18 February 2008

cityplan #2: dongdaemun design plaza+park

now what's a "world design capital" without a world design plaza?

although dongdaemun is best known as the 24-hour shopping destination that sells 40 billion won ($42.3 million) of goods every day, the name means "great east gate" and refers to heunginjimun (흥인지문), or "the gate of rising benevolence," among several translations. originally built in 1396, the current structure dates to 1869 and is one of the once-walled capitol's two surviving "great" gates. of course, the southern gate was destroyed last week by an arsonist.

a photo of the stadium during the japanese colonial period.

beyond the gate and thousands of shopping outlets, the gritty dongdaemun neighborhood is also known for its ugly conjoined (tho clearly not identical) athletic twin-fields. built in 1925 during japanese occupation, gyeongseong stadium, as it was called, hosted athletic events as well as an independence celebration in 1945 and a funeral for the assassinated korean independence activist kim gu four years later. post-occupation, the baseball and soccer fields remained the city's primary sports venue until a massive seoul sports complex was built to accommodate the 1988 summer olympic games.

not so gorgeous, eh?

but in the name of progress, by the end of next month the complex will be gone. 405 billion won ($425 million) will convert the site into the dongdaemun design plaza and park (brochure here), part of seoul mayor oh se-hoon's plan to make his city earn its recent distinction as 2010 world design capital. to this end, the metropolitan government held an international design competition. of the 4 koreans and 4 non-koreans who competed, it was the iraqi-born, london-based, and pritzker prize-winning architect zaha hadid who won the contest and the contract.

here's a page from an info brochure about the plaza. the park is to the left, the cheonggye stream is in the middle, and the great gate is in the lower right corner (click for larger).

hadid's "metonymic landscape" is three levels (two above and one underground) featuring a convention hall, exhibition space and offices on the inside with a 66,500 square meter park on the outside. the design was praised by the judging committee for embodying the neighborhood's historical, cultural and economic character, as well as the design's "great harmony of nature and architecture." perhaps the latter, but how the former?

a growing number of local historians and architects are disagreeing with the judges, complaining that the structure's fluid, titanium-swathed shape is incongruent with the area. architecture critic lee joo-yeon's main objection is that hadid, who has yet to visit seoul, designed a park that is oblivious to the ancient gate and remnants of the seoul fortress wall that will border it; both are designated national treasures.

criticism by lee and others is part of several larger debates. as the "miracle on the han river" continues to usher ambitious projects costing trillions of won, who should design and build them? in a city settled for over 2,000 years, when should the old yield to the new? and when it inevitably does, what should happen to the hundreds, if not thousands, of (mostly poor and powerless) residents who are displaced?

this looks cool, but i still don't really understand what's going on.

sure, the same cynical cycle of the powerful and powerless is once again at work, but in this case they are literally the same. over the past 2+ years, nearly 900 merchants have sold their fossils, antiques, joseon-era hats and fake viagra on the soccer field's asphalt floor. in 2005 they were relocated there when the hwanghak-dong flea market was razed by 8,000 riot police and hired thugs. that time around, they were in the way of a different urban renewal mega project. then-seoul mayor (and current president-elect) lee myung-bak had was spending 900 billion won to restore the cheonggye stream... the same stream that he, as the former ceo of hyundai construction, had a role in paving over in the first place. with a new mayor in office, these same vendors are being forced to move again, for the greater good of urban revitalization, of course.

who knows, the design plaza could be a big plus for everyone. the city has pledged 3 billion won to help move the repeatedly dissed merchants to a new, tourist-happy place in nearby sinseol-dong. along with the super future park design, plans are also in the works to restore the ancient castle walls in the area. when 2010 comes around, however, how will the dongdaemun project impact seoul? using bilbao's guggenheim and paris' eiffel tower as dramatic examples, city officials expect "seoul's new growth engine" to dramatically boost the city's brand power. in just a few years, they expect seoul to join the ranks of paris, tokyo and milan as a world center for design, culture and art, thereby drawing an additional 700,000 foreign visitors annually. hmmm.

getting there:

→ if you want to see the stadiums transformed into the park, take subway lines 2, 4 or 5 to dongdaemun stadium station (exit #1).
→ or, you can also take line 1 or line 4 to dongdaemun station (exit #4) to see the great gate. walk south over the cheonggyecheon to reach the stadium (future park) complex.

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