Friday, my last day of vacation and a long metro journey to Songdo, Tomorrow’s City, the weather looked fine from inside but it was bitterly cold. In December 2012 Richard Sennett of The Guardian described Songdo as “like an inflated 1960s British housing estate.” An interesting quote. I would decide for myself.
The most recently confirmed new tenant of the city will be based in the I-Tower, the secretariat of the UN Green Climate Fund, dubbed the World Bank of the environment will arrive here sometime in 2013. They will live here rent free, being cynical one could argue this is why Songdo was chosen over other candidates Geneva and Bonn.
Jack Nicklaus has moved in as have Sheraton hotels but its the tenant above that everyone hopes will re-ignite the construction work, they can spout rhetoric but I have heard disquieting rumours about cash-flow. Since Songdo won the bid to be home to the GCF, over 1,000 new apartments have been sold, this is has to be said, is a good sign.
I arrived around 10 am and emerged at Tomorrow City (University of Incheon Metro). The stunning architecture made my heart lift as I’d read the positive vibes from other bloggers and I felt quite exited! Then the reality it was derelict except for a couple of cleaners wiping dust away. This is a high-tech culture and exhibition space full of gadgets, galleries and displays, Robert Koehler wrote that “it was closed” in June 2011, unfortunately it still is. I cannot believe this centre-piece of the project is being left to decay like this.
I had read about the Songdo Miraegil, or “Songdo Future Road,” a trekking course that would take me around this planned eco-city. I saw no signs for Miraegil, but once again Google maps rescued me as I knew the general route. I headed away from the architectural Mary Celeste looking up at the “soon to be completed” (Seoul Selection June 2011) Northeast Asia Trade Tower (NEATT), which at 304m will be the tallest building in Korea until the other fabled towers of Digital Media City and Incheon rise phoenix like from the ashes of rhetoric. It’s a pretty awesome tower with one side left open to the elements and a simple rope strewn across its open access gate. It also became the second in the Mary Celeste fleet as there was neither security or building contractors in view. One of the windows, some 150m up, had been smashed. It’s interesting that in the Songdo Tourism Guidebook its completed look has been photoshopped in. Alongside MC2 the recently opened Sheraton sits nonchalantly in the shadow of it’s big sister.
I turned into Central Park aiming to stop for coffee and breakfast at the boat house, of course, you guessed it, it was closed. Boats were semi-submerged in the part frozen sea water canal. I followed my pre-planned route along the left side of the canal and I have to say I was really impressed by the layout and landscaping if not the absence of atmosphere due to its lack of population. I imagined fast forwarding 20 years and this being a place teaming with life, that was unfortunately at this time, just another Korean “sweet dream.”
I strolled along the lake, it was bitterly cold; did that explain the lack of souls? Do I have a death-wish for hypothermia? I passed a pretty rubbish artwork with a couple of dolphins, no originality, no doubt it cost a few bob! I reached the Tourism Office which I suspect had shifted here from my station of arrival. They were lovely but embarrassed when I questioned the projects liquidity. Outside some elderly local residents, who had bought expensive new apartments across the lake, were protesting. I was approached by one of them who pointed out his stunningly designed apartment block, “cold on north side” he said “fine on south”, POSCO ignore us. They say “we only need single glazing, as the temperatures are centrally controlled by computer, the apartments cannot be cold.” He was adamant, and I have no reason not to believe him, that the cold was unbearable. Maybe Tomorrow’s City’s all conquering IT infrastructure need an early MOT?
They protested in front of “Compact Smart City” an interactive exhibition space celebrating the virtues of this new “sustainable’ city. It’s easy to preserve the environment if the heating doesn’t work. 🙂 Seoul Selection reported that globalisation and urbanisation expert Greg Lindsay called Songdo IBD “the most ambitious instant city since Brasília 50 years ago.” I was starting to worry if “too fast, too soon” would be Songdo’s epitaph. Let’s hope the UN arrival kick-starts the project, I hope it succeeds, it needs to succeed. Looking after the old folks heating would be a positive start.
