Dongdaemun Design Plaza

Dongdaemun Design Plaza

The so-called ‘creative industries’ are what almost all major world cities want to be known for and base their future economy on. So, how does a city become a ‘design city’? Mayors everywhere in the world are currently pondering this question. Oh Se-Hoon, the former mayor of Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, who preferred landmark construction projects over welfare programs, spent 450 million dollars on a fancy, sleek new building called the Dongdaemun Design Plaza – or DDP for short.

It was designed by the world’s most famous female architect, London-based Zaha Hadid. The involvement of a foreign ‘starchitect’ seemed like an easy choice for such a politically prestigious project – and architecturally, a safe bet.

The chosen site for the new Korean Design Center, the Dongdaemun district in East-central Seoul, is a historically sensitive area: It is the former east gate of the Seoul fortress. In a city like Seoul which does not have many historic heritage buildings, this site certainly was not a tabula rasa. In fact, a popular building occupied it:  The iconic 80-year-old sports stadium that used to stand on the site had to be demolished for the new plaza. Until the 1980s, when Seoul hosted the Olympic Games, it was Korea’s first and only modern sports stadium, being used for both baseball and football.

During demolition and construction of the DDP, historic ruins were discovered from the Joseon Dynasty, when the area was a military parade and training ground for the Royal Korean Army. These ruins had to be removed and are now integrated into the surrounding park landscape. Seoul was named The World’s Design Capital in 2010 and the building was supposed to be inaugurated for that event, but construction was delayed by four years.

The Dongdaemun Design Plaza  stands in strong contrast with its slightly scruffy neighborhood, known for its markets with cheap  clothes and kitchen utensils. The area may not be Seoul’s prettiest, but it certainly is one of its busiest, both day and night. Some 900 merchants had to relocate their shops and carts to make room for the new Design Plaza. This sleek building is among the most expensive ever commissioned by the City of Seoul, costing almost 3% of the city’s annual budget. How can such a giant building be filled with reasonable (and economic) uses?

That is still anybody’s guess. The Plaza will stage conferences, concerts, exhibitions of design-related businesses on its 90,000 m2 of floor space and the annual operating costs ist estimated to be around $30 million. The DDP might end up feeling more like a convention center if successful – or like an empty shell if not.

Seoul dreams of becoming the fashion center of East-Asia. A ‘Fashion Information Center’ with seminar rooms and an auditorium is supposed to act as a one-stop-shop for fashionistas as well as the South Korean fashion scene and industry. At night the Plaza is illuminated with LED lights, giving the impression of a spaceship that has landed in Seoul.

Hadid’s signature flowing style shapes the Plaza’s many curves.  Some 45,000 panels in various sizes and degrees of curvature were used for the façade which is also the roof. Because the building is mixed steel and concrete structure and has a highly complex geometry, the construction has proven to be costly and difficult for the Korean contractors.  The Plaza is the first public project in Korea to use Building Information Modelling (BIM). Parametric building information modelling software made possible an advanced metal-forming and fabrication in a mass-customized way.  Actually, this way of manufacturing may well shape the future of fashion as well, making the building a very appropriate expression of its contents.

The façade incorporates a field of pixilation and perforation patterns making the building look like a singular entity at times and blending it into the surrounding landscape at other times. The built-in façade lighting animates the building’s appearance. Voids and folds in the walk-on surfaces offer glimpses inside.

Critics and the general public are currently discussing whether the new center is an architectural marvel or an “urban pimple”. This degrading characterization was coined by Seoul’s new Mayor, Park Won-soon, who described the legacy of his predecessor as an “unbalanced ugly sight”. As much as it was political ambition that caused the DDP to come into existence rather than actual need, it is political envy that blurs its appreciation now.

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