An ideas competition in Saemangeum in South Korea has seen Florian Beigel’s ideas expressed on an epic scale, envisage a city of islands reclaimed from a lagoon
The masterplanning of the Saemangeum estuary on the Yellow Sea coast of South Korea is one of the largest and most ambitious projects anywhere in the world. A 33km sea wall, completed in 2006, encloses 400km² of water that will be the site of a massive new land reclamation to accommodate industry, tourism and agriculture as well as a new airport. When complete, the result will be a new city around two-thirds the size of South Korea’s capital Seoul. It is the world’s largest land reclamation project.
Florian Beigel, the German-born architect and masterplanner who runs the Architecture Research Unit (ARU) at London Metropolitan University, heads one of the three teams shortlisted in a competition to find a ‘comprehensive urban development concept’ for the massive site. His proposal envisages a city of islands that combines a self-consciously artificial landscape with a logic born of land reclamation and the depth of the lagoon.
Beigel’s work has always pursued his concept of ‘landscape infrastructure’, where the landscape is built first and helps to define a non-programmatic urbanism born of geography and typology. The Saemangeum proposal takes ARU’s compelling ideas to an epic scale.
The redevelopment is highly controversial. The completion of the sea wall, the longest in the world, has apparently destroyed a habitat that served as a stopover for 400,000 migrating birds and environmentalists are still campaigning for the wetland to be reinstated. More significantly, the credit crunch has taken its toll and this politically important project now has an uncertain future. However, in 2006 the Jeollabuk-do province authorities injected new life into it by holding an ideas competition.
Seven teams were invited and rather than plumping for super-famous author-architects, the coordinator of the project convinced the city to invite architects associated with research institutions. As well as ARU, teams from Tokyo Institute of Technology (with young architect Atelier Bow-Wow, Rotterdam’s Berlage Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and others participated in the competition.
The Saemangeum reclamation project began in the early 1990s when Korea was concerned about food shortages and the lack of land available for cultivation in the mountainous country. Korea’s high population density (higher than the Netherlands at 498 people per km²) made tackling food shortages a key promise of the first democratically elected president, Roh Tae Woo, in 1987 and it remains a priority. The Jeollabuk-do province is a ‘bread basket’ district of South Korea and this project was set to build on that.
The competitors first visited the site in January last year and its enormity then became apparent. ARU partner Philip Christou says: ‘The scale was a bit overwhelming for everybody. It took more than half an hour by bus to travel the length of the sea wall and when you’re on it, you can’t see land in either direction. You get confused about what is the sea and what is the lake.’ Beigel adds: ‘We told them this is very impressive, like the Great Wall of China in the sea.’
Although they say it took three months to get to grips with the site’s scale, they decided early on to make a series of islands, creating maximum water frontage. The scale for the islands was defined by a 20-40 minute walking distance from coast to coast, and distances between the islands were based on precedents like the archipelago city of Stockholm and the harbour in Cádiz, Spain. The process began with sketches on A3 paper, even though scale was still tricky. Beigel says: ‘The 1mm thickness of the lines we were drawing corresponded to 100m.’ Eight islands emerged in the final proposal, phased over the next 20 years.
At first, the scheme presented more straight-edged islands, inspired by Álvaro Siza and Fernando Távora’s 1983 scheme for the Chinese port of Macau, where self-consciously artificial, orthogonal islands were added to the medieval street plan. This atmosphere is retained by the long, central island, most of which will be used for agriculture and a new farming university. ‘We have found it helpful to make firm distinctions between the natural and the artificial. The form of the new city is a conversation between natural water edges and artificial ones, between ancient natural topography and the man-made,’ write the architects.
Only one island, in the south of the lagoon, retains ‘natural’ edges, and these will be made by building the large embankment wall further out in the water and allowing the water level within to reveal parts of the topography of the estuary bed.
The architects were convinced that the place should not be zoned (an approach adopted by many other competitors) and, working with economist Fran Tonkiss, they divided the programmes into mixed distribution across the site. Despite this being more difficult for the developers, Beigel and Christou’s work on what they call ‘city structures’ aspires to building in the flexibility over time as found in the architecture of Venice, Barcelona or Georgian London. Thus the appearance of fragments of Barcelona’s Cerdà grid on the harbour island and Cambridge University’s quadrangles on the long, central island. This strange distribution of typologies across a landscape is called Collage City by Christou, an explicit reference (if one were needed) to the work of Colin Rowe.
Political and economic change is now affecting the future of the Saemangeum reclamation. The local government began by planning for a version of the project that would divide the uses into 70 per cent agriculture and 30 per cent industry. Now the emphasis has switched to making the project 70 per cent industry and 30 per cent agriculture, as well as bringing forward the completion date from 2030 to 2020. The project awaits federal funding.
In any case, ARU’s project is a grounded yet still abundantly poetic antidote to the masterplans emerging for the coastline of Dubai or indeed, parts of China. An urbanism driven by landscape, geographical and spatial proximities and typology, Beigel’s work has found an audience in Korea. Perhaps it might also inspire the urbanism of the many places in the world currently striving to create a sense of place out of nothing.