Dongdaemun Design Plaza

Dongdaemun Design Plaza

I admit that I was skeptical about the Zaha Hadid-designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) when it first opened in 2014.  My joke at the time: It wasn't built, it just landed.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza by night.  Credit: via Wikipedia.

Over time and repeated visits, though, I've come to appreciate it -- with one complaint to be discussed below.

The project was dogged by controversy from the start.  The site was once occupied by the beloved Dongdaemun Stadium, which was knocked down to make way for the DDP.  Preservationists were of course horrified, all the more when archaeological remains from the early Joseon period (1392-1910) were unearthed.  Then Iraqi-born British starchitect Zaha Hadid was awarded the job over local architects, which outraged national pride.  We should also mention the displacement of vendors from the market that used to set up on the stadium grounds.  The controversy didn't end when construction finally got underway.  Changing city administrations fiddled with the budget and the plans, compromising the architect's vision.  

As the picture above shows, the building's exterior is a vivid example of Hadid's signature sinuosity.  The Guardian, after all, anointed her 'Queen of the Curve.'  The spaceship-ness of the design at first put me off, but I came around when I saw the finished complex after dark.  The scaly, metal-tiled facade looks cold and opaque by day, but its warm luminosity by night is revelatory.

The canyonesque features, such as the asymmetrical arch pictured below that divides/joins the two major masses of the building, also appeal to me.  

Understandably, there was some concern that the structure would become a white elephant.  It was conceived as a design hub for Seoul, Korea, and, grandiloquently, northeast Asia at large, but successive city administrations diluted that concept.  In the end, the complex came to include a temporary exhibition space, a museum space, a design market, and an underground shopping centre.  

My own doubts about the usage of the space disappeared early on.  The temporary exhibition space, which is vast, has been kept filled with interesting design-centred shows.  Last year, for instance, I saw a Dior retrospective there.  The museum space has done the city, the nation, and the world the signal favour of making the treasures of the Gansong Museum of Art accessible.  This institution is located in a cramped facility in northern Seoul that is normally open to the public for just two brief periods in spring and fall.  Fortunately for us all, the museum and the DDP have worked out an agreement through which continuously rotating exhibits of the museum's treasures -- which include many major national treasures, including most of the extant works of the 18th century painter Jeon Seong -- come to the museum space for months at a time.     

The exhibition and museum spaces are inside the protuberance at left in the picture below.

The other major spaces are the design market and the underground shopping centre.  The latter got off to a slow start, but is now well-populated with bustling shops, pubs and eateries of all kinds.  The design market is home to both permanent vendors and pop-ups.  I was afraid at first that it would be given over to cheap K-pop tat, and there is some of that, but there are also quirky small design houses exhibiting all manner of gadgets, art, and objects.  On weekends it's packed with young locals as well as tourists.

The entrance to the design market is to the left in the picture below.

Crowds have typically been onsite whenever I've visited, testifying to Seoulites' embrace of the DDP.  My sense is that it's brought new life and energy to what was once a rather dingy part of town.  In the past, people came only to shop at the nearby wholesale markets.  They still do, but now a younger crowd is also coming in large numbers to take in some culture and a higher-end, boutique-y sort of retail experience.  Then there are the masses of Chinese and Japanese tourists, of course.  As if to set a stylish seal of approval on the revived area, a design-forward new Marriott hotel opened in 2015 just a stone's throw away.   

To assuage the concerns of the preservationists, a museum dedicated to the old Dongdaemun Stadium has been erected in the grounds.  It's not clear to me whether the design was provided by Hadid or her local collaborators, Samoo Studio.  (In fact, it's not clear to me how much of the overall design of the DDP is hers and how much is theirs.)  The centuries-old, Joseon-era municipal watergate has been seamlessly incorporated in the surrounding landscaping, and, most importantly, the design was shifted a bit to leave the above-mentioned archaeological site undisturbed and on display. It's the brown patch in the picture below. 


We can take a somewhat closer view in this picture I took after dark.  The entrance to the underground shopping arcade is to the left, at the bottom of the long, sloping walkway visible from different angles in the pictures above and below.    


All in all, I account the DDP a success, so you might be wondering what my one complaint is.  It's the interior.  Apart from a helix staircase that is very popular with amateur and professional photographers, the inside spaces are devoid of visual interest and they're a bit of a nightmare to navigate, particularly in the exhibition and museum spaces.  They were also executed with cheap materials that are already starting to look faded.  I have a suspicion that there was some corner-cutting in the final stages of the project.

If you are in Seoul, the DDP is highly recommended.  If you combine it with some exploration of the surrounding shopping district, or even the weekend flea market, which is about 10 minutes' walk beyond the landmark Dongdaemun gate, itself a short walk and visible from the DDP, you could make a day of it.  

The Great Eastern Gate, AKA Dongdaemun, as seen from the edge of the DDP's grounds.  

The DDP is easily accessible via Exits 1 and 2 of the Dongdaemun History and Culture Park station on subway lines 2, 4, and 5.  

Have you visited the DDP?  What are your impressions?  Please share in the comments below, on the Lotus and Persimmon Facebook page, or in the Lotus & Persimmon gallery on Instagram.  

Posted on 06/12/2016 by David Gemeinhardt Travel, Museums, Countries, Korea 0

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