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Many architects dream of being given a "tabula rasa" -- a blank slate -- upon which they could let the imagination soar when designing a home, building or other project.
A team led by MIT architects Alexander D'Hooghe and Nader Tehrani are working on what could be the largest blank slate in the history of construction.
This summer, the MIT team was among the winners of an Urban Design Institute of Korea-sponsored contest to design a mammoth landfill project on South Korea's western coast -- a 401 square kilometer area that will house farms, cities and developments ranging from a spaceport to an amusement park.
Intended to fill between the long fingers of land that project into South Korea's Saemangeum Bay, the project could cost billions of dollars and be eight times bigger than the record-breaking Palm Deira landfill development under way in Dubai.
For about nine months, D'Hooghe, the Class of 1922 Career Development Associate Professor of Architecture and Urbanism; Tehrani, associate professor of architectural design, and their team crafted their entry. While hewing to the contest's requirements of hardnosed realism, they envisioned islands created with soil dredged from the sea floor and filled with farms and small cities, with a total population of 600,000.
By any measure, the challenge was huge. "Our field has never been asked to deal with this scale of design," D'Hooghe said. "It's effectively a new scale. And who knows, maybe in the long term, like urban design, it becomes a new discipline. Maybe today we're facing the birth of a new sub discipline: Territorial art."
Making trips to South Korea and working with assistant design director Nida Rehman, urban economist Regina Armstrong of Urbanomics, MIT engineers and students, Tehrani and D'Hooghe developed a proposal that reflected Korean cultural norms and demographic trends, such as an aging population as well as a tech savvy, urban citizenry. They envisioned "mega parcels" for tourist attractions, such as a racetrack and spaceport.
About 30 percent of the new land, which would be built significantly higher than sea level, would be dedicated to agriculture, but D'Hooghe and Tehrani wanted to see a "relationship between production and consumption" with the farms operating alongside culinary institutes; the result would be a "South Korean Tuscany."
The area's 15 urban centers would be dense and compact to enhance employment, transportation and sustainability. Construction would be phased in such a way that programs could change over time; the form might be final but the function would be fluid. People would be living many years in one section before the total project was completed.
"A city can truly be a laboratory for certain kind of urban or territorial speculation and you can see its results in a much shorter plan of time than you would 50 years ago," Tehrani said.
The MIT team was a finalist along with teams from Columbia University and London Metropolitan University. Now D'Hooghe and Tehrani are waiting for the South Korea government to move forward.
The project also faces numerous logistical issues as well as environmental concerns. A sea wall, already built around the peninsula, has been slammed as an ecological disaster, but D'Hooghe and Tehrani believe that their plan, by creating wetlands and biological diversity, would mitigate the damage already done.
But something will be done in some form -- the pressure for new land is that great. Seventy percent of South Korea is mountainous and thus unsuitable for building. "It's more valuable to create new land because then you can compete on a global scale with new economic models," Tehrani said.
And the two are intrigued with the challenge of creating new land -- "the notion of being able to establish a tabula rasa in the way we would not see in the United States," Tehrani said.