Project Songdo

Project Songdo

Songdo is not a city. Instead, it is a district of Incheon—South Korea’s third most populous city—built from 1992 onwards on land reclaimed to the Yellow Sea. Its geographic location is the reason that triggered its development, its raison d’etre. Songdo was never planned to answer to any local need for housing, for which many cities are being built. Rather, it was a financial and political strategy to maintain South Korean’s economic growth in between the giants that are Japan and China. As a product of speculation, Songdo is the business itself.

Daewoo commissions OMA to design the first master plan in 1996. But three years Daewoo went bankrupt due to the Asian financial crisis and the project was put on hold. The need for foreign investment to support the local economy and boost Songdo’s revival made Incheon turn it into a Free Economic Zone (IFEZ). The new strategy had its first significant impact in 2002, when investors Posco and Gale acquired 600 hectares of Songdo’s territory. They commissioned KPF to design a second master plan for the future International Business District (IBD).The global economic crisis of 2007 led to a shift in Songdo’s strategy. International investors were hard to find and therefore zoning was adapted for housing a Korean population, allowing more built area, to be sold cheaper, mainly to local companies.

Fig. 1
View from Central Park towards most consolidated residential neighborhood of Songdo within the International Business District.

Fig. 2
Plan drawn in cavalier perspective showing the different levels of the new plinth structure.

The counterproposal aims at contributing to a more hierarchized and human-scaled public space. It sets out a new system of plinths to design a structure of public space within urban blocks, and represents a strategic tool that can be replicated in different parts of Songdo’s master plan. The site selected is located in its most consolidated area, designated a centre, and is composed of a strip of three typical housing blocks between a residential district and Central Park. This project takes into consideration the existent urban parameters, and acts according to the significant freedom that developers have to design their projects, solely bearing in mind the stipulated uses and the limits of areas.

Constructed in a time when population was only starting to come in, the existing plinths are complimented with a missing 17 % of retail space to reach the 30 % needed for the present number of inhabitants. Structure makes use of a standardized Korean commercial unit of 8 x 8 meters. The intervention proposes a new public space hierarchy for the blocks and defines specific points of contact with the surrounding areas. These blocks mediate the relation between Central Park’s access points and the whole residential neighbourhood. The new circulation areas are conceived as ‘common grounds’, managing in parallel the different types of mobility proper of a living city—the pedestrian, the bicycle, the car, or the bus. The different types of streets are intersected by vertical accesses, which provide access to the multi-level plinths.

The existing three-story plinth is complemented with two extra floors—one that hosts offices and such, and one for private facilities. The flexibility of the same structural grid enables these spaces to have various sizes, providing an answer to the demand of small-scale entrepreneurial activities and start-ups that proliferate today in the Korean context.

With this strategy, the seemingly luxuriant yet underused court-yards that formerly occupied the ground floor are moved to the plinth’s rooftop. Despite the physical segregation of public and private spheres, there is a visual connection through the various light-wells. The new private level and rooftop is to be occupied by leisure and sports facilities for residents and gains a new status with privileged views over the park. With providing more qualified common areas within the housing complexes—adding value to the ‘residential product’—its low occupancy rate can be inverted towards more populated compounds.

The proposed strategy acts according to the legal and economic mechanisms at play, in order to create a more sustainable urban condition. The new plinth system has the potential to blur today’s radical segregation between public and private realms, by creating a new set of intermediary layers in between.

Fig. 3
Cross-section perspective through one of the covered passages, showing the visual relations between the different levels, how residential neighborhood is connected to the Central Park, and the new commercial areas within the blocks.