Editorial, Volume #38

Law on the Line

— by and

Let’s talk about law and faith. The law requires a certain faith – faith that it will perform in our collective best interest. Last year in particular, it was easy to lose that faith. Several high-profile cases brought to light incongruities in our judicial systems that unduly exonerated some, while persecuting others. Take the case of Wall Street. Following the 2008 crash, the US government put together its best legal team to root out what went wrong and who were the culprits. In a case where rapacious greed and gross misconduct were clearly at play, the government failed to prosecute a single major banker. Or look to the cold-blooded murder of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood vigilante George Zimmerman. Using Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law, lawyers were able to justify the racially-charged murder of a defenseless boy. Then there’s Guantanamo Bay, a prison run by the ‘most democratic nation’ in the world, still holding people stripped of their rights. All of this is technically legal.

Meanwhile at the other end of the spectrum, we witnessed several watchdogs, activists, and whistle blowers punished for their attempts to bring such injustices to light. As we speak Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, is still stuck in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London; Edward Snowden is desperately searching for asylum in any country that will take him; and members of the punk band Pussy Riot endured grueling days and nights in a Russian gulag. To put it in movie terms, it seems that the bad guys are winning, and the good guys are all in jail. So what good is the law?

As usual with these matters, we run the risk of straying too far from architecture. But the law is an inherently spatial affair; it conditions not only our behavior but also the spaces we build. Think of the balcony at the Ecuadorian Embassy, where Assange was able to deliver a press conference. In this case, architecture via the law, created a podium for a wanted man to speak. Or look at the transit zone at Sheremetyevo airport where Snowden was able to plot his next move, without technically stepping foot on Russian soil.

These are exceptional cases, to be fair. Far more banal yet arguably more impactful, is the long list of rules an architect must abide by to run a successful practice. Procurement processes, professional certification, liability insurance, copyrights and patents – dull for sure – but it all restricts what an architect can do. Furthermore it incites the specter of litigation, the death knell for any small practice. And the regulations keep coming – over the last decades, architectural practice has heaped on more codes and protocols to both protect itself but also restrict its agency.

Then there are the laws that define what gets built, mostly well-intentioned rules designed for safety and well-being: maximum heights, fire codes, setbacks, etc. But the slow pace at which the laws change, insure that some absurdities remain – for instance a British standard that mandates all windows be a height and size cleanable by a 65 year-old woman. These local peculiarities stick out when an architect travels abroad and sees the absence of regulations in similar situations. For the globally ambitious architect, such laws become a thorn in the side, seen increasingly as parochial in a globalized world. Furthermore when engineering and new digital production can create impossible architectural forms, the law remains the limiting factor.

At a broader level, architecture is dictated by the laws that shape society, and in turn the kinds of commissions being offered. For instance, in a nation that legally promotes home ownership, but also allows for extreme income disparities, the demand for luxury villas will far outweigh that for public housing. For the socially-minded architect, this, of course, causes friction. How does an architect, with an ambition to create open democratic spaces, deal with the anti-homosexual laws of Uganda, or the abortion laws of Ireland, or slave labor in Qatar?

Perhaps most alarming, which the case of Guantanamo Bay makes clear, is that there is an outside to the law. Law is not all pervasive. When civil law stops, military law doesn’t simply take over. The most alarming is not a lack of law, but the discovery that ‘outside’ can coexist with ‘inside’. That the legal system can declare moments, places, and individuals as being outside when it chooses to. The right of exclusion.

At this point we might all throw our hands up, and give in. For the law has the look and posture of an immovable beast. But noisily giving up is an adolescent attitude. While the law might be obstinate, it isn’t static, and a mature position is to look at how to ultimately change it rather than simply deny it. For instance, the other day it was reported that the eighty-five richest people in the world owned about as much wealth as the poorest fifty percent. A terrible statistic, but that didn’t just happen overnight. It was created through decades of lobbying for laws that favored the one percent, through the creation of special zones of exception, through disingenuous rhetoric of trickle-down and freedom.

To give a negative picture some light, history is marked by the many great figures and movements that have successfully fought for rights and legislation to improve society. We’ve come a long way. And that fight continues with countless NGOs and organizations trying to tackle contemporary social problems. Architects need to steal a page from their playbook. They have a toolset to work with, to expose, subvert, by-pass and even ignore the law. Or create new facts on the ground, changing the law by consequence. In the end, architecture is not just about making good buildings; it’s about insuring that the proper conditions exist to make good buildings.