The other night, I had dinner with my friend Francesco Delogu, an architect in Rome, and we played the parlor game of coming up with rules and regulations that would make architecture better. We asked ourselves, what could not just make the job of the architect better, but, more importantly, improve the human-made environment we all live in together?
Some measures would be draconian, either in a libertarian or in a socialist mode. You can get rid of zoning regulations altogether. Houston has shown that does not lead to urban disasters, at least not in that sprawling city’s core area—although it has not made the metropolis a paradise either. The freedom to build whatever you want on your own land creates variety, while our litigious society has built enough safeguards into the system that at least those with some means and energy can prevent being completely overshadowed.
A simpler simplification of our building ecology would be to get rid of aesthetic regulations. After five decades of more and more elaborate rules in most developed countries about what buildings can look like, I would say that such restrictions have made things worse in almost every case. I am not sure I would also release restrictions such as those on height and bulk in areas of historic preservation, but the idea that odd, modernist, or merely non-conforming (neo-gothic in an area of neo-Georgian, say) façades are detrimental is absurd.
Then things get more complicated. Safety and building codes are there for a reason, and having rules about exits and the fire rating of material not only make sense, but also promotes safety because these rules are so mindless: as long as you follow the rules, you don’t have to worry so much about designing safety into your buildings. By the same token, however, the rote answer to building codes, which, in most countries, have become biblical tomes with parts that are as nonsensical and arcane as some of those in that holy book. has a dumbing effect on our designed environment. It certainly would be worth thinking how we can ask architects to show how occupants will be able to safely use and, in case of danger, leave the buildings they design proactively, rather than in reaction to regulations that There must, or should be, an app for that.
Many architects opine that, as Delogu put it, “it is almost impossible for architects to work well, given the nature of the system.” He is currently in the situation that too many architects find themselves in too often: Having a client who demands changes, changes his mind, caves into popular demands to avoid controversy, tries to value engineer the building into oblivion –and then refuses to pay the costs the architect has incurred in dong all the work. “Lawyers get paid in advance and can guarantee quality, while architects have to wait until the end,” Delogu said, “and the client knows they love their babies so much they will not let them drown.” The only answer would seem to be a strengthening of the architect’s position by more regulation about how and when fees are paid, who arbitrates conflicts, and who has final say over the built result.
If you really want to solve issues, of course, you just nationalize or socialize everything. If the state can expropriate empty buildings after a certain amount of time, and can decide what gets built where, it has a great deal more power over the quality of the designed environment. The Netherlands used to have many regulations of this sort, though there the state has stepped back. Singapore still does have a great deal of control over its limited designed environment to, I believe, good effect. I would even go further: Having state architects who design or are responsible for the design of key buildings, as was the case in the French system in the 18th and 19th century, might not be such a bad idea.
Finally, Delogu suggested rules by which the state would identify those buildings that were of poor building quality, vacant for excessive periods of time, built illegally (a problem more in Italy than in the United States), or had an inappropriate relationship to their surroundings (a more difficult issue to decide). The state would then force owners to tear such buildings down, and then give them tax credits to build back structures appropriate to market demand, context, and current building technologies. Beyond the difficulties of determining who would decide some of these issues, I have one doubt here: Despite our dreams and aspirations, almost everything that is built today is worse than what was built even twenty years ago. That is not merely the fault of architects. The quality of building materials and processes has declined, regulations are often counter-productive, and that same litigious society and the architect’s weak position I mentioned above make the construction of quality increasingly difficult.
I, after the second glass of wine, suggested more radical solutions: Make every architect and owner prove, when requesting a building permit, that the construction of a new building was absolutely necessary, and that the client’s needs could not be met in an existing structure. Make a rule that no new construction can take away a single square foot (or meter, if outside the United States) of open space, possibly by off-sets: Build a building in the suburbs, and you have to tear something down in an urban area where the structure is no longer needed, and replace the removed building with useful open space. Come up with both local and national criteria on quality based on maximums, not minimums. Create an equivalent in the United States and Italy to the Dutch State Architect, who, despite a recent weakening of that position, has a wide set of instruments to coordinate urban development and create quality through the example of state buildings designed by good architects.
I know, I know. But a person can dream, can’t he?
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.