Does Good Architecture Need Regulation?

Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesPublic Engagement – Public lecture/debate/seminar


Does good architecture need regulations? Jacques Herzog once said in an interview that: “Most architects are not even capable of dealing with a tabula rasa situation. Restrictions and regulations are what most architects hold on to, for lack of capabilities, in order to anchor their designs somewhere.“But rules are meant to be broken they say. Former New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger once went as far as saying: “Maybe the best test for a good architect is his or her ability to break the rules and get away with it.“ There are many examples of outstanding architectural designs that only came into being by negotiating, bypassing or even breaking existing regulations. Magazines, like the German Bauwelt, dedicate entire issues to this topic.Friction is not only caused by general norms but also by regulations or rules. Norms, especially those of housing during the first half of the 20th century, were once used as tools for guaranteeing a good quality of life for the majority of the population. They have been moulded into building code and planning law that today serve as political instruments to regulate what, how, and how much can be built.But norms and rules have to be adapted continuously to changing social conditions, especially in housing. If this does not happen, then architecture in pursuit of a critical practice will have no other choice but to artfully misinterpret them to reach a perfectly desirable design solution. Without the sophisticated search for legal loopholes, a building like Tour Bois le Prêtre in Paris, recently ingeniously transformed by Druot, Lacaton & Vassal, would no longer exist. An equally inventive project, like BKK-3’s Sargfabrik in Vienna, would never have been built in the first place. The same social housing standards first established to guarantee adequate space for dwelling now prevent the production of smaller and more affordable units in cases where that would seem useful (for instance in high-priced real estate markets). On the level of urban design, architects also face the challenge of passing their proposals through a legal corridor of zoning plans and design charters. If architects decide to go against these rules, they are often punished by either having their schemes disqualified from their respective competitions or by being forced to run their designs through a bureaucratic mill that finally spits them out as something entirely different – just remember the pathetic fate of Nicholas Grimshaw’s Chamber of Trade and Industry in Berlin, which on the side facing the street was crudely trimmed to match the standard 22m eaves line of Berlin’s traditional perimeter block.But there is no point in lamenting over codes and regulations. Architects need to engage more actively in the process of defining the rules. For they are obviously not god-given, but made by people with particular interests. If in the beginning this was the task of our law makers, acting as representatives of society, recently we see lobbyists of the building industry to take an ever more powerful role. It’s not rare that they actually write new regulations which are then only waved through by politicians before becoming actual law. German regulations for saving energy (EnEv), for example, obligingly acts in the interests of the national building insulation industry. In this way, nearly every industrial lobby has managed to slide their particular agenda in some code or other over the past few decades. The result is a tangled mess of regulations that complicates the once archaic act of building, now beyond recognition. Increasingly, architects spend most of their time pushing their project’s one great idea through a vicious labyrinth of paragraphs defined by communes, the state, even the EU. There are increasing calls to stop the endless the proliferation of restrictions. And therefore we ask: Does good architecture need regulations?
Period5 Mar 2013
Event typeOther