On accident and invention: Three episodes in the history of fire, safety and regulation

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Abstract / Description of output

This article reflects on the role of accident, invention and regulation in the design of the built environment. Specifically, it considers the way that our tools and practices of building design have been changed by, and have stabilised around, the experience of urban fire and programmes of fire-safety.

It offers three brief studies that recount details of specific urban fires, and the programmes of legal, technical and urban reform that followed in their wake. It first considers The Great Fire of Meireki, 1657, which destroyed Edo and its central castle in 1657; taking Edo Castle as a paradigm for urban fire-safety, details of that building came to shape fire-safety thinking and urban form in that city, in ways that are still visible in contemporary Tokyo. Secondly it considers the 1877 town fire in Lagos, and the first fire-safety by-law imposed by Nigeria’s British colonisers; initially a means to empower slum clearance, that by-law has worked to sustain practices of informal settlement that continue in Lagos today. Finally it considers the September 11th attacks in New York, 2001, and those forms of computational analysis for fire-dynamics developed by forensic fire-investigators; when employed by designers, those same forms of computational analysis have been deployed to by-pass requirements for compartmentation and structural fire-protection in later high-rise buildings, reproducing characteristics of the World Trade Centre fire.

Through these three studies, accidents are shown to be moments of ‘invention’; moments in which we discover unexpected and often unwanted characteristics inherent to particular tools and practices. Regulation is here considered as means of coming to terms with that unexpected potential, framing it within tolerable limits. Rather than tending toward universal solutions, the process of standardisation and regulation is here described as highly contingent. Shaped by the details of past tragedies, rules and standards gives those prior events a spectral presence in new buildings. While seeking to avoid a repetition of past accidents, this process can nonetheless risk trapping the way we think of the future within the problems of the past.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)43-67
Number of pages25
JournalAedificare: International Journal of Construction History
Volume2022 – 2
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 24 Apr 2024

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • fire-safety
  • architectural design
  • accident
  • standardization
  • sociology


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