The silver edifice with sleek curvature boasts of being the world’s largest atypical building. But one could not be blamed for thinking a UFO landed in Seoul.
21 March 2015 marks the one-year anniversary of the opening of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), a behemoth conceived by celebrated British architect Zaha Hadid. It took seven years of design and construction for the DDP to come alive.
It is now hard to recall that on the very site of the DDP, there once stood the Dongdaemun Stadium and Sports Complex. Built in 1925 during Japanese colonial rule, the stadium occupied the heart of Seoul for 82 years, surviving the Korean War and witnessing South Korea’s tumultuous transition from dictatorship to young democracy. The stadium also served as a place of leisure and something of a pilgrimage site for amateur athletes longing for stardom. Now-famous baseball players like the former Major Leaguer Park Chan-ho and the current LA Dodger Ryu Hyun-Jin once aspired for success in this field of dreams.
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 or spectacular 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 — which literally means the Great Eastern Gate — area was not known for the stadium only. It is named after the eastern gate of Hanyang (an old name of Seoul) from the Joseon Dynasty and marks the boundary between the old capital and its eastern suburb. Historically, the area around the gate has always bustled with markets and commerce. Even today Dongdaemun is known for its nearby fashion district, where you can find all kinds of knock-offs, textiles, and accessories at a relatively cheap price.
But in 2007, then-mayor Oh Sei-hoon decided to demolish the old stadium as part of his campaign called “Design Seoul.” Oh wanted to transform the face of the city by installing monuments and landmarks, in emulation of his predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, who made a name for himself by turning the Cheonggyecheon stream in the heart of downtown into a popular park.
Lee went on to becoming the president of South Korea in 2008, thanks to the support he gained through this initiative.
The Dongdaemun project was, however, mired in controversy from the very beginning. Oh envisioned a grand building that would serve as a future fashion and garment ‘mecca’ and rejuvenate the businesses in the area. The Seoul Metropolitan Government held an international competition, and renowned architects from Korea and around the world were invited to submit designs. But four out of the seven judges were foreigners, and architects were requested to present their design in English.
Concerns mounted over the fact that the majority of the judges did not fully understand the cultural and historical significance of the Dongdaemun area. Some Korean architects feared that their local background was a handicap and that the mayor already had a foreign favorite in mind. In the end, Hadid’s “Metonymic Landscape” was the winning selection.
The stadium was torn down rather quietly, and the rich history of the place was swept under the rug. The Seoul Metropolitan Government did not even think to properly document the stadium before demolition.
The cost also became an issue. Over the course of the construction, Ms. Hadid’s design changed three times, partly because relics from the Joseon Dynasty were discovered at the site. The design fee increased steeply. The budget for the final design and construction increased manifold, ultimately costing some 500 billion Korean Won (450 million USD.)
Many critics have pointed out that the Seoul government could have chosen another architect to work within the proposed budget. But the city’s deference toward a star architect of an international stature, as well as the mayor’s political ambition and desire for a conspicuous symbol of his legacy, meant that the project lurched along.
Oh resigned in 2011 after his refusal to support a free lunch program for school children backfired. But the Dongdaemun History and Culture Park — as the whole complex that encompasses the DDP is now known — managed to reach the finish line.
For many South Koreans including me, the DDP is a tangible reminder of South Korea’s ongoing identity crisis as a newly developed nation. There is a great tendency in this country to obsess over appearance. Looks count for much in countless situations and have a clear bearing on one’s social standing. Inner beauty or value is deemed inconsequential, and what seems old, ugly, or poor at a glance is quickly marginalized and discarded. Oh’s approach to urban design was based on that same obsession with the surface; he essentially imposed plastic surgery on the face of this city.
The DDP was fashionable and interesting for a while, but as with any fashion trend, the hype has already faded and now it has become just another building. This is not to say that you should walk away from it. The DDP has the potential to be a great vessel; like all constructions, it can be made special by people who inhabit it and fill it with creative, meaningful, and sustainable contents. It is up to the people of Seoul to salvage the DDP and give it meaning.
Ironically, Oh Sei-hoon’s successor, Park Won-soon, is trying to leave his own mark on the Dongdaemun area, this time by pushing to restore the old city wall of Hanyang that once ran through the very location of the DDP and to register the whole wall as a UNESCO heritage site. Although this may seem like a gesture at preservation, it is just another example of how quickly the city government moves away from what it already has, toward what appears better and more interesting. The city wall has not stood as a complete entity for a long time, but it strikes everyone as novel precisely because that memory has been lost.
I mourn the death of the old stadium, partly because of my personal memories, and partly because I was fortunate enough to document its every nook and cranny. The moment I heard that the stadium was scheduled for demolition, I went out and did what I could do to photograph it. I became its guardian of a sort because, I am told, I am the only person with significant visual evidence of this architectural legacy.
Yet I would prefer that the DDP not suffer the same unfortunate fate as the Dongdaemun Stadium. I do not love the Dongdaemun Design Plaza just yet, but it is now part of the city’s fabric, and I accept it as such. It has become a marker of Seoul’s history, and it is, for better or worse, part of us.