In fact, I downright hated it.
The destruction of the landmark Dongdaemun Stadium, where much of Korea’s sports history was written, was symptomatic of the authorities’ lack of concern for the city’s heritage. Yun In-seok of Docomomo Korea sums up the problem better than I can:
“If they really wanted to, there were many options for preserving parts of the area. It’s an architect’s job to solve these issues,” says Yun In-seok, an architecture professor at Sungkyunkwan University and the director of Docomomo Korea
Docomomo is an international organization that pressures local authorities to conserve heritage buildings and sites in major developments.
“It’s the same with numerous other heritage buildings that have been demolished in Korea. There is always a way to integrate the old and new, but they just don’t have the mindset to see it as our cultural heritage,” Yun says.
The Dongdaemun story is just one example of the destruction of historical landmarks in Seoul.
That the historic stadium was going to be replaced by British architect Zaha Hadid‘s so-called “Metronymic Landscape” worried me further. As readers know, I have mixed feelings about modern architecture. I don’t hate it as much as Prince Charles, mind you. When it’s tastefully and considerately done, I actually like it and the way it contrasts with the surrounding cityscape. For that matter, I like Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, the Bauhaus school, Italian rationalism, German expressionism and Soviet constructivism. Heck, my favorite architectural style is Art Deco, which is very modernist. I’m sure even Georgian architecture was considered radical and modernist when it came into vogue in 18th century Britain.
Having said that, so much modern architecture seems to suffer from a complete lack of cultural or historical context. As a local architect once told me, Zaha Hadid, who won the Pritzker Prize in 2004 (the first women to do so), builds the same building everywhere she goes. OK, maybe that’s not entirely fair, but look at her body of work — you could pick up any of those buildings, drop them in a city half-way across the world and they’d be just as culturally relevant. When I first saw the diagrams of the “Metronymic Landscape,” my first question was whether Hadid had ever been to Dongdaemun, a gritty, vibrant market neighborhood (as it turns out, she hadn’t).
The only positive thing I could say about it was that unlike, say, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s “Spring” on the Cheonggyecheon, it didn’t look like it would be a complete eyesore. Which, mind you, it could very well have been, given the propensity of today’s “starchitects” to design willfully outrageous structures that, like abstract art, nobody likes nor understands (see here for the results of AIA poll cited in that link), with the insult to public tastes compounded with lines of bullshit like this.
*For an interesting (albeit conservative) discussion of the role of ideology in architecture, see here.
Not so crappy afterall
So, anyway, in August, I actually visited Dongdaemun Design Plaza & Park as part of a story I was working on for SEOUL. As loath as I am to admit this, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. The plaza part is still under construction (scheduled for completion in 2011), but the park — named Dongdaemun History & Culture Park — has been completed and is open to the public. It’s a very pleasant experience, with the greenery and fluid architectural lines blending into a single and oddly harmonious landscape of Korean gardens, ancient masonry and futuristic shapes. Architecture photographers will love it.
As a tribute to the site’s past, an old stadium lighting tower has been preserved, and artifacts found post-demolition have been integrated into the park.
The contrast between the futuristic, undulating landscape, the towers of Dongdaemun Market and the older neighborhoods beyond Dongdaemun Gate is not nearly as jarring as I thought it would be. In fact, it’s rather pleasant, especially in good weather, when the concrete looks its absolute best.
When the Design Plaza section is finished next year, I’m sure there will be plenty more to do here. For now, there’s a museum dedicated to Korea’s sports history, another local history museum and a design gallery, in addition to a very pleasant branch of Caffe Benne (with Macs (!) in the back you can use for free).
Hours: 10am to 9pm (closed Jan 1, Chuseok and Seollal)
T. (02) 2266-7088
Getting There: Exit 1, Dongdaemun History & Culture Park Station, Line 2, 4 or 5.
MAP: Dongdaemun Design Plaza & Park
View Dongdaemun Design Plaza & Park in a larger map