An interesting architectural exhibition, put togther by Finn Williams and David Knight, closed today in London. Called The Rule of Regulations, it looked at what effect today’s building codes and zoning regulations might have if retroactively applied to an historic structure such as Le Corbusier’s Maison Citrohan.
As the Architect’s Journal described the show’s more wide-ranging spatial implications, “perhaps we can seek out creative opportunities within the current legislative framework, maybe to arrive in a wonderland where new forms of architecture emerge.”
In The Rule of Regulations, Williams and Knight pit architectural conceits – here Le Corbusier’s five points of Modern architecture – against five pieces of current housing legislation. They have remodeled Corb’s early mass-housing prototype, the single-family dwelling Maison Citrohan (1922), to see how it might look in today’s climate of environmental paranoia, lowest cost, equal opportunities and accessibility.
The phrase “environmental paranoia” seems unnecessarily dismissive of very realistic – and reasonable – energy-performance criteria for the construction, maintenance, and use of buildings in the 21st century, but this excerpt still offers us a glimpse of what was at stake in the exhibition’s premise.
And the premise was brilliant.
Architectural practice is so thoroughly shaped from the outside-in by building codes, something which perhaps only becomes obvious when different historical periods are forced to collide.
Semi-absurd thought experiments might ensue: What would the Taj Mahal, or Angkor Wat, look like if subjected to Manhattan’s 1916 Zoning Law, as so thoroughly explored by Rem Koolhaas? Or how might the city of London be different if subject, overnight and without warning, to the urban regulations of Los Angeles, Dubai, or Beijing?
Perhaps cities could even set aside small test-plots, urban labs in which gardens of architectural form can grow. 10 square blocks of west Los Angeles are re-zoned as if they’re part of Paris; when new laws are passed in Paris, they go into force there, too.
What new buildings and lifestyles might result?
Sections of the city could take on the characteristic of a skin-graft. Suddenly three streets in downtown Chicago adopt the building codes of Amsterdam. You fly there on a business trip one summer when you realize that something just isn’t quite right with the layout of a certain building…
Perhaps you could even assign building regulations from different cities to specific rooms in a single Manhattan high-rise; there’s a London room, a New York room, a Moscow room. The whole thing a test structure or legal demonstration project. Architects and architectural students alike come through for tours of the rooms to see what effects, both large and small, a simple change in the rules can generate.
But if architectural interiors and exteriors alike are shaped by the spatial expectations of certain historically specific legal regimes, to what extent are the familiar landscapes and experiences of everyday life shaped off-stage, in the planning books and lunchtime meetings of urban planning boards?
When we look back at what made certain cities thrive in different phases of modern history, are we wrong to cite artistic movements and architectural schools – when we should be crediting their planning departments?
In any case, Williams and Knight raise a series of interesting questions about the relationship between architectural style and architectural regulation, and the historical tensions that exist within that partnership.
I suppose one fundamental question here might be: Do architects need less regulation in order to pursue the art of spatial design – or simply more creative rules?
Indeed, is it really possible to study Le Corbusier without also studying the legal codes within and around which he was forced to design?
I’m reminded of Michael Sorkin’s book Local Code, in which an entire city is described and presented – without the use of a single image – through the droll recitation of absurdly specific building regulations.
How do invisible legislative skeletons shape modern space?