This March, the face of Dongdaemun changed with the official opening of Dongdaemun Design Park (DDP). Finally, after more than five years of work, Dongdaemun is whole again, and the confusing ugly building has suddenly become one of the most-photographed structures in Seoul, welcoming visitors to come and marvel at its weird arches and exorcise all memories of what came before this. That long and exhausting process to completion is mired with construction delays, broken promises, bureaucratic incompetency, archaeological surprises, and of course, countless urban exploring opportunities.
The story of the renewal of Dongdaemun begins nearby, with the earlier renewal of Cheonggyecheon. Then mayor of Seoul, Lee Myung-bak (2002-2006) sought to build a stream across it. Before the restoration of Cheonggyecheon, the stream was buried underground and held an elevated roadway. Beneath the roadway was a very interesting, quite extensive flea market. In order to make room for his vanity project, Mayor Lee allowed some of the vendors of this market to move into the nearby Dongdaemun Stadium. The stadium had been built in 1925 and was in use for sports until more modern facilities were completed for the 1988 Olympics. Right next door was Dongdaemun Baseball Stadium, built in 1959 and still in use for baseball up until the end. There is a lot more cool history that happened here, much of which you can see for yourself at the Dongdaemun Stadium Memorial on location at DDP. Mayor Lee pledged to turn the stadium into a world-class flea market, and at least gave the cooperating merchants the impression they would be allowed to set up shop there indefinitely.
But Mayor Lee had greater ambitions: he wished to become president of Korea, with dreams of building an inland canal from Seoul to Busan (which later evolved into the Four Rivers Restoration Project), essentially doing to all of Korea what hed just done to downtown Seoul. Cheonggyecheon was considered a success and Lee was named a Hero of the Environment by Time Magazine shortly before his successful campaign for presidency. In the mayors office, he was succeeded by political party-mate Oh Se-hoon, who also had dreams of leveraging his time in the mayors office, the second most powerful political office in Korea, to get into the most powerful political office.
Mayor Oh sought to follow the presidents lead, starting with his own vanity project, the redevelopment of the two stadiums in Dongademun. Never mind that Mayor Lee had promised the merchants the use of the stadiums; they hadn’t received the same pledge from Mayor Oh. In May 2007, the city announced a contest soliciting designs for the area. This process is discussed in Jeong Jae-euns excellent documentary Talking Architect (2012). They eventually settled on the wonky design by Zaha Hadid, which I always thought looked like a giant furry green set of labia.
It was in December of this year that I entered the picture. On a mild Friday night, I stopped by Dongdaemun on the way home from a work Christmas party. I’d heard from a fellow urban explorer that demolition had begun on the baseball stadium, so I wanted to see if there was a way in before the whole thing was demolished. The area around the stadium was dark and deserted. The markets of Dongdaemun were still open, but this was world’s away.
Access to the closed stadium was limited by metal fencing which looked a lot more effective than it actually was. Inside, the stadium was in mid-demolition. My way was lit by the glistening towers across the street.
The lighting towers remained.
As did the gigantic Jumbotron screen.
It was now an arena to a very different kind of game, frozen in mid-play with all the workers gone home for the night.
I paid three trips to the stadium before it went down: the next was the following night, and then later in February 2008 on Lunar New Year when the whole city was deserted and demolition was progressing.
Yes, I was always going to show you what is behind the Jumbotron screen.
And by April 2008, all signs of the baseball stadium were gone.
Now that the baseball stadium was done, attention turned to the remaining stadium. I visited on April 13, 2008, just three days before total closure.
Whatever was unsellable was piled in the middle of the stadium for anyone to pick through.
There was still a fair amount of activity in the market.
Many of the stands were still set up, as vendors attempted to sell off as much of their remaining wares as possible.
An air of misery pervaded the market this day.
Beyond a certain threshold, the market was already shutting down and left empty.
Wandering over there, I was all alone.
With an eviction looming ahead, the market had been neglected for some time.
For once, I found myself far more attracted to the active part of the market rather than the abandoned part.
On April 16, 2008, at 4am, the stadium was raided by a gang of 500 hired goons paid for by the city, who beat the remaining 75 vendors and evicted them from the stadium. The stadium was fenced off, beginning an almost-six-year period in which Dongdaemun was not whole.
Still there was an active street market around the outside of the stadium, while the interior sat empty awaiting demolition.
It was announced that Seoul had been selected as the 2010 World Design Capital, presumably for their commitment to wonky architectural white elephants.
The fence around the empty lot was decorated with conceptual images of what the completed park would look like. Can you see what’s missing?
Here’s another image. Lets see if you can spot whats missing now. Answer in the photo caption.
Due to the higher volume of people outside this stadium, I kept failing in my attempts to get into this stadium. By June 2008, demolition of the stadium was well underway.
So, I went in at night.
You probably know that during excavation, a long-forgotten section of city wall was unearthed. Fortunately, the design was modified in progress to include a section of wall, incorporating Igansumun, a sluice gate originally for water drainage. By 2010, this section of the park was open to the public.
It was also a welcoming way into the construction site.
The DDP was slated for completion in 2010 in time for the World Design Capital event. But by the end of 2010, they were still closer to the start of the project than its completion. I visited around Halloween to check in on the progress.
Finally, construction was completed in 2013, and the building sat empty until its opening in 2014. Now it’s up to the city government that begrudgingly inherited this beast to figure out how best to incorporate it into the living city around it, and its up to the citizens of Seoul to accept it.
Now that the DDP is open, this story is finally over. At least until the city gets bored of it and wants something new. I give it, oh, 40 years max. Until then, I’m done with this place.