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[Weekender] How DDP emerged as an icon of Seoul

Under new slogan, 'Amazing Tomorrow,' DDP hopes to shape future of city after 10 rocky years

By Lee Jung-joo

Published : April 27, 2024 - 16:00

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The Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Jung-gu, central Seoul (123rf) The Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Jung-gu, central Seoul (123rf)

When the Dongdaemun Design Plaza first opened its doors in March 2014, the structure, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, was met with mixed reviews.

Replacing a baseball stadium built in 1959 and another sports stadium dating to 1925 nestled in the fashion retail district of Dongdaemun, the DDP faced criticism for its perceived lack of harmony with its surroundings, with some likening it to "a spaceship that crash-landed in Seoul."

Now, a decade after it opened, the DDP has finally solidified its status as a hub of international art and technology, emerging as a Seoul landmark.

It was the “Chanel Cruise Show,” a fashion show featuring German designer Karl Lagerfeld’s designs in 2015, that helped the DDP earn recognition among other high-end fashion brands such as Dior, Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Fendi. This year, the DDP is set to host exhibitions by luxury brands Cartier and Piaget through May and November, respectively.

The “Chanel Cruise Show,” a fashion show featuring German designer Karl Lagerfeld’s designs, took place in May 2015 at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza. (Seoul Design Foundation) The “Chanel Cruise Show,” a fashion show featuring German designer Karl Lagerfeld’s designs, took place in May 2015 at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza. (Seoul Design Foundation)

The DDP has also hosted exhibitions by other famous artists from around the world. In 2022, exhibitions by French graphic artist Jean Jullien and American director Tim Burton took place at the venue, featuring their works in the form of drawings, sculptures and media art.

“When the artists and brands are asked why they chose the DDP to host their event, they all comment on the sense of space they feel at the DDP and the respect and love they have for Hadid,” said a city government official.

“Every single one of the 45,133 exterior wall panels has a differently curved surface, which makes the building more unique," the official continued.

Following Hadid’s death in 2016, the DDP also holds significance for being one of her final works.

The DDP was designated one of The New York Times’ “52 Places to Go” in 2015 and saw a record number of 13.75 million visitors last year, a significant increase from the 6.88 million it saw in its first year.

According to the city government, the DDP hosts 20 to 30 events and exhibitions each year, with around half of them being brand-related events and art exhibitions. The utilization rate of the DDP has now reached 74 percent, similar to the Coex Convention and Exhibition Center in Gangnam-gu, southern Seoul. By the second half of this year, the city government expects to see a cumulative total of more than 100 million visitors.

American director Tim Burton observes his sculptures that resemble the characters from his 2012 film, “Frankenweenie,” ahead of his exhibition “The World of Tim Burton,” at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in April 2022. (GNC Media) American director Tim Burton observes his sculptures that resemble the characters from his 2012 film, “Frankenweenie,” ahead of his exhibition “The World of Tim Burton,” at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in April 2022. (GNC Media)

Behind DDP's conception

The man behind the push to replace the two stadiums with a design landmark was Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon. According to his office, Oh, in August 2006, proposed developing the Dongdaemun area into a cluster of fashion and design industries, with the DDP acting as a multicomplex that specializes in the field of design.

Ever since the nearby Pyounghwa Market opened in 1961, Dongdaemun rose as the largest wholesale apparel market in the country, as garment shops and sewing factories began to station themselves around the area. However, it began to face a crisis in 2000, when online shopping started to become popular. According to a city government official, the vacancy rate of Dongdaemun’s shops reached as high as 50 percent in 2006.

The city government was motivated to redevelop Dongdaemun into a center of fashion and design by building the DDP. It also said it hoped to raise Seoul’s design competitiveness and to help the city become a fashion capital, next to New York, London, Milan and Paris.

Visitors walk through the Visitors walk through the "Gucci Garden Archetypes" exhibition, which took place at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in March 2022. (Seoul Design Foundation)

After receiving design submissions from architects around the world, the Seoul Metropolitan Government selected a design submitted by Iraqi-English architect Zaha Hadid, who was the first female architect to have received the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004.

“The committee in charge of reviewing the designs at the time praised the strong impact of Hadid’s design, which could be felt when looking at the DDP from a pedestrians’ point of view and from a high-rise building next to the park,” an official from the Seoul Design Foundation told The Korea Herald.

