As South Korea’s economy stabilizes, its ambition to be recognized as a major international business hub is leading to a bold building strategy. Ann Lok Lui investigates how Korea aims to impress the world not only with its tall towers but its large-scale sustainable planning.
Buzz and hype have surrounded China’s recent building boom, but to the east, South Korea is becoming the next hot spot for international architecture.
Far from deferring to China’s hectic development, South Korea is positioning itself to be the East Asian country that grows not only faster but also smarter. In 2010, Engineering News Record ranked Seoul as home to six of the 75 top international contractors—a significant number for a nation so small. The juxtaposition of major construction corporations side-by-side with government support and a growing national interest in architectural design is producing opportunities inevitably attractive to international players.
From big corporate firms from the United States to young, internationally-trained Koreans, architects are capitalizing on opportunities in the East Asian nation and particularly Seoul as it rises to compete with China and assert itself as a business hub for northeastern Asia.
After generations of political turmoil, South Korea can now guarantee a degree of economic stability. As a result and on a grand scale, Korean companies that went abroad to build some of the tallest buildings around the world (Samsung led construction on the Burj Khalifa) are now looking to field monuments on their own native soil. Even at the grass-roots level, there is a growing interest in avant-garde architecture and design—home-brewed as well as imported—providing opportunities for small firms and young designers to have an impact on the street by designing art galleries and small homes.
Off the coast of South Korea and not far from Seoul, Songdo represents a new kind of large-scale planned city. A joint venture between Cisco Systems, Gale International, and the New York City office of Kohn Pederson Fox, New Songdo City could be the prototypical aerotropolis—a city defined as much by its proximity to an airport as by its livability—as described by authors John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay in their new book Aerotropolis: How We’ll Live Next.
Since 2001, when Gale International signed a $35 billion dollar loan from Korean banks to develop a city right by Incheon International Airport, Songdo has grown rapidly on landfill in the Yellow Sea. Today, it’s home to the tallest building in the country —KPF’s 68-story Northeast Asia Trade Tower—and it’s still growing. Construction on KPF’s masterplan will be completed in 2015. Fitting to the city’s mission to attract foreign business, its architecture includes work by multiple American firms: KPF’s own nine buildings in the central business district include a convention center and an international school, and there are also six residential towers and a hotel by HOK.
Songdo is intrinsic to the South Korean government’s vision of the future, according to Richard Nemeth, a KPF principal: “[They] realized that to compete with China, they needed a platform to work internationally. [Songdo] is connected to the new airport, one of the busiest in the world.”
If its proximity to an international airport gives Songdo the futuristic moniker “aerotropolis,” its vast scale represents a first in international sustainability. Under the USGBC’s LEED for Neighborhood Development Pilot Program (KPF engaged with USGBC to certify the masterplan and develop a new LEED category), Songdo boasts a central non-potable water canal, electric vehicle charging stations, and a city-scale co-generation plant—elements that operate on a larger scale than traditional single-building LEED certification. The city also takes some of its literally green inspiration from American roots: a large public park in the middle of Songdo is named Central Park. The city also attempts to offset the effects of massive new construction by recycling 75% of construction waste and using local materials to minimize transportation costs.
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