The design for a new island city in South Korea perfectly showcases the Architecture Research Unit’s rich imagination and ambition, writes Andrew Mead
Architecture as City: Saemangeum Island City By Florian Beigel, Philip Christou and the Architecture Research Unit. SpringerWienNewYork, 2010. 152pp. £44.99
‘You could say we design the rug not the picnic.’ This was how Florian Beigel, who runs the Architecture Research Unit (ARU) at London Metropolitan University with Philip Christou, summed up their scheme for a former military site on the edge of Berlin.
Beigel and Christou talk about ‘landscape infrastructures’ not masterplans. Wary of imposing abstract geometries on a site, they take their cues from its topography and history, both cultural and geological. Instead of stand-alone objects, they concentrate on ‘ensembles’ of buildings and the spaces in-between them. With specific short-term proposals but open long-term ones, their schemes can accommodate change. ‘What we try to do is design the site before development, but not necessarily the development itself,’ says Beigel.
Partly because of its landscape infrastructure plan for Paju Book City in South Korea, ARU was one of seven teams invited to enter a competition held in 2007-2008 for the design of a new city, Saemangeum, on the south-west coast of South Korea. ARU’s scheme was one of the three joint winners and this book presents it in detail, but also serves as a dossier of ARU’s thinking about architecture and cities.
In the case of Saemangeum, it means thinking about a city whose 400km² site would swallow up Paris and its suburbs. To be built on reclaimed land behind a 34km sea wall, and with an expected initial population of 750,000 in 2020, it’s a hugely ambitious project.
ARU envisages the city taking shape on six new islands, located where land can be reclaimed most easily. Accentuating their man-made character, all these islands have straight edges, though their shapes are individual and irregular. These sharp edges recur as sprawl-resistant boundaries to the new settlements on these islands, with ARU citing such dense compact towns in the Dordogne as Monpazier, France, that are clearly bounded and leave the surrounding landscape untouched.
As in the Berlin scheme, ARU’s proposal responds to the history of the site by highlighting what Beigel calls ‘time witnesses’. In Berlin, such keys to the past included some disused railway tracks overgrown by silver birches – a reminder of industrial use in the 1930s. Such elements at Saemangeum include the mountains on the horizon – ‘witnesses to the life that has been played out in front of them for thousands of years,’ says Beigel – and wooded rocky outcrops, once underwater but now exposed. For ARU, the site is emphatically not a clean slate.
Adapting one of Cedric Price’s concepts, ARU has incorporated some ‘city magnets’ in its plan: seven nodes of greater density in the otherwise dispersed city. South Korean planners are apparently still keen on zoning cities in an orthodox modernist way. But, believing this to be a discredited practice, ARU has pressed for mixed-use and diversity throughout.
In starting to define Saemangeum’s built form, ARU identified a number of ‘city structures’ (mostly European) that have proved their worth over time. The book contains brief, valuable case studies of a dozen of them, including a city block in Barcelona, a canalside block in Hamburg, and a London mews near Portland Place.
ARU aims to incorporate versions of these structures in Saemangeum, which raises the obvious question asked in the interview that concludes the book: ‘Might they be viewed as alien to Asian culture?’ Beigel says that ‘they can’t be used literally, you have to make translations’, but he’s convinced that they could work. I’ll be intrigued to see what happens if these structures are eventually built.
Architecture as City provides a clear if at times repetitive account of ARU’s sophisticated scheme. One particular repetition is the word ‘vibrant’, which is a bit too redolent of marketing brochures for some quite dubious urban developments. But there’s another word in the book which never appears in such brochures – ‘civility’. ARU says that ‘the idea is that the everydayness of the city carries civility and culture’ and its commitment to the quality of Saemangeum’s public realm can’t be doubted. Moreover, with its intricate drawings and evocative sketches, the book is visually a world away from those brochures with their unconvincing slick CGIs.
Beigel and ARU still don’t know if their scheme will be realised; it remains under discussion. Meanwhile it has been on show this autumn at the Venice Architecture Biennale – aptly, because Venice is a touchstone for ARU. Early in the book there’s a reproduction of a 15th-century Venetian painting that shows a crowded campo in that city reclaimed from the sea, and the continuity with ARU’s ‘moment drawings’ can’t be missed. Though tailored to 21st-century South Korea and subtly attuned to its site, ARU’s scheme for Saemangeum is firmly rooted in precedent. It’s a richly-imagined vision of what a city might be.