SEOUL -- It has been criticized for its expense, for its failure to blend in with its surroundings -- even for looking more like a spaceship than a building.
But the $400 million Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), designed by Zaha Hadid and parachuted into the center of one of Seoul's buzziest retail districts, grants the city something it has long lacked: an architectural icon befitting its rep as Asia's capital of cool.
"Korea and Seoul used to be explained by the Korean War, by industrial exports, then as a country that underwent rapid economic development," said Baik Jong-woo, CEO of the Seoul Design Foundation, the quasi-governmental institute which operates the DDP. "There were not so many icons of modern Korean culture, but then Psy and hallyu became icons, and this building itself could become an icon."
Though Seoul is renowned as the launch pad of the pop bands and soap operas that have captured hearts, minds and TV prime-time across Asia over the last decade -- known collectively as "hallyu," ("Korean Wave") -- the city's appearance has lagged behind the content it has spawned.
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While Hong Kong boasts its harbor view, Singapore its Marina Bay Sands complex and Shanghai its soaring skyline, Seoul is short of monumental icons. Its medieval palaces have been over-restored, Samsung's Gangnam HQ is cool but corporate, and its dramatic mountain backdrop is customarily ignored by those in the bustling city below.
The reason Seoul's hardware fails to match its funky new image is the surging industrialization and urbanization that defined 1960s, '70s and '80s Korea.
"There was no focus on beauty, aesthetics or culture, the priority was quick industrial development and building the economy, building the country," said Lee Charm, a former head of the Korean National Tourism Organization. "Never did we have a person with a cultural background as a mayor, governor or president."
But things changed. The DDP was the brainchild of Oh Se-hoon, who took office as Seoul mayor in 2006. Oh's main platform was upgrading city design, and Dongdaemun provided the site for his flagship.
Dongdaemun ("East Gate") a former traditional market area, is now marketed as a fashion zone. Unlike Gangnam's Cheongdam Dong ("The Beverly Hills of Korea"), with its high-end, international boutiques, Dongdaemun hosts up-and-coming local designers and sells cheap, street fashion.
Open 24-7, it is a lively 'hood, frequented by locals and by many of the largely Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian tourists who visit Seoul (some 12.1 million visited Seoul last year, evidence of the city's growing popularity).
However, bar the medieval East Gate itself -- now a traffic island stranded in a sea of modernity -- the district is shabby, its architecture is square and blocky: towering concrete boxes enclosing multi-floor fashion shopping complexes.
The complex that rose in their shadow is very different.
Squatting at the center of Dongdaemun was a decaying stadium built in 1925; its demolition in 2008 provided space for the DDP. London-based Zaha Hadid Architects won the design pitch in 2007, but construction was delayed when remnants of a medieval water gate and city wall were discovered in its foundation.
Following archeological excavation, the antiquities were incorporated into a park space, and the DDP finally opened on 21 March this year.
The plaza covers 95,000 square meters. The building is 86,574 square meters, encompassing conference and exhibition spaces, a museum, a design-centric shopping mall and adjacent park space. Baik hopes that it will synergize with the surrounding district, creating a "DDP effect."
It looks simultaneously organic and engineered. There is no division between wall and roof, granting it flowing, natural-looking lines, while its gray skin -- composed of 45,133 aluminum panels -- imparts a futuristic, urban chic. Some compare it to a grounded spacecraft -- an apt comparison particularly after dark, when its reflective surface lights up.
Inside, the design remains consistent. There are no sharp angles: The exterior's flowing curves are reflected in corridors, stairs, ramps -- even overhead strip lighting.
"Most architecture is like a container or a box, but this building is more like a package," said Baik.
There are quirky elements aplenty. A corridor ends, unexpectedly, in a sloping lawn overlooking the district. Strip-show style peepholes drilled into a corridor wall offer peaks at Korean designers and their works. A Seoul city bus is incongruously parked in the (pedestrianized) center of the complex. And in a small chill-out room, a pianist plays a live concerto.
The historical remains are evident in the layering of the complex.
The uncovered medieval water gate lies a few meters below the plaza's foundation, the contours of its wall serendipitously matching the DDP's curves. Chunks of medieval wall sit on lawns among dwarf pines and ornamental ponds, reflected in the DDP's smoked glass windows. Marking the park's perimeter are the last remnants of the old stadium: its giant floodlights.
Its sinuous curves, organic-looking entrances/exits and surprising vistas make DDP a photographer's paradise. Judging by the numbers of Seoulites of all ages strolling, snapping smartphone selfies and gasping at its features, it is a hit.
"I went to the DDP recently and listened to conversations," said Lee. "They were saying, 'Now we have something like this in Korea -- a landmark building, really high-level architecture.'"
Architecture critics have been positive.
"The DDP design shows a commitment to preserve the site's history and integrate the newly discovered history in an architectural landscape that revolves around the ancient city wall and historical artefacts," noted trade website ArchDaily. "This external landscape transforms Seoul into a greener city, while voids and folds in its surface offers glimpses into innovative world of design below; making DDP an important link between the city's contemporary culture, historic artefacts and emerging nature."
Still, as in the case with all bold architecture and many public projects, there has been criticism - notably surrounding the project cost, its failure to blend in with the district, and for the fact that it is a government initiative.
Paik brushes these critiques aside. Regarding its lack of synchronicity, Paik noted that the surrounding area is architecturally undistinguished, and invoking the DDP's vision, he defended costs.
"This is a design project, not just a building, we have created something that is an icon representing Seoul," he insisted. "We are not looking at 10 years for this building, we are talking a 20-, 30- or 40-year timeframe, so in the long term, it is not overspend."
Still, both Lee and Paik note that Seoul is not going to get another building packaging the scale, vision and design nous of the DDP -- at least for the time being.
The project's originator, Mayor Oh, was defeated in a 2011 referendum by social activist and current mayor Park Won-soon. His platform has been the opposite of Oh's: Instead of prioritizing grandiose architectural projects, Park has refocused City Hall's priorities on welfare.
And Park himself faces a mayoral election on 4th June, when he squares off against billionaire Hyundai scion Chung Mong-joon. Urban design upgrades are central to neither candidate's platform.
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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com