NEW YORK ― If someone asked you to build a city, where would you begin?
New York architects James von Klemperer and Jisop Han were given the chance to answer that question four years ago when they began designing New Songdo City, a planned city in the works on the Incheon coast, about 40 miles from Seoul.
The architects, whose resumes include major projects in the United States, Asia and elsewhere in the world, envision a patchwork of concepts borrowed from other cities: a central park like New York’s; a canal like those in Venice; Savannah-style “pocket parks”; a street inspired by Paris’ Champs-Elysees.
Their plans call for an open-air waterfront market, modeled after Boston’s Quincy Market, on the east side of the canal; cafes, outdoor dining spots and small shops will line the west bank. Two school zones in the city will be surrounded by a ring of 10-story buildings with roof terraces reminiscent of Viennese apartments.
New Songdo City, targeted for completion around 2014, is to be built on reclaimed land from the Yellow Sea. It’s part of the Incheon Free Economic Zone, established by the Korean government to attract direct investment from multinational companies. The goal is to make the area an international business and logistics concourse. Intended to cater to foreigners and Koreans alike, its unique features are to include an international school run by the Harvard Advisory Group and a hospital run by the University of Pennsylvania. The estimated total development cost for the city is $20 billion.
The project is being handled by Gale International, a joint venture between U.S. real estate firm Gale Company and Korea’s Posco Engineering and Construction. Mr. von Klemperer and Mr. Han got on board as design principal and senior designer, respectively, when Kohn Pederson Fox Associates (KPF), their well-known Manhattan-based architectural firm, was chosen to create the city’s master plan and design some of the major buildings.
“There is a huge risk in building a new city,” Mr. von Klemperer said. “You have to understand the dynamics in this part of the world and believe in its potential.”
The two have come up with a hybrid town whose diverse architectural archetypes are meant to support various financial, residential and cultural functions. Their basic idea was to imitate the gradual evolution of a normal city, but to do it all at once, from the ground up.
“Most cities are skeletons of the past that are now re-inhabited, but Songdo was an ideal as much as a challenge, in the sense of giving almost complete freedom,” Mr. von Klemperer said.
The architects see the strategy of adapting well-known concepts from other cities as a kind of “insurance policy” ― a hedge against the possibility that they’d take their own ideas too far.
“Some buildings go too far trying to be different, but ultimately they are trivial in characterizing a city,” Mr. von Klemperer said. “You also have to think in realistic terms― for instance, Brasilia [Brazil’s capital, also a planned city] is a huge, monumental expression, but a flop in terms of a city.”
As planned, New Songdo City will somewhat resemble a huge tent, divided into sectors. The skyline rises in the center to its bustling core, and slopes down toward the edges. Building height will be restricted, with the goal of combining a dense “market” city in the center and a bucolic “garden” city on the outskirts.
The central park and a street named Park Avenue are to form the city’s heart and its main commercial artery. “The central park makes Songdo a true pedestrian city and creates value for real estate, as well as breathing room,” Mr. von Klemperer said. He recalled how surprised Korean authorities were at the idea of turning the city’s priciest piece of land into a public park.
Park Avenue, cutting diagonally through the city grid, is to be an extension of a highway leading from Incheon International Airport. Lined with high-rise towers and trees, it will create a modern “downtown” atmosphere; further out will be smaller commercial streets of a kind rarely seen in planned cities.
“This variety in geometry and open space has been deliberately planned, since the mix of styles seen in different cities are results of a long historical process, whereas we are building the city in a period of 10 years,” Mr. von Klemperer said. “We’re trying to avoid many overly planned developments such as the satellite city of Bundang [south of Seoul], where the spatial formula is monotonous.”
The canal, modeled after Venice’s Grand Canal, is to run through the center of the central park. It won’t be there just for ambience; most of the key public buildings ― including a convention center, a cultural center, a museum, an aquarium and a government center ― will border the park and be accessible by water taxi.
On the south side of the park, the convention center, for which ground was broken two months ago, will boast a 144-meter-long, column-free main hall. The design was based on studies of old Korean temples and palaces; the intent is that when the sea fog rolls in, the line of the roof will resemble Korea’s mountain ranges, shrouded in mist.
Next to the center will be a residential block consisting of four tall towers and lower-level townhouse buildings. Upper floors will have views of the park and the ocean. Also nearby will be a 300-meter glass tower with offices, serviced apartments and 23 floors of a five-star hotel. The north and south sides will be lined with metal “fins” to shield the building from wind; the east and west sides will be sheer glass, reflecting the canal.
A cultural center on the oceanfront (an idea borrowed from Sydney) will be home to an opera house and other, smaller concert halls and theaters. A ramp extending from the center into the sea will face the historic site of the Incheon Landing during the Korean War. Less than a mile south of downtown will be an 18-hole golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus.
The city is to be something of a mini-metropolis; all told, it’s only as big as downtown Boston. Also, though the street plan is essentially grid-based (like Manhattan), the city will not have one-way streets. And while the city will incorporate foreign concepts, there will also be Korean motifs, particularly in the central park’s landscaping.
“But we’re not creating Las Vegas,” Mr. Han said. “You’re not going to see a traditional Korean pavilion. This is a hybrid town, but it’s not a Disney town.”
The KPF designers have created the city’s master plan, but won’t be designing all the buildings. “We’re not the kings of architecture. It’s not fair to the city either. We hope other designers will participate. We’re going to find great young architects that know how to work in the Korean context,” Mr. Han said.
The architects added that the government has been supportive of their overall aims, and is excited that they are incorporating ideas from world capitals. They have been talking with government officials on every level of development, from Incheon city to the ministries of education, transportation and welfare, since building a city involves more than brick and mortar.
“Designing Songdo, they’ve never said ‘tone it down.’ We’re on solid ground,” Mr. von Klemperer said. “We don’t do building where we feel architectural design has to compromise.
“Also, the environment for designing buildings in Korea is good,” he said. “Koreans believe in sticking with strong ideas. We’ve done some of our best work in Korea.”
Their most recent project here was Dongbu Tower in southern Seoul, which is now considered a landmark on Teheran-ro, the main boulevard for major IT businesses. Mr. von Klemperer’s recent work in Asia includes Plaza 66 in Shanghai and the ZhongGuanCu central tower in Beijing. Mr. Han is currently senior designer for the Beijing Science Technology Park.
“It has been a tremendous ride of a lifetime,” Mr. von Klemperer said of Songdo. “It warps the pace of growth, compared to the United States or Europe. This is like the lost city of Atlantis, only it is rising from the ocean. Songdo should be on the world tours of many guidebooks when it is done.”
-Published in JoongAng Daily