Standard Side Effects: On the accidental architectures of fire-safety legislation

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Abstract / Description of output

This dissertation reflects on building standardisation as a mode of design. Eschewing the architect’s conventional disdain for regulation - as an external constraint on creative freedom - the ambition here is to ask; by way of their standardisation, how do buildings exert a shaping effect on government? The research presented has been framed through a focus on fire-safety standards and is presented through a series of city case-studies.

Each city study has an historical dimension. They begin by reviewing historical accounts of specific fires, identifying the governmental response that those fires prompted. That is, standards are presented here as historically and geographically specific instruments. Read together these studies offer insight into the plurality of means through which regulators and building designers have responded to the common concern of fire.

The city studies each include an element of by-design analysis, studying the marks that fire-safety standards make on the built environment, and the way they interact with other shaping factors in building design. The ambition here is to explore the unintended consequences of regulation, and the way they come to be ‘captured’, redirected to novel ends. That process of capture is taken to be politically ambivalent; the effects and side-effects of standardisation are shown to be highly contingent, shaped by the interests of those actors that work closely with them.

Finally, each city study has a theoretical dimension. Fire-safety standardisation is used here as a means to broker dialogue between two related discourses, Governmentality Studies and Infrastructure Studies. Key terms and concepts are drawn from those fields as a means to reflect on the challenges and opportunities provided by the built environment as an instrument of technologically mediated government.

Accident plays an important role in this reflection: programmes of standardisation are shown to respond to accidents, often those that occur in or around buildings; the design process is seen to have an accidental character, shaped by the aggregate of decisions made by different people, in different places, at different times, and with different interests; and buildings themselves are seen to be comprised of accidental qualities, properties that appear essential to some stakeholders, not to others. All these forms of accident shape the thesis findings; standardisation is here construed as the construction of a ‘Boundary Object’, a means to navigate, through material things, the overlapping concerns of diverse actors, so as to facilitate their ‘collaboration without consent’. The critical potential of this framing is to highlight the way building reveals fault-lines and powers of consolidation within particular ways of thinking.

The concluding chapter reflects on the role that fire has played in shaping this dissertation, and Governmentality itself. It borrows a term from sociologists John Law and Anne-Marie Mol to describe the ‘fire-space’ of standards; it suggests that governmental ambitions, laws, and building designs interact, spread, and change in a fire-like way. Through a post-script, it uses this metaphor to engage with the ongoing Grenfell Tower Inquiry, and the way this threatens to shape future governmental, legal and physical architectures in the UK. That conditions of political possibility are shaped by buildings, fires, and fire-safety standards is brought into sharp relief by this particular case.
Original languageEnglish
  • Dorrian, Mark, Supervisor
Publication statusUnpublished - 2019


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