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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Magok District: SIM City as in "Seoul Intra Muros"? Alleyways as in "Seoul Inter Muros"?

I know, Gangnam Style is so 2012, and here we are, starting 2013 on the same side of the river.

Same side, but different neighborhood: Gangseo-gu doesn't look as sexy as PSY's lair, and the Lotte Mall Gimpo Airport as bling bling as Cheongdam-dong boutiques. Yet here as well, plastic surgery is underway on a grand scale.

Seoul's westernmost district is the place where I first set foot in Korea. In 1991, "Kimpo Airport" still ruled as Korea's main international gateway*, and since Seoul Subway Line 5 would only be inaugurated four years later, everybody reached the capital via the airport road (now Gonghang-daero); a rather unspectacular journey through a peri-urban to sub-urban landscape featuring fields, farms, scattered low-rise buildings, and one plastic dummy traffic cop supposed to scare the fast and the furious away.

Last spring, I taped this boring scene from a cab on the same road, but in the opposite direction:

Between Balsan Station and Songjeong Station (Subway Line 5), all you could see for 2 km were crane tops emerging behind these grey construction fences. Halfway, Magok Station remained closed. Like the yet-to-be-inaugurated Magongnaru Station, a couple of blocks to the north, on the parallel Seoul Subway Line 9 (between Yangcheon Hyanggyo Station and Sinbanghwa Station). The two ghost stations - three if you take into account the fact that Magongnaru is also on the AREX line - lie in the middle of the future Magok District, one of the biggest and least advertised urban developments in Seoul.

You would think a project covering 0.6% of the capital city (3.6 million square meters in Magok-dong and Gayang-dong) would get some attention, but Magok has been droning below the radar for years.

To be fair, there was a decent embryo of buzzlet back in 2005, when the MRC (Magok Research and Development City) was announced, and the buzzwords of the day thrown in for good measure ("green", "U-city", "hub", "international business complex", "knowlegde industry complex"...). As if local authorities had suddenly realized that they'd been sitting on a goldmine for too long, like: everybody's building a global hub in this country except us, and we've got this vast piece of land in Seoul intra muros, next to an international airport, with a unique air-water-land combo**. Let's build and they will come. All we have to do is to make sure we've got dwellings, businesses, industries, and a "Central Park" - foreigners love central parks. 

So everything was set: between 2007 and 2014, SH Corporation would erect yet another successful new town in the country of the perennial real estate miracle.

But even before Lehman hit the fan, no one seemed to care. Pangyo New Town was still the media darling, and Incheon city marketing Songdo, a similar concept on steroids: 6.1 M square meters vs 3.6, the sea vs the river, Incheon Airport vs Gimpo Airport, Gale Intl + Posco vs SH..., and an even bigger "Central Park".

We've already seen how Songdo struggled in the past***. And Magok District was not even the priority for Seoul Metropolitan Government, which had first to launch the Digital Media City, or more recently the International Finance Center (not to mention yet other fishes to fry, such as the Gongneung Future Industry Technology Complex).

But MRC was more than a mere background task. It had an important part to play in the Seoul 2020 Vision, and in 2008, an international design competition generated spectacular proposals for the future Magok Waterfront, reviving the hope to see things happen in spite of the gloomy context. Two years later, development plans had been revamped, paving the way for a more consistent construction kick-off in 2011. I really felt something big was coming last september, when I chatted with the head of Seoul Business Agency before the conference for the 10th anniversary of the DMC project****. He confirmed the city's determination for Magok, and his confidence seemed genuine.

Last November, Seoul Metropolitan City started offering parcels for Magok Industrial Complex: the future research hub (IT / Information Technology, BT / Bio Technology, GT / Green Technology, NT / Nano Technology...) will cover a fifth of the district and a 2007-2031 timeframe. Seven companies were later selected for further discussions, and the first really big media bang came on December 13, when LG Group signed for 6 of his research units and 14,000 researchers by 2020. Note that this chaebol had already been involved in this future "smart city" through its LG CNS subsidiary, designing a "Smart Green Control Center" in partnership with IBM.

Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering and E-Land were listed among the other hot prospects; not exactly poster boys for the above mentioned technologies, but very significant players nonetheless, particularly considering DSME's growing ambitions in defence. Now the focus is on signing an international player to confirm this excellent first draft.

Generally speaking, if you're into IT-media-telecom convergence, there are worst places in the world to open a R and D unit than this part of Seoul. Mapo's Digital Media City and the Guro Digital Industrial Complex are quite close, and the LG-SMG deal already includes at least two gems: LG Electronics and LG Display (these guys will probably meet their LG Telecom friends in the DMC more often than indie start-ups in Guro but that's their problem).

Note that in the fierce coopetition among major business hubs in Korea and particularly across Sudogwon region (Seoul - Incheon - Gyeonggi-do), the "Seoul Intra Muros" dimension in itself has become again a key factor of differenciation, particularly to recruit talents who would rather stay in the capital than move to a distant "greenfield new town". E-Land highlighted this HR premium in its own Magok's plus column... where "cost of land" certainly ranks higher than "culture" (with all respect due to Yangcheon Hyanggyo).

I won't repeat my usual pitch about the non-zero-sum-game of Korean new towns (see for instance "Wet eyes for wetlands and urban mirages"), but we're not just talking about business here. People will live and breathe in Magok District, not just work. There's enough space and time to get it right, and I'd like Magok to achieve something different, something more ambitious in the noble sense of the term than the DMC which, architecturally and street-wise, could almost be any business district in any big city. 

On this rendering where Seoul Housing Corporation mercifully banned very high rise buildings and added more green (BTW will they dare destroy the beautiful tree line that somewhat managed to survive in the video above?), Magok District almost looks like any New Town:

Even more so when you look at the ad:

Guess what: Seoul is not a new town. Furthermore, a neighborhood needs a soul of its own, must belong to a certain continuum, and souldn't be overly scripted: if urban planners do all the storytelling, how can citizens hear their own voices, write their own stories?

And Seoul needs alleyways. By "alleyways", I don't necessarily mean the last capillaries irrigating the actual "Seoul Intra Muros" ("Sadaemun", the original city surrounded by its fortress), but also the kind of inclusions that extend Seoul, the places where the city can freely and randomly stretch, grow more complex, and reach deeper, these intimate scars where your own mind can't help but wander.

This so special "Seoul Inter Muros".

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* The earthwork was just starting for the merger of the two islands that would eventually host Incheon Airport (we used a ferry to reach them and a bus to go all the way to Eunwangni). Reminder: Gimpo Airport is not in Gimpo city, Gyeonggi-do, but within Seoul limits, in Gangseo-gu, a district that happens to border both Gimpo and Incheon cities (not to mention Bucheon and - via the Banghwa Bridge - Goyang, also in Gyeonggi-do).
** Air: Gimpo Airport / Water: Han River + a vertical streamlet potentially upgradable into a marina or else / Land: SW Gyeonggi and Incheon entry point + major highways + Olympic Expressway + Subways...
*** and succeeded as well (see "Songdo on the world map (Green Climate Fund)", and all posts related to Songdo)
**** about this event, see "Korean culture or Hallyu, Cultural contents or discontents"

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