I now approached the Pièce de résistance in architectural terms, Tri-bowl. The Tri-Bowl cultural exhibition centre is a triumph. This space is host to the visual and performing arts. The three giant bowls are amalgamated into one great structure. On my visit they were hosting drama workshops for kids, I loved the space and the concept and it’s one of my favourite buildings and spaces in Seoul along with the Leeum in Itaewon. The structure is divided into an exhibition hall, performance stage, and a rest area that can each have a capacity of 400 people. The interior of the building also retains the organic design of the exterior creating a very tactile and relaxing environment.
I left the building feeling uplifted again about Songdo’s prospects, what a roller coaster ride today is! I followed the canal as it leads to a viewing area for the 12 km Incheon bridge, the bridge is the areas link to Incheon Airport which has been voted the World’s best, I wouldn’t agree it’s another architectural masterpiece in my eyes, something Koreans should be proud of.
The day was hazy and the bridge mammoth so the views were not exceptional but my thoughts on the engineering were all positive. A man was playing his trumpet when I arrived, his rendition of ‘flight of the bumblebee”, another moment of Korean magic! Next door to the observatory was another building site were there was some activity. The IFEZ Songdo Art Centre had been schedule for completion in 2012, merely the foundations were in place. This is the vision click here. Located on the complex will be the Asia Museum of Contemporary Art, a music school, a design school, dormitories and a library; in addition to other buildings and support facilities. The Asia Philharmonic Orchestra and the Asia Opera Company are among the arts organisations that will take-up residence in the complex.
As I turned to return along the canal path I couldn’t help thinking that a relaxation of expectation had now to be put in place. This is Korea’s showpiece, why not admit the impact of world recession has affected the country and scale back the development into manageable chunks.
I walked back under the catamaran that is the canal road bridge passing the Tr–bowl on my right and the impressive new I-Tower, the secretariat of the UN Green Climate Funds new home, on the left. The building has a huge cleft which will act as a skypark and meeting place. There were positive signs of life, I spotted bodies and vegetation, again I felt positive. I reached the end of central park crossing over for lunch at Canalwalk Street Mall. The organic Gorgonzola Chicken and spaghetti at “Brunch Bazaar” was pretty good and the side of squid ink bread with an oil and balsamic was great. Lunch is served with a bottle of rosemary flavoured water, a nice touch.
I strolled along Cnalwalk Street Mall which is, after its name, punctuated by a narrow shallow canal. What comes next? There was no water in the canal, computer says no! The Canalwalk covers 4 blocks and is again in need of further habitation but I think it is a great piece of urban architecture.
I returned to Central Park taking a closer look at the old folks apartment, in the shadow of the towers it was Vladivostok cold. They have little or no direct sunlight in the Korean winter, POSCO get yer finger out and improv ethe quality of their lives. It was a little warmer now and there were a number of walkers and dog strollers in the park. I came across deer and in a separate enclosure a stag, they seemed settle enough but the enclosures were hardly spacious. At the end of the park I took a walk around the Convensia Exhibition venue bizarrely compared to Sydney Opera House, no way Jose. The nearest it gets to SOH is that Arup’s built their global reputation on Sydney, Ove Arup designed it on a match box!
I returned to Mary Celeste 1 and with one final glance at Mary Celeste 2 took the elevator down for my 90 minute return to Sinchon. My impression of Songdo, it has International, middle and elementary schools, it has architectural and landscaping merit, it has the UN and presumably the will for completion. Find the pennies Korea and get it done!
Another nap, more Atari Fried Chicken for dinner, a final beer at Lovestar and my vacation was drawing to a close.
I set off for “the Chungju” at 8am and via Central City Express Terminal and a 20 minute traffic jam I was home by 11.15am.
A fabulously, cold, exciting, cultural and liberating winter vacation was over.
Thank you SK!