Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Songdo, DMC: sequence is of the essence (Part I)

A couple of weeks ago, I came back to Songdo, a first since last December's Global Climate Fund announcement. The sunny yet chicagoesquely windy weather made the views from 60+ floor penthouses and the walks between steel and glass giants even more impressive, and after that, I felt ready for another round of the old Songdo - DMC update (see at the end of this article the links to previous posts about Songdo, the DMC, urbanism and new towns).

As it turns out, this eminent Songdologist - DMCoholic started a novel, and after a couple of tens of thousands of words, decided to deliver it in slices. Or in lots, like the said projects. Let's hope this one will take less time to complete.

Here's the "master" plan:
0) City, Interrupted. Puzzle, Ongoing. Landmarks and Landscars
1) Purpose and Identity, Citizens and Citizones, Projects and Projections
2) Connectivity, Continuity and Consistence
3) Longing and Belonging - Sequence is of the Essence
Today, lots 0 and 1 are up for grabs. Feel free to add your own critics. Again, Songdo and the DMC cannot be compared (e.g. scale, timelines, stakes, relative importance for local authorities...), and they don't compete directly. This is not a comparison but a parallel update, with random thoughts about the evolution of ambitious urban projects.


UPDATE: Part II (Connectivity, Continuity and Consistence)
UPDATE: Part III (Longing and Belonging - Sequence is of the Essence)
UPDATE: download the whole focus in PDF format here.


0) City, Interrupted. Puzzle, Ongoing. Landmarks and Landscars.

Before starting, a minute of silence for Dream Hub, the consortium that was supposed to deliver Yongsan IBD, a KRW 31 tn monster conceived at the peak of the bubble, plagued with a fatal accident, and unplugged by minority shareholders who abandoned the ship before it was even built. If lead investor KORAIL must foot a bill that may derail its own development, Samsung remains relatively unharmed in the race for potential Plan Bs. Future projects will probably not be carried 100% through private financing... unless, of course, Qatar decides to purchase Yongsan Saint Germain Football Club.

Yongsan IBD -Archipelago 21 - Daniel Libeskind
"Archipelago 21" (above), Daniel Libeskind's take at Yongsan IBD for Dream Hub (note the Triple One tower at the center, and to the right MVRDV's highly controversial "Cloud" (below), a sick tribute to 9/11 and the WTC's Twin Towers.

If the DMC and Songdo were conceived earlier than Yongsan IBD, both were also hit by the collapse of the bubble. Timelines were adapted, delaying the completion of these complex jigsaw puzzles.

At least it helped tune down Korea's insane race for the skies: with Yongsan IBD went the not ironically dubbed Dream Tower (620 m, 111 floor). The DMC's Seoul Lite (640 m, 133 floors) had already been canceled last year, and Songdo's Incheon Tower shrunk by 114 m and 39 floors (initially 601 m and 151 floors, now 487 and 102). Note that Lotte World Tower (555 m, 123 floors) goes on, in spite of cracks noticed on core mega-columns earlier this year...

Betting on one iconic tower amounts to totemizing an absence of imagination, and far from negating its urban and natural environments, the ideal "Landmark" should reconcile and sublimate them. Seoul can be proud to have recovered its most original and defining landmark, the Sejongno-Gwanhwamun-Gyeongbokgung-Bugaksan-Bukhansan perspective: a wide pedestrian way, an open gate, a low rise historic palace, a glorious mountain range.

If I define cities as the scars humans leave on the surface of earth to prove that they once roamed it, some scars are certainly more gracious than others*...


1) Purpose and Identity, Citizens and Citizones, Projects and Projections

Songdo and Digital Media City are by no means classic "new towns": they share a business focus, and international ambitions. Here, permanent residents are not the main "endusers":
  • Songdo International City - Songdo International Business District belongs to the newly formed Sondgo-dong (mostly claimed over the sea, partly over Dongchun-dong), in Yeonsu-gu, Incheon, but also to IFEZ (Incheon Free Economic Zone). As the names suggest, Songdo is business and internationally-minded, and rules differ from the rest of the city. The epitome of aerotropolis, Songdo must confirm Incheon as a world class hub. For its promoters Gale International and Posco, as well as for such partners as Cisco, the project must also become a proof of concept, and help them clinch similar deals with other cities in the region, particularly in China. By 2017, Songdo is supposed to host 70,000 permanent residents and 300,000 commuters or business travelers.
  • The Digital Media City is a digital media and entertainment cluster in Sangam-dong, Mapo-gu, managed by SBA (Seoul Business Agency). The business focus and international ambitions are also evident, but the DMC, as a city sub-center and "a gateway to the northwestern region of Seoul", must first contribute to the geographic and economic balance of the capital. The proof of concept would be not only a world class media and entertainment cluster, but also a sound ecosystem where major media and entertainment companies would "coopete" with thriving SMEs and start-ups. By 2015, the DMC is supposed to host 30,000 permanent residents and to provide 68,000 jobs.
For the promoters, the first "customers" are not the endusers, but the tenant companies who will fill the lots / pieces of the puzzle they operate directly, and investors that will purchase whole blocks according to the master plan. Only part of these "citizones" are meant for actual citizens: residential block whose operators contribute to the overall promotion as they market their apartments. Cities play more or less their part, but basically the meta-promoters (Gale, Seoul/SBA) focus on business targets, with result-oriented sales pitches. Songdo appears to be at the same time more institutional and more extroverted in terms of communication and marketing:

  • If both logos echo smart-tech cities, Songdo opts for black and elegant/institutional/corporate codes, the DMC for white and more graphic/design/enduser codes:

