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Review - the Rule of Regulations

Alex Ely visits a show that challenges an ever-expanding set of Building Regulations

The Rule of Regulations. Until 13 September, at the Closet Gallery, 57 Ewer Street, SE1 0NR.

Under the Town Police Clauses Act 1847, it is an offence to beat or shake a carpet, rug or mat in any street, and to keep any pigsty at the front of any street. This is just one of 35,000 unrepealed acts on the statute book. The job of repealing obsolete laws is an infinite one, not helped by legislators churning out over 3,300 statutory instruments every year. We are a risk-averse culture, always adding to rules rather than editing them, and the Architecture Foundation’s new exhibition, The Rule of Regulations curated by Finn Williams with David Knight, tackles this tendency.

Construction law may account for a relatively small number of the statutes in the UK, but, by the time we combine acts, regulations, policies and standards, it doesn’t seem like it. Lifetime Homes, a voluntary adopted standard introduced in 1991, has been integrated unedited into other standards such as the Code for Sustainable Homes, despite seven out of the 16 requirements now being part of the Building Regulations. The Building for Life standard, which first appeared in 2003 as a ready-reckoner to current planning policy guidance, is now added to the policies that it summarises.

We are looking into the rabbit hole, a world where accretion is king. Policies which refer to standards become, in turn, embedded in codes, which reference regulations, which already incorporate many of the criteria of the aforementioned standard. Or was it code? Or policy? Sometimes throwing out the proverbial nipper with the bathwater is necessary to bring a rationale back to our thinking.

If we must follow Alice down the rabbit hole, 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 remodelled 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.

This astute project illustrates some of the incompatibilities between our current regulations while creating a new architectural language, one with its own qualities and humour. A sculptural moment, for example, is created by the rotation of the WC to avoid it ‘aligning with Mecca’ – part of the National Housing Federation’s Accommodating Diversity guidance. Surprisingly, the exercise proves how flexible Maison Citrohan is. The design methodology reflects the process by which most volume housebuilders develop their standard house types. Instead of returning to first principles they simply incorporate strange windows and additional WCs into an existing product.

It raises an interesting question about the value of architectural ideas. Are architectural outcomes determined by policy makers, with politicians playing a bit part, any less valid than the whims of an ‘architectural genius’ compromised by the laws of gravity? The exhibition is an illustration of how legislation can compromise the purity of architectural ideas or how it can lead to ingenious solutions – perhaps even a 21st-century vernacular for housing. The exhibition is a must for any architect engaged in mass housing who hopes to retain their architectural integrity. And equally, a must for policy makers convinced that only regulations can deliver architectural excellence.

Alex Ely is a partner at mæ

Resume: Eager bureaucrats should Corb their enthusiasm

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