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British Standard, Lagos Exception

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[Liam Ross and Tolulope Onabolu] As UK architects complain of over-regulation, this study looks at how Lagos distributes risk and responsibility

In Britain’s current architectural climate, many practices consider the industry to be over-regulated. Architects argue that burdensome building standards stifle innovation and creativity. At the same time, practitioners acknowledge a need for the state to take responsibility for the public’s health and safety. Architects Liam Ross and Tolulope Onabolu travelled to Lagos, Nigeria to reframe this debate and offer a critique of regulation through an examination of risk, responsibility and sovereignty.

The study compares Edinburgh and Lagos - two quite different legislative structures - and reflects on the different ways they distribute risk and responsibility between the state and individual. Their research provides a critique of the inclusive and universalist rhetoric of British building regulations and suggests that the purpose of rules is actually to generate the possibility of exceptions.

Where did your idea come from?

Our idea was shaped through two phases.The first took place during a workshop at the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture in which students surveyed the city. Their drawings depicted the built environment as it responded to a particular ‘British standard’. Secondly, we wanted to compare the formalised regulations in Edinburgh with a less regulated city. How would the same risks be managed? We chose Lagos partly because it’s Tolu’s hometown, but also because it’s a former British settlement. We expected to find imported or inherited ‘British standards’.

Most surprising thing you found out?

We were surprised to uncover the Lagos State Physical Planning and Development Regulations - both Tolu and the Lagosian architects and lawyers we interviewed had been unaware of their existence. Securing a reproduction of these regulations required a three-hour drive to the Lagos State Secretariat, a personal meeting with the director of urban development, some persuasion, some collateral and two hours at an outdoor single-sided photocopier. The regulations contain the ‘setback’ rule, which defines the urban character of Lagos. Although no development is permitted within the ‘setback’ area, in practice it is the most vibrant space in the city - occupied by ad-hoc and temporary development, kiosks, garden centres and mosques, bars, gin-drinkers and mendicants. It’s a legally defined zone of extra-legality.

Most challenging part of your trip?

Getting permission to take photographs was both challenging and revealing. It took 24 hours for the British Council to grant clearance for us to photograph the street frontage of their office, and we were required to take the photograph outside opening hours to ensure that no members of the public were seen entering or leaving the building. While photographing other frontages and setbacks - from Ikoyi to Lagos Island - we set up a visible camera and tripod and asked permission to photograph anyone present. Most private individuals declined.

For a small tip, a shopkeeper or a guard occasionally agreed. Despite these precautions, after taking a photo that included the Lagos State police headquarters in the background, we were arrested and our equipment was held for 24 hours. We had not broken any law and were released, but the photograph was destroyed. Even the Lagos State police commissioner was unable retrospectively to grant permission for its having been taken.

How do you plan to take this forward?

We would like to use the project as a platform to engage with policy in both Britain and Nigeria. For example, we will propose revisions to British Standards, including regulations directed at the safe cleaning of windows. We plan to engage with the ongoing consultation on the first detailed set of building standards in Nigeria.

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