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June 28, 2017

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Curvy edifice in Seoul opens, sparking ire in historic district

SEOUL--A curvy futuristic US$450 million building meant to remake Seoul into a global design capital opened to the South Korean public Friday after years of debate about its impact on a historic city precinct. And not everyone is happy with the outcome.

Designed by award-winning architect Zaha Hadid, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza is a stark contrast to its neighborhood, which is better known in Seoul for its links to a royal dynasty that ruled for half a millennium and as home to one of the city's oldest markets.

Located in central Seoul, the Dongdaemun area bustles with shoppers and vendors day and night, selling trendy clothes at budget prices, textiles and a bewildering array of knick-knacks. It lacks the glitz and glamor of Seoul's trendy Gangnam district, made world famous by the rapper Psy's "Gangnam Style" hit. But locals and tourists alike find charm in Dongdaemun's lively stores and nearby vintage markets, scenes recalling an older Seoul that is quickly disappearing.

Hadid's signature flowing curves impart a sense of calm to the imposing steel structure that along with a plaza occupies 63,000 square meters (15.6 acres). At night, the edifice is illuminated with soft LED lights in contrast to the garish neon signs in the neighborhood.

The building is a legacy of the mayoralty of Oh Se-hoon, who opposed welfare and pushed landmark construction projects to redesign Seoul and boost its economy. It cost about 2.4 percent of the city's annual budget, putting it among the most expensive architectural endeavors ever commissioned by Seoul.

Some in Seoul question whether compromises they felt forced to make were worth it. Sports officials and baseball fans had opposed demolishing an 80-year-old sports stadium to give way to the sleek building that Oh, the former mayor, said would make Seoul the world's design capital.

The stadium, which can now only be seen in a few vestiges, was Korea's first and sole modern sports stadium until the 1980s, hosting highly popular high-school baseball matches and the first games of Korea's professional baseball and football leagues.

"DDP is a beautiful work of architecture," said Kim Eun-sik, a 40-year-old writer who used to attend baseball games in Dongdaemun and explored the neighborhood's alleys as a teenager. "But I feel sad and empty as it replaces something that was endearing and joyful to me," said Kim. "It does not seem like the sacrifice has produced something valuable."

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