Innovation 2010: KPF Architect Addresses the Ultimate Blank Slate: Planning a 1,500-Acre City from Scratch

Posted on October 12, 2010

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Imagine the thrill—and the intimidating weight of responsibility—if you were charged with developing a 1,500-acre city from scratch.

That was the opportunity/challenge facing James von Klemperer, FAIA, the design principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox tasked with articulating a “masterplan-to-mullion” vision for New Songdo City, near Incheon, South Korea, which, in its completed state, will offer 130 million square feet of built space and homes for 65,000 residents (swelling to 250,000 during the day).

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A rendering of what a fully built out New Songdo City will look like; in the background is a bridge, built with $2 billion of public moneywhich helped make this private project possible. Image courtesy KPF
So how does a designer proceed when faced with such a tempting—and terrifying—blank slate? When von Klemperer asked himself this question, he knew immediately what he didn’t want—he would “react against Korean norms” of urban planning—“super-monotonous” stretches of identical, single-use building blocks that led to a very low quality of life for residents.

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Numerous pocket parks make Songdo a very pedestrian-friendly city; image courtesy KPF
He also was keen to avoid “the perils of instantly designed cities where every corner was thought-through by the same mind,” he said during his presentation on Day 2 of Architectural Record’s Innovation conference.

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A number of architecture firms are designing buildings within Songdo; this retail-center plan is from Daniel Libeskind. Image courtesy Gale International (Songdo’s developer).

One reference point for what von Klemperer did want to accomplish was Le Corbusier’s “ocean liner” model of an entirely self-contained urban machine—a development whose structures would accommodate the widest range of possible uses, from housing to work to education to entertainment.

But the organizational idea that most caught my attention was what von Klemperer termed a “collage method”. He spent a lot of time studying highly successful features of certain cities—the boulevards of Paris, the canals of Venice, Central Park in Manhattan—and then incorporated these concepts (or “sampled” them, in music terms) in his design of Songdo.  

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An example of the canls that KPF incorporated into its design scheme; photo courtesy Gale Intl.

Two other planning ideas that stood out: the time he dedicated to thinking about “pedestrian thresholds”—i.e. how many minutes it would take a resident to walk to school, to work, to a park ; and the goal of creating a vertical “crescendo” in the center of the city—i.e. slowly increasing building heights (in a sort of “Fibonacci sequence”) from the city’s edges to its CBD.

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The buildings around Songdo’s main park reach a vertical “crescendo”and enjoy a sales premium
I also appreciated his emphasis on the importance of “voids” in urban design—in Songdo’s case, a giant, Central Park-like space. These voids, he pointed out, actually create value—the buildings around them sell/rent/lease for huge premiums. 

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A view of the 68-story Northeast Asia Trade Tower from Songdo’s primary park; photo by H.G. Esch

A final tip for architects/planners embarking on such a large-scale design: focusing on the connectivity of all the sub-grade systems and approaching this work as one big project, not many small ones.

In conclusion, von Klemperer called the design approach KPF deployed at Songdo a “marvelous paradigm that can be exported” to even much smaller urban projects—and indeed, the firm is applying a lot of the lessons from Songdo to a 23-acre undertaking in Boston. 

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