Contemporary Architecture in Korea – Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP)

Last week I went to Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) for the Modern Architecture and Contemporary Art tour, held by Unboxing Korea. I was invited as a Korea Allimi. But I also met new friends from other MOFA’s cultural program, which is a taekwondo class. They are foreigners who are studying in Korea, like me. They remind me of my experience taking taekwondo class when I was a 5-6 years old kid, many years ago. That was when I see the Korean flag in front of the class every time we practiced.

I have seen photos of DDP many times from my Instagram friends. They took pictures in very catchy postures with this strange-looked building. My roommate often called it “mothership” because it makes her think about UFO. Although this building was design by British architect Zaha Hadid, whose work was chosen through an international design contest held by Seoul Metropolitan Government, DDP now became a landmark of contemporary architecture in Korea.

During the tour, the guide pointed at the popular spots for photos or mentioned BTS, “You know, BTS is rehearsing in that room.” (which I was not sure whether he was joking). He also explained how cool the DDP’s architecture, in terms of the underlying concept, not just its distinctive looks. It was built with 45,133 aluminum panels, which are all different in size and shape. At first, this was like an impossible task that requires too much time to complete. But finally, a Korean company can find an innovative way to accomplish it. If we look closely to each panel, we will still see the numbers made by laser, identifying each panel’s uniqueness. In order to build this extraordinary architecture, Building Information Modeling (BIM) approach was implemented to cope with the complexity of its shape.

I am impressed by the way this place was designed with high consideration to the pedestrians in the first place, reflecting one of the characteristics of modern Korean design. Not only the landmark building like this, but they also design the whole city to be a pedestrian-friendly environment. For this case, DDP was designed not to be an obstacle for pedestrians’ flow from the subway station to the commercial area. Hadid intended to make space liberate and open, letting people commute to any direction they want to go. And surprisingly, the different ways sometimes merge into one. We wandered on the way from the basement and finally arrived on the fourth floor without noticing it!

One thing that I like the most is how DDP’s builders kept the remains of ancient architecture from the Choson dynasty, fixing and maintaining it in the space side by side with this cutting-edge building.

For example, there is an old city wall from the Choson era. If we went to the rooftop of DDP and looked at it from there, we can see that it is a part of a long wall continuing from Naksan to here and go further to Namsan. While the wooden fence on one side is still kept in place, showing that this is how it protected the town from the enemy, the fence on the other side is taken out to let people walk through.

I like the way the Koreans preserve this kind of archaeological site. They keep something to be remembered but still let a part of it going to make the whole structure functional to contemporary usage.

It is just like how society reforms from time to time to make the future possible

Another old thing, although not as old as Choson, is the sports stadium’s lighting tower. It used to be a soccer field spotlight but is now equipped with LED lights to illuminate the DDP’s ground on special occasions.

We ended the tour by visiting the exhibition from teamLab, “Life.” In there, we interacted with visualized animals and plants that move beautifully. The sad thing is that anytime humans touch them, they fall, wither, disintegrated, and die.

To this point, some might say this is not Korean architecture at all. Even the designer is foreign. But I do not think so. For me, contemporary Korean culture is how the traditional culture opens space for new and sometimes foreign concepts, art, ideas, etc., to challenge, mix, and become one. It does not matter who the creators are, but how these arts exist and exchange with one another in this liberal space.

This might be one reason why we, the Korea Allimi, are welcomed and invited by Unboxing Korea to learn about Korean culture and become a part of this society, telling the world that nothing is too foreign to be here.

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