can land on roads if necessary – surely Seoul has no such equivalent stipulation.
While the existence of the highway will generate large amounts of traffic at some point, there is very little traffic at the moment. When there is, New Songdo City is to file it away every single bit of it in underground parking; an approach that is traditionally very difficult to finance and build, yet will do something to lessen the impact of cars on the immediate environment. But the expanse of the street is so overwhelming, even when empty, that it’s difficult to see how a active non-car street life will emerge in these conditions.
Construction lorries and taxis are the only users of the road at the moment, though the timers on the lights seem to be practicing for the scenario a few years hence, and the presence of a traffic policeman, and then a woman with a flag, fairly precisely controls who’s crossing when.
The lights finally change, and a gaggle of giggling girls on bikes suddenly engulfs me as I'm crossing the road. They dart, swoop and stumble around me, filling the air with the shrill, slightly unhinged noise of teenagers on unstable transportation.
The lack of traffic noise is eery, given how the space is so clearly delineated for many, many cars, like being alone in a vast cathedral or standing in a football stadium on a quiet weekday morning.
As I only had minutes here and there, literally, when I could escape the conference, I didn't get to much further than this. So, I didn't get to the various attractions of the Incheon Fair, or buildings with beguiling names like Tomorrow City, the delights of the Teddy Bear Pavilion or Robot Science Future Pavilion, the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club of Korea, World Carnival on Parade, the Songdo International School devised by an advisory group from Harvard …
NB. I'm in no way sneering – cf. Chinglish – about these manglings of language and concept. This is all truly fabulous, and genuinely fantastic. Why not a Robot Science Future Pavilion? Every other aspect of urban life will emerge over time, or is within reach in Seoul, so why not start with the fantastical and let the mundane emerge later? Who knows, it might be an inspired way of avoiding NIMBYism – when you’ve started a development with a Teddy Bear Pavilion, the bar for subsequent development is set in an interesting place …
Yet right now, the fine grain is non-existant; or rather the grain is set to ‘monumental’, at least from the perspective of these central boulevards. They’re larger than a Champs-Elysee, which may have been another reference point, and certainly without the lining of elegant six-storey blocks. Immature trees line the boulevard, and the finish is as high-quality as you’d expect from east Asian builders, but the ground planes of the skyscrapers don’t currently offer much back to the street.
The Canal Walk development looks better in terms of a finer grain and active streets, yet I don’t get to see it first hand. This view indicates some difference in scale, at least in the building if not in the road.
South Korea is home to some experimentation in built form, for sure – plucking something at random, the ‘Paju Book City’ development, devoted to the publishing industry - yet the architecture here doesn’t seem to have that spirit, at least not yet. Again, this may come later, as the spaces left between the ‘monuments’ become encrusted with smaller developments. This is the same strategy hoped for in Melbourne Docklands, amongst others, and I can see more validity in the approach here in Seoul, where the cultural appreciation of density is greater, as is the sheer weight of numbers (population, business) in near proximity. Equally, a diverse set of design firms will help – currently, KPF are delivering some of the core buildings, but the Sheraton is by HOK, Libeskind is doing the Riverstone Mall, and so on. But you really hope for a Holl (or a BIG or equivalent) to start punching holes and slicing apertures, throwing across bridges, diagonals and other interventions in and around these large blocks. However, the build quality of what I could get close to was certainly good.
Reflecting on what I could see – and indeed looking back on my photos – it's difficult to suspend a little of the disbelief about the development. The first instinct, trained through an almost Pavlovian repeated exposure to Jacobs, Whyte et al, and the cities they stalked, is to wonder how genuine street life can possibly evolve from such an apparently arid framework for the streets. But quickly moving beyond that, you realise Jacobs in particular is increasingly of value to only a certain type of city, and that for all her pioneering, peerless insight, her findings seem essentially conservative, almost irrelevant in the face of these new urban projects. To be clear, I can think of few more valuable urbanists than Jacobs, and the kind of rich city life she helped preserve is a personal favourite. But obviously we have to move beyond personal preferences, and the canonisation of Jacobs has perhaps stretched her work too far beyond the particular cities it concerned. (For more, this is a well-balanced review of some of her work, with regard to the opposition of Moses, which has the guts to point out the connection with NIMBYism, no matter how inadvertent.)
