Embracing the alien spaceship - Dongdaemun Design Plaza

Embracing the alien spaceship - Dongdaemun Design Plaza
Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Dongdaemun, Seoul.

SEOUL - The alien spaceship that landed smack in the middle of Seoul opened its doors on Friday with much fanfare. And judging by the crowd that flocked to the cavernous belly of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza on the first two days of its opening ― more than 58,000 visitors on Friday and 168,000 on Saturday, according to its overseer the Seoul Design Foundation ― the latest Seoul landmark, often ridiculed as a "spaceship," may win over the skeptics who argue that the "monstrous building" costing some 500 billion won (S$5900 million) is a colossal waste of taxpayer money.

The DDP was the brainchild of former Seoul mayor Oh Se-hoon. With the firm conviction that design would increase the brand-value of the city and lead to an economic boom, Oh set about "designing" the capital. Several urban redevelopment projects, the "Hangang Renaissance" project that included a floating island off the southern bank of the river, beautification of the streets, and revival of the city's decaying fashion industry with the aim of turning Seoul into an international fashion centre were some of the Oh administration's design initiatives undertaken from July 2006 to August 2011.

"Design is a growth driver of the Seoul economy. We have surprised the world with the Miracle of the Han River and advancements in the IT sector. Now we would like to bring global attention to Seoul with strong design," said Oh in 2007 upon the city's designation as the World Design Capital 2010.

What had initially been a project to relocate the country's first sports stadium, built during the Japanese colonial era in 1925, and turn the area into a park took on a new dimension when Pritzker winner Zaha Hadid's "Metonymic Landscape" was selected in an international invitational design competition in August 2007.

Once building began in 2009 the cost snowballed as adjustments were made, including a major alteration to the original plan necessitated by the discovery of historical artifacts from the Joseon Era that were unearthed during the digging process. By the time the construction was completed in November 2013, some 421.2 billion won had been spent on construction alone.

The sheer size and scale of DDP is breathtaking. The plaza, four above-ground stories and three underground levels, totals 85,000 square meters, about the size of three football fields, and the park measures 30,000 square meters.

The undulating monolithic structure with perforated skin made from 45,133 aluminium panels that emit light at night has had passersby wondering at the sight ever since the building began to take form.

On Saturday, people flocked to explore the spaceship that had been sitting in their midst. Young kids sat on the gently sloping field of grass on the rooftop, fashion people attending the Seoul Fashion Week created a colorful scene, unprecedented in this neighborhood known for its drabness. Families explored the interior that houses the Kansong Art Museum and its national treasures, design shops featuring the latest trends and a children's playground that incorporates learning. Long lines formed outside several eateries during the lunch hour.

It is easy to get lost inside the DDP, where one space seems to flow into another. You may start on one floor and unintentionally end up on another. Signs showing directions are of little help. The experience of walking inside the DDP is of one of discovering the unknown, an effect intended by the architect. "The image keeps changing as the new vista and the new shapes open up.

That is what you experience when moving through an unusual, unknown space," said Patrik Schumacher, a partner at Zaha Hadid Architects, at a press conference on March 11.

Its strangeness aside, the DDP is both an architectural and engineering marvel. Hailed as the world's largest 3-D amorphous structure, DDP used an advanced computer simulation programme, the "Building Information Modeling" programme, to achieve its fluid and asymmetrical characteristics.

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