  • Marketing and communication are paramount for Songdo, a privately financed project with a sense of emergency; considering the scale of the project and the stakes, investors must be constantly reassured and updated. PR is highly proactive, and in the extensive picture gallery easily accessible from the main menu, buildings are usually shown in context, preferably with elements of nature consistent with the message of sustainability. But the speech always remains resolutely "pro", fact-based, technology driven (i.e. LEED-ND / Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development), the "bucolic" storytelling being left to Incheon city or POSCO (see further below). A giant showcase for smart cities, sustainable development, and pervasive computing utopia/dystopia, Songdo generates a lot of literature and case studies... not to mention my recurrent babble.
  • Songdo.com homepage
    Songdo Central Park Canal

    From Songdo.com: a corporate look from the homepage on, and an iconography that puts each landmark into perspective (here, Songdo Central Park Canal)

    "It's Real, Global Songdo"
    On its own dedicated website songdothesharp.co.kr, POSCO communicates along similar lines ("It's Real, Global Songdo), but using warmer codes, consistent with the proximity of an established local brand.
  • The DMC doesn't need Songdo's institutional - corporate tone and look: investors know that Seoul city is in charge, and the DMC targets business tenants of all sizes in a rather "fun" sector. Its homepage is hosted by Seoul city's portal, and SBA operates a commercial site in a classic and sober BtoB blue. Significantly, Korean is the home language, and there is no URL in .com: the marketing and the international drive seems less intense than a few years ago, and now that the bulk of the land is covered, priorities seem set on business as usual (making sure all big names move in on schedule, prospecting new tenants already in Korea, maintaining the DMC Gallery showroom...). Most updates are about new batches of lots for sale, and they don't even appear in the English version of the site (not much updated since 2010, as we'll see below). There's a lot of storytelling about how the various zones function and interact, but unlike in Songdo, the iconography focuses on the micro (buildings) and macro (masterplan) levels, and except for a movie on bike touring in the DMC, we're not told many stories about what's happening now. And in such a competitive and depressed commercial real estate market**, the DMC could tell of stories to differenciate itself, but the communication doesn't leverage on the key environmental assets in the surrounding, or on the recurrent good news each time a new tenant signs or reaches a milestone in the construction (e.g. few press excerpts with visuals).
  • dmc.seoul.go.kr homepage
    The DMC's website is hosted by Seoul Metropolitan Government portal (dmc.seoul.go.kr)...
    dmcseoul.kr homepage
    ... and SBA operates a distinct BtoB site: dmcseoul.kr
    DMC Digital Pavillion
    Iconography focuses either on finished buildings or on master plan maps: we're not given the chance to see the city in real life
As a result, the Incheon-Songdo couple projects a much clearer picture than Seoul-DMC for the world to see:

  • In spite of its struggles, Songdo is starting to emerge as a stand-alone brand that feeds and is fed by the Incheon umbrella. An asset consistent with Incheon Bridge or Incheon Airport, and all three form a continuum that goes beyond the obvious geographic evidences. As expected, the Green Climate Fund signing put Songdo on the world map. At the national level, it also changed positively the image of a project that generated disappointment for many real estate speculators. Incheon city communicates efficiently about Songdo, even when it doesn't mention it:

The day after the GCF announcement, Incheon city celebrated on its website (incheon.go.kr)
The bridge, the airport, Incheon - Songdo skyline. Songdo's communication contributes to Incheon's sales pitch and vice-versa.

  • The DMC's notoriety is growing rapidly, and in a positive direction. But this has more to do with its internal dynamics and relative performances in a morose real estate market, than with intense "top-down" promotion. Of course, Seoul has many other ongoing projects that require considerable efforts, but the DMC brand is so under-marketed that the area is often referred to as "Sangam DMC" or "Sangam-dong DMC" instead of "Seoul DMC"... as if the notoriety shouldn't reach beyond the dong/neighborhood! Unlike his predecessor, Mayor PARK Won-soon is not a fan of big business and new towns in general***, but he does care for Seoul's competitivity, and he did promote the Seoul DMC during his recent visit to Seoul for the Beijing-Seoul Friendly Exchange Year. Now the English side of the DMC's website could be a bit updated: two years after his electoral defeat, OH Se-hoon is still the mayor welcoming foreign visitors and investors!
    2 years after his defeat, former Mayor OH Se-hoon is still welcoming foreign visitors to the DMC's website (the English version hasn't been updated in a while)

Anyway, cities always speak by themselves, and citizens and visitors will progressively become the main storytellers.


End of Part I
See Part II
 See Part III


See also posts related to Songdo and the DMC, in particular:
- "Songdo on the world map (Green Climate Fund)" (December 2012)
- "Wet eyes for wetlands and urban mirages" (January 2012)
- "DMC at full throttle - Songdo from Sim City to Sin City ?" (April 2011)
-"DMC aims at Tinseltown - welcome to Hallyuwood!" (February 2011)
- "Seoul Digital Media City Tour" (July 2010)
- ...
See also posts related to urbanism and new towns, including:
- "Sudogwon New Town Blues" (March 2013)
- "Magok District: SIM City as in "Seoul Intra Muros"? Alleyways as in "Seoul Inter Muros"?" (January 2013)
- "From urban mirages to urban decay" (November 2011)
- ...

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* and once again, all urban wrinkles shouldn't be botoxed; Seoul needs its vital alleyways!
** see for instance "Office buildings vie for tenants" (Korea JoongAng Daily 20130418)
*** Mayor PARK renewed his critics in this recent interview: "Seoul mayor warns that city planning has lacked insight" (Korea JoongAng Daily 20130417

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