Deconstruction – The Dongdaemun Design Plaza
One couldn’t be blamed for thinking a UFO has landed in the city of Seoul. The silver edifice with sleek curvature boasts that it is the world’s largest three dimensional, atypical building. March 21, 2015 marks the one year anniversary of the opening of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), a massive architectural feat designed by British architect Zaha Hadid. It took 7 years of design and construction for the DDP to come to life.
It is now hard to recall that on the very site of the DDP, there stood the Dongdaemun Stadium and Sports Complex. Built in 1926 during the Japanese colonial occupation, the stadium stood in the heart of Seoul for 82 years, surviving the Korean War and witnessing South Korea’s tumultuous transformation from dictatorship to young democracy. The stadium also served as a place of leisure and was a cradle and a sacred ground for amateur athletes. Now-famous baseball players such as the former Major Leaguer Park Chan-ho and the current LA Dodger Ryu Hyun-Jin once aspired for success in this field of dreams.
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I attended a secondary school with a respectable baseball team, and we would take field trips to the stadium to root for the school team once or twice a semester. It might not have been as exciting and acrobatic as professional baseball shown on TV. But I still remember that exhilarating, liberating feeling I got each time our team made a hit or scored a run, prompting us to throw our uniform jackets up in the air and sing the school anthem.
The Dongdaemun area was not known for the stadium only. The East Gate of the Hanyang fortress from the Joseon Dynasty has been standing there for more than 500 years. Historically the area around the gate has always bustled with vibrant markets. Even today Dongdaemun is known as a garment and shopping district: you could find all kinds of rip-off clothes at a relatively cheap price.
In 2007, the-then-mayor of Seoul Oh Se-hoon decided to demolish this historic site as part of his political pitch called “Design Seoul.” Oh wanted to face-lift the exterior of the city by installing monuments and landmarks and to follow the footsteps of his predecessor Lee Myung-bak. Lee went onto becoming President of South Korea in 2008, thanks to the support he gained through the urban development projects initiated and completed during his term as Seoul mayor.
The transformation of the Dongdaemun Stadium into the “Design Park and Complex” was the crème-de-la-crème of the Design Seoul project. Oh envisioned the Design Plaza as a fashion and garment “mecca” that would rejuvenate and legitimize the businesses in the area. For the DDP’s design, the Seoul Metropolitan Government held international nominated invitation, and renowned architects from Korea and around the world participated in the selection process.
But 4 out of the 7 judges were foreigners and architects were requested to present their design in English. Concerns were raised that the majority of the judges would not fully understand the cultural and historical meaning and context of the land of Dongdaemun. Some Korean architects feared that they were being counter-discriminated and the mayor already had a favorite in mind. In the end, Zaha Hadid’s “Metonymic Landscape” was the winning selection.
The stadium was torn down rather quietly, and the rich narrative and history embedded in the place were lost forever. And what ensued the demise of the stadium was rather unfortunate.
First, the Seoul Government did not think to archive the stadium before demolition. When I heard the news that the stadium was to be demolished, I went out and photographed every corner of the baseball stadium during a tournament in the summer of 2007. As it turns out, I am the only keeper of its great legacy to this date.
Second, Ms. Hadid’s design changed three times, partly because relics from the Joseon Dynasty were uncovered at the site, and the design fee increased steeply. The budget for the final design and construction increased two folds, and more than 500 millions dollars of tax money was poured into the project. As many critics have pointed out, the Seoul government could have opted out to another architect who would work within the proposed budget. But their weak-kneed attitude towards the star architect, influenced by the mayor’s political ambition and favoritism, resulted in an administrative and fiscal failure.
Lastly, mayor Oh resigned in 2011, after his call for a vote against free lunch for school children was met with severe political backlash. After his flight, Oh’s Design Seoul and “Han-river Renaissance” projects were aborted or fundamentally altered. Considering the free lunch program has cost a fraction of his design extravaganza since then, maybe it is appropriate that Oh’s political maneuvers got the better of him.
The DDP was a product of South Korean identity crisis of sort
There is a general tendency in South Korea to obsess over appearance. Not only will your look influence your dateability, but it will also have a bearing on your social standing. Instead of looking at the inner value and narrative, what is deemed old, ugly and poor is constantly marginalized and discarded away. Oh’s approach to public design was of the same kind of obsession and inferiority complex, almost like implementing a plastic surgery to the face of the city.
Even after Oh’s departure and under the current mayor Park Won-soon’s administration, Seoul’s identity crisis continues. Public design still equates appearance and its beautification, and Seoul has been particularly bad at preservation amid the absence of concrete long-term urban planning. If you go to the historic and central Jongno district in downtown Seoul, which went through extensive redevelopment over the past decade, you would only see newly built multipurpose complexes without touch of history. Ironically, mayor Park is now pushing to restore and reconnect the Hanyang fortress walls so as to register them as a UNESCO heritage site, part of which is essentially cut off by the very existence of the DDP.
The Dongdaemun Design Plaza was fashionable and interesting for a while, but, as with any other fashion items, the hype is bound to dull away. It has posed many problems and endured heavy criticism, but the DDP still has potential to be a great vessel. It is about time that Seoulites started appreciating what they already have and who they are, instead of looking for something better and exotic from the outside. Only then will they be able to see the DDP not as an end in itself but a means, and come up with ways to fill the humongous space with creative, meaningful and sustainable contents. And that’s a must for the longevity of the much battered edifice and for the love of the city. Without proper content, coordination and management, the DDP might just follow the unfortunate path that the Dongdaemun Stadium was put to walk.