What we can continue to take from Jacobs, however – no matter that we're not in Greenwich Village anymore – is an idea of scale, access and freedom of movement for the pedestrians, of enabling the street ballet. A contemporary genius like Steven Holl will reinterpret Jacobs (and Walter Benjamin) and reconfigure this as 'urban porosity', designing a series of large buildings, high-rises of various forms, in an urban Asian context and still find ways to emphasise physical connectivity to an almost exaggerated degree. "Porosity becomes essential for the vitality of street life", as he puts it (in his superb new book Urbanisms).
There is little obvious porosity here. And so I can't find a way of justifying the monumental scale and homogeneity of some of the streets, and the invitation to the private car to be the primary mode of transit, combined with an approach to retail that seems entirely articulated in terms of large shopping malls at this point.
Towers are not a problem; it’s the lack of complexity and diversity that might be. Optimistically, one might hope that these approaches will be dissolved in difference over time, to be contrasted with something smaller, more adaptable and responsive, exemplifying provenance even (we can talk of provenance, even in new cities on reclaimed land). It should be possible for the initial built fabric to become porous, encrusted, overgrown, transient and entwined with smaller constructions as it develops. We're looking at the foundations.
But again, I don't think we can assess these cities through the prism of Jacobs and Gehl. Whyte, I think, is a little more transferable perhaps, but essentially we need a synthesis of their old ideas with these new locations, to form a new understanding of urbanism for Asian cities in the 21st century.
An item in the Joong Ang Daily: "The University of Seoul, a public university that will mark its 100th anniversary in 2018, has set a special goal of spearheading globalization by nurturing talent in urban sciences." (The Joong Ang Daily is an odd read: feels state-led, full of optimistic news about rising won, dipping energy use and the Korean economy's "stunning rebound", alongside 'editorial' pieces by the chairman and CEO of the Pohang Iron and Steel Co. on the promise of materials science. That kind of thing. And actually, there's not much wrong with that (unless in isolation). We could all use a little more of The Daily Optimism, perhaps.)
While Songdo is positioned to draw ‘western’ capital to a strategic intersection between South Korea, China and Japan, Philip Bowring recently noted that Korea’s links with Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand are just as crucial. This economy is extremely well-placed.
Another aspect of New Songdo City that is particularly interesting is that it is one of the first genuine examples of what they call the "ubiquitous city" i.e. ubiquitous connectivity between (in theory) all objects and actors in the city, from lamp posts to park benches to cars to buildings. ICT is spoken of as the "fourth utility" in this city, and developers Gale are particularly close to Cisco, with a framework for "Intelligent Urbanisation" signed with NSIC and Cisco. (Note also Autodesk's digital model of the city.)
What I find interesting is that it doesn't yet seem to have changed the form of the city. And I think it should, as urban informatics can attempt to engage with the architecture and urban form directly. Personally, I do believe there ubiquitous real-time networked connectivity will have some direct physical impact on urban space and form, and we're working hard to figure that out. Elsewhere in Seoul, the Yongsan IBD development may have some more advanced elements of this. Equally architectural firm The Living – a City of Sound favourite (see also one and two) – are directly exploring how the built environment of Seoul responds to networked connectivity with their installation …
As to the conference, I give a talk about Arup’s work in urban informatics, as part of a session with several other speakers around property development (It’s mildly interesting how post-talk Q&As often don’t appear to work in an East Asian business context – the unthinking imposition of western business culture is being successfully resisted, which is a good thing I think.)
Two Indian gentlemen from the ‘GIFT’ project – ‘GIFT’ standing for Gujarat International Finance Tec-City – come up to me afterwards and give me a promotional pack about their gleaming new city. I used to go to conferences and get a promotional Google pen or somesuch. These days, you get an entire city in a brochure.
In other sessions, I was impressed by Euro Beinat’s presentation on data mining and visualisation of mobile phone activity to explore the way the city is used – attempting to “take the pulse of the city”.
The Mayor of Incheon, Sang-Soo Ahn, talked of their work with Cisco, IBM and others, and their desire to see Incheon in the top 10 cities in the world by 2010, with a ‘compact smart city’ vision.
Interesting also to hear Cisco’s Wim Elfrink put a price on the return on investment of taking a ‘ubiquitous city’ approach, claiming a jump in revenue for developers from the standard $3 per square metre ROI to $8 per sqm if you retrofit technologies, up to $15 per sqm if you design with it in mind. He also claims energy efficiencies of around 30%.
Jane Prentice of Brisbane City Council presents some of their ideas - interesting also that Brisbane were the only Australian city visibly in attendance. The leader of the Metropolis consortium of cities, Josep Roig, also gives a great talk – involving an memorable analogy about urban governance that re-conceived the “city as lasagna (with) layers of pasta taking care of layers of meat”.
