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Don't blow your budget by blowing out virtual candles

in practice

I wrote last week about different versions of reality. The real has also always had a moral dimension. Today's conversations echo those of the last two centuries; of truth and honesty of expression, with particular reference to real materials, functions, places, times and even societies.

Technological advances ensure that ideas about reality are challenged by contradictory examples; progress is both liberating and confusing. Materials are reinvented and remade to perform in new ways. Computer analysis allows complex three-dimensional structures that defy simple analysis and so basic understanding. Critical analysis focuses on the process of production, which is preferably generated by computer from conception to completion. The result is that numerous projects have acquired a protective mythological/technological veil simply because they have been invented and analysed in a virtual world. We are not so much blinded by the science as disoriented: we confuse the means of production with the outcome.

The reopened MoMA extension in New York, therefore, is notable as much for what it is not (a complex geometrical form) as for what it is (an intelligible, rectilinear building). It was also very expensive, which interestingly, in the land of the cheap, was something of a cause for celebration. If you are surrounded by pile 'em high, skin 'em cheap construction, it offers a refreshing, bespoke alternative. Most new construction in New York is the result of a system of real estate and construction.

This system confines architecture to the treatment of the six-inch strip at the floor plate's perimeter; the skin that encloses, captures and portrays value. The six inches used to be a foot, but as the technology of curtain walling gets smarter, it is ever more reduced. It is the real pursuit of the ultimate veneer: venereal architecture.

In London, we have our own, very particular and legal discussion of the real, the virtual and, more usually, the surreal; for in the land of the party wall, the neighbour is king. A small number of elite firms deal with a subject that is so specialised we can only commission software activity and await the outcome of the negotiation. The Prescription Act of 1832 establishes that a window can only exist legally if it has been 'enjoyed' uninterrupted for 20 years, which means 19 years plus a day (there is a time-immemorial right to light, first enjoyed in 1189 AD, but let's not get distracted).

Enjoyment is measured as one candle per square foot, at the height of a tall desk. If your building effectively blows out that candle, then it is 'permissively' or 'oppressively' liable to injunction. So the remedy is do not do it - or pay compensation for the candle.

The latter is risky, as these candles can be pricey. In fact, case law suggests their real value is a proportion of the value of the thing that extinguished them: the neighbouring building.

This is a little like suggesting a Ming vase smashed by a pickaxe is worth a percentage of the cost of the said blunt implement.

It is all fantastic stuff and well worth finding out about. Indeed, a smattering of knowledge - who to work with and what to ask - is essential.

But in no case attempt to do it yourself. There is so much more than I have outlined here:

injunctions can be 'oppressive' but are always subjective and, because of the vagaries of case law, so is the advice. Wherever possible, avoid the situation by erecting a barrier to deny enjoyment before it has established a right.

Up until 1959 these real physical barriers were everywhere, generating their own small-works planning and construction business. This was wiped out by the invention of a legal screen (of infinite height) that was registered but not built: a virtual breakthrough in a real world of candles and desks.

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