As part of ArchDaily's coverage of the 2016 Venice Biennale, we are presenting a series of articles written by the curators of the exhibitions and installations on show.
Of the few dozen articles on architecture and urbanism I have contributed to the Korea Joongang Daily, it was the one entitled “The FAR Game” that received the biggest response from readers. While FAR (Floor Area Ratio) appears to be technical jargon for professionals, it seems that almost every Korean either knows what it is, or has heard about it. If you type yong-jeong-nyul (용적률, the Korean word for FAR) on Korean search engines, an endless stream of news, articles, and commentary pops up. The word speaks to the hunger for living space in a hyper-dense environment, as well as the desire to satisfy that hunger by any means possible, whether by proper planning and tactics or through trickery and obfuscation. It touches both the rich and the poor, the white-collar and the blue-collar, as they navigate their lives together in and around the urban fabric. Upon reading that article, where I had stated that without a doubt it is FAR that drives the architectural character of Korean cities, a renowned urban researcher told me I had hit the nail right on the head.
On seeing that Alejandro Aravena proposed the theme “Reporting from the Front” for this year’s Venice Biennale, my immediate thought was that the play of the FAR Game was the real battle being waged on Korea’s architectural front lines. The fact is that 99% of Korean architects must play the game in order to survive. An architect rarely gets a commission unless they can convince clients that their design proposal has larger rentable floor areas than their competitor’s.
In Korea, most clients and landowners are paying for the invisible quantity of the building, not the visible quality of the architecture. Buildings themselves are often not valued in the real estate market. The average lifespan of a building is shorter than that of a human being. If a new building can provide an increase in FAR, then demolition and reconstruction are sought. It is not uncommon to see celebratory banners when a building fails its structural stability test, because it means the demolition will be approved.
The FAR Game is particularly relevant to South Korea due to its recent history of unprecedented economic growth. In 1962, when the first Building Act and Urban Planning Act were established, South Korea’s GDP per capita was less than $100 USD. Over the next 50 years it grew more than 300 times while land prices multiplied more than 600 times. This lead to “compressed growth” and hyper-density in the country’s urban industrial hubs, with the Greater Seoul Metropolitan Area being the prime example. Combined with plot-based building regulations and an irregular and heterogeneous urban grain, Korean urban architecture has not been able to escape from the desperate and complex drive to augment living space that characterizes the FAR Game.
It is true that a clear identity for Korean architecture has been blurred amid the struggle between conflicting agendas: demolition vs. regeneration, privatization vs. nationalization, aesthetics vs. practicality. But underneath all of these considerations, the FAR Game always rages. It is easy to dismiss the FAR Game as a symptom of unscrupulous greed, and perhaps this is why theorists and critics rarely talk about it openly. However the reality is that, rather than resisting it, architects in Korea must welcome the tension between the desire for maximum floor area and the building rules that restrict it, and use that tension to spark creativity and innovation.
The FAR Game Exhibit at the Korean Pavilion is designed to track changes in the game after the global economic crisis of 2008, and highlight the best examples of creative responses to the demands of FAR. Our team of six curators have analyzed the data and have worked to enroll participants and select materials that will illustrate not only the harsh realities facing Korean architecture and cities, but also the ways that our industry is making small changes for a better life as Aravena proposes.
Before I applied for this curatorship I spoke with a close friend, who encouraged me to go ahead if I could enjoy the process and not get caught up with trying to impress people. This made me think of Paulo Coelho’s modern vanity fair satire “The Winner Stands Alone,” set at the Cannes Film Festival. The Venice Biennale itself could be perceived as a vanity fair for closed circles of people increasingly detached from the reality of everyday life. However, I choose to see it as a platform for different perspectives from otherwise unheard voices. I represent my country here not to seek recognition, but to open a discussion with architectural professionals as well as the interested public about why the FAR Game matters in Korea and to architecture in general.