Jonathan Thorpe, of Gale International, the developers of New Songdo City, gives an interesting summary of the project’s genesis and current and future states of development.
He outlines the scale of Gale’s investment here: 100m sq ft of development across 1500 acres of reclaimed waterfront, home to 250,000 daytime workers, and an aspiration to be the key hub of North-East Asia, connecting Japan and China. 40% of the development is to be open space. He notes it’s 30 miles southwest of downtown Seoul, but that “all those roads are blocked” – hence the importance of those infrastructure investments.
Recently, New Songdo City has generally garnered the headlines for its sustainability credentials (see also Inhabitat). In terms of treated greywater and seawater, and energy conservation across the buildings, New Songdo City is a current ‘best in class’. They’re introducing 25km of bicycle lanes, and have expanded the Incheon City Bus and introduced a water taxi. He directly states that they’re trying to reduce the reliance on private car that Korea has. The development is a pilot for the LEED-ND certification (and would be one of the largest examples of that, by far).
(The bicycle infrastructure does seem impressive, at first glance, although not quite as considered in every place it should be. These (below) may be temporary.)
Despite these advances, Thorpe is refreshingly honest about their approach to sustainabilty, which he describes as “75% of the way there, not 100% of the way.”
"Part of the challenge,” he says, “was that it started before they had a sensitivity to sustainable design, back in 2002 – it took a while for us to get to grips with that." But, not least due to the financial value proposition in sustainable design, they certainly have got to grips with it, in terms of ESD criteria at least.
Beyond that, though, it’s not particularly sustainable for the model for the city – as that NE Asian hub – to be predicated on air travel. Songdo IBD is even marketed as an aerotropolis – "3.5 hours to a 1/3 of the world's population".
That is a fairly extraordinary advantage, to be sure, but it means that although the carbon footprint of New Songdo’s built fabric will be close to ‘best in class’, the footprint of its operations and physical connectivity will be significant.
So it occurs to me that the logical thing to do would be the greatest engineering project of the next centuries; quite possibly the greatest diplomatic and economic project of the next centuries too, linking Japan with China via Korea via a high-speed rail link across gigantic bridges. (Of course.)
The easier half of the route is across Korea, perhaps via the massive port city of Busan, and over the Tsushima Strait via Tsushima Island, where I reckon it continues through to Fukuyoka, at which point you can connect to the Shinkansen and Bob’s your uncle. In the other direction, although the shorter span would be across to Weihei, one of those Chinese cities of several million I've never heard of, I suspect the better option would be Qingdao, further to the south but already connected by high-speed rail to Jinan, and then Beijing, Shanghai etc. While the travel times would be longer than the one-to-five hours claimed in the radius of flight times indicated above, it'd be a productive, efficient, comfortable and spectacular way to spend the time. And yes, potentially sustainable too, given the electric trains could be powered by renewable energy.
In either direction, any bridge would need to be substantially elevated to lift out of some of the busiest shipping channels in the world, but re-casting the bridges as a series of hops across a supergrid of tidal and wind power generators, with terraformed resorts, floating data centres and scientific research stations along the way, might be interesting. Perhaps even recasting what bridges are, as 'linear city inhabited bridges', a 21st century Ponte Vecchio. But this might be a project for the 22nd rather than 21st century, even, assuming we’re still around. A pipe dream perhaps, but no more than the idea of ‘sustainable commercial aviation’, and an answer of sorts to the question of sustainable transit to Songdo.
Of course the irony of me labouring some hare-brained scheme involving the world's longest bridges in the name of sustainability, after I'd flown to Korea for the day, is not lost on me. I'll move on.
All told, a few hours in any city can only give a glimpse. To be honest, a few years in any decent city can only give a glimpse too. I’m pleased to have seen New Songdo City at this stage of development though. It’s somewhat thrilling to see a city emerging from the ground like this, unsteadily picking itself up as if a new-born foal, trying to develop a rich urban patina from what is effectively a blank canvas (leaving aside whatever the local flora and fauna are wondering about what happened to their tidal flats – “I’m sure it was round here somewhere …” etc. etc.)
To say it’s early days is an understatement. London’s Docklands is only just beginning to develop an identity over a function, after almost two decades – albeit a peculiar identity at that. Melbourne’s Docklands is nowhere near yet. Yet there are people living and working here in New Songdo City already, despite much of it being building site, and you suspect that urban processes – of all kinds – move with greater velocity in this bit of the world. It’ll be fascinating to observe how city-ness emerges in New Songdo.
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