“It proved that an impactful design and its uniqueness is enough to determine a city landmark rather than its size or height.”

After conducting further inspections on the designated construction site, construction for the DDP officially began on Dec. 6, 2008.

Controversial beginnings

When announcing its plans to build the DDP in 2006, the city government faced outrage from residents who criticized it for demolishing the two stadiums as landmarks of their own right with historical and cultural value. Many said that Dongdaemun Stadium in particular should be preserved and “registered as a cultural heritage site to be used to provide education.”

Built in 1925, Dongdaemun Stadium hosted various sports events, such as soccer and baseball games. However, due to safety issues, the stadium was closed from hosting further sports events in 2000 and its interior made into a public parking lot.

An aerial view of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Jung-gu, central Seoul (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) An aerial view of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Jung-gu, central Seoul (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

From 2002 and 2003, more than 1,000 vendors that now make up the Seoul Folk Flea Market in Sinseol-dong, Dongdaemun-gu, were also housed in and around the stadium. According to the city government, convincing the shop owners of the city’s decision to demolish the stadium was “far from easy.”

“Because the vendors were based in Dongdaemun Stadium, demolishing it was a matter of life or death for these shop owners,” said a city government official. “The city government had to conduct more than 1,500 in-person consultations with them to discuss the purpose behind building the DDP in an attempt to create a mutually beneficial solution for both the vendors and the city government.”

Later, the city government proposed Sinseol-dong as an alternative place of business. It also provided additional support in marketing and promoting the Seoul Folk Flea Market to attract more visitors, which led to vendors eventually leaving the stadium, according to a Seoul city official.

The DDP project continued under late Mayor Park Won-soon, who won the election in 2011 following Oh's resignation.

Under Park's three terms as mayor, a library and exhibition about local businesses, as well as office spaces for social enterprises were built, shifting somewhat the earlier vision that Oh had, according to experts. Seoul Fashion Week was held in DDP when it first opened in 2014.

After Oh returned as mayor in 2021, he focused again on developing DDP's role.

Over the past decade, in addition to hosting brand-related events and exhibitions, the DDP has become renowned for hosting annual city-led events including Seoul Fashion Week and Seoul Beauty Week. These platforms have played a pivotal role in spotlighting South Korean fashion and beauty brands, garnering attention both locally and internationally.

A crowd watches a media display projected onto the Dongdaemun Design Plaza during a New Year's Eve countdown event on Dec. 31, 2023. (Seoul Design Foundation) A crowd watches a media display projected onto the Dongdaemun Design Plaza during a New Year's Eve countdown event on Dec. 31, 2023. (Seoul Design Foundation)

One recent event that drew attention was Seoul Light, a media art festival that took place from August to September 2023, and from December 2023 to January this year. “The DDP saw a record number of visitors during the Seoul Light festivals, adding up to 13.75 million,” said a city government official.

As part of the city’s end-of-year festivities, a New Year’s Eve countdown festival also took place at the DDP for the first time in 2023, accompanied by fireworks, musical performances and media art. The DDP’s countdown event attracted up to 630,000 visitors, a 124 percent increase compared to the number of visitors from previous years.

“Currently, we are in discussions with experts ahead of the Seoul Light festival at the end of this year. We plan to provide experiences and programs that are even better than last year’s festival,” a city government official said to The Korea Herald. “Besides media art performances, we plan to showcase laser shows and programs that visitors can participate in, along with concerts and flea markets.”

Fireworks are set off during the Dongdaemun Design Plaza's New Year's Eve countdown event, which took place for the first time in December 2023. (Seoul Design Foundation) Fireworks are set off during the Dongdaemun Design Plaza's New Year's Eve countdown event, which took place for the first time in December 2023. (Seoul Design Foundation)

To commemorate its 10th anniversary, the Seoul Design Foundation, the operator of the DDP under the city government, also released a new slogan for the DDP -- “Amazing Tomorrow” -- in the hopes of delivering experiences that will amaze the DDP’s visitors through its exhibitions, futuristic building designs and construction technology.

“In the future, we plan to house exhibitions at the DDP that not only shape Seoul’s future but also influence our visitors’ futures positively and enhance their creativity,” a Seoul Design Foundation official said to The Korea Herald.