At a time when many projects are getting shelved, work is now under way on the Songdo International Business District, a self-sufficient city on the outskirts of Incheon, South Korea.

Master planned by Kohn Pedersen Fox and developed by Gale International and Posco E&C, the 1,500-acre financial district will include 50 million square feet of office space, 30 million square feet of residential, 10 million square feet for retail, and five million square feet for hotels. Green space will account for another 10 million square feet.

“It’s a fully fledged city and has every function that you might need other than agriculture and industry,” says KPF principal James von Klemperer. “That includes culture, health, education, commerce, and recreation. We’ve been working on the project for about seven years, and we’ve had 50 to 60 people working day and night for a long, long time.”

The project is moving full speed ahead, even though South Korea’s stock markets and currency have suffered major declines. “With an effort this huge, funding was obtained quite a while ago,” says von Klemperer, adding that “the national priority, in economic terms, is still to stimulate foreign trade…and that’s precisely what this project is intended to do.”

The first order of business was to complete the project’s centerpiece: the $155 million Songdo ConvensiA Convention Center, which opened in October. “Typically, convention centers are not great city center buildings because they’re big and ungainly and usually don’t have very friendly edge conditions,” says von Klemperer. “Part of the challenge was to make the form of this building something more rewarding visually and experientially.”

Clad in stainless steel, the buiding’s form was inspired by the large sweeping curves of boat hulls. Inside, the 300,000-square-foot facility features a 476-foot-long, column-free exhibition hall. The site plan and access routes are designed to allow a future building expansion of up to 1.3 million square feet. 

KPF has several other projects in the works in Songdo. Adjacent to the convention center, the firm’s 65-story, 984-foot-tall Northeast Asia Trade Tower—the tallest building in South Korea—is currently under construction. Also rising is the 470,000-square-foot Songdo International School, which is organized around a series of raised and sunken courtyards. In addition, KPF designed the district’s Central Park, a 100-acre green oasis inspired by New York’s Central Park.

While the convention center is already in use, the rest of Songdo is expected to officially open this August, and to be fully complete in 2014. All told, von Klemperer estimates the total cost of the undertaking will exceed $20 billion. Designing a city from scratch has its challenges, he says, “but it’s the project of a lifetime.”