The Rule of Regulations

[Image: Le Corbusier’s Maison Citrohan undergoes speculative regulatory alterations, as applied by Finn Williams and David Knight].

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.

[Image: View larger].

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.

[Image: View larger].

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?

8 thoughts on “The Rule of Regulations”

  1. Thanks for posting this – I will have to check this book out. I think what you mention here is the beautiful interaction of architecture and planning. To ask whether it was the architecture or the planning that brought out different cities is like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg. I think a close combination of the two listening closely to one another is the key to successful cities.

  2. Wonderful post.

    Here in Seattle, The Townhouse Scourge, as it was so eloquently christened by the Seattle P-I architecture critic Lawrence Cheek, is being perpetuated in part by the minimum requirements for parking (currently 1.1 spaces per unit in medium density multifamily developments). This requirement seems to be a major driving force behind the entire program of the ubiquitous “townhouse five-packs” that are laying claim to this city.

    I tend to blame consumerism a socio-economic generator of bland architecture but building codes are worthy contender. Again, thanks for your insight.

  3. I love this concept of an Amsterdam generated block in the middle of Chicago but even more interesting to me is the notion of specific rooms built per their building codes able to be experienced almost sequentially. I feel certain he results would be culturally reflective. And I wonder what kinds of things we could learn from how other cities build, more efficient methods of using space perhaps? This could be attempted as an art installation somewhere…

  4. 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?

    Only an architect, or architectologist, could possibly have to ask this question.

    The answer is yes, by the way.

  5. Thanks for the post and your insights, Geoff. Your extrapolation, into a kind of ‘pick’n’mix’ of different regulations into a single structure, is fascinating. In the exhibition we talk about ideas of a new form of vernacular, particularly in the context of the ‘code for sustainable homes’ expected to be exported from the UK soon. But maybe we should also be thinking about extant but as-yet undocumented regionalisms?

    David Knight

  6. this is interesting. this is slightly tangential, but i really like the idea of creative processes occurring under possibly divergent restrictive conditions. The whole sick Oulipo crew have for years been interested in writing the same story again and again but changing the restrictions, the simplest example of which is not allowing certain letters of the alphabet. The most famous example being Perec’s La Disparition, which did not contain the letter e once (it was then translated into English, also without the letter e!).

    On a slightly more architectural note, Perec also wrote a novel in which he restricted himself in the most fantastic ways, an example of which follows: it is set in an apartment block and a cross-section of the building is 10 rooms by 10 rooms; each chapter is set in a different room and the chapters need move as a knight moves around a chess board…

    perhaps what we need is an entire apartment block, sections of which are designated particular locations on the globe and people living there…with appropriate (or not) treaties, conflicts and embargoes…perhaps an entire city–
    from hugo

  7. Why thank you for noticing that we planners have just as strange and fascinating a job as you architects! That doesn’t happen often.

    From my experience interning at a suburban American development firm, I too have learned that the minimum parking requirement is a scourge on our cities. There are municipalities where you simply can’t build retail unless it is a big box, a mall, or a strip mall.

    In Switzerland on a class trip we visited a project that made use of maisonette apartments inside a large block. In order to get 3 apartments on one floor, the architects cleverly designed some of the units so that the two levels of each unit were at a 90-degree angle to one another.

    This meant that neighbors were effectively sleeping over and under each others’ kitchen and living room though. I was sure there would be a noise issue.

    I was informed that Swiss building codes had the highest insulation standards in the world. The floor plan might not have been possible anywhere else due to noise, but in Switzerland it was workable.

    There’s a related issue here, of bringing old buildings up to code – changing price structures and the whole look of neighborhoods – but it’s too complex to get into here.

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