Form follows rules

Planning and building in the maze of regulations

Karoline Mayer, Angelika Fitz and Martina Frühwirt (f. l. t. r.) / photo: Christian Wind

What rules do we need? What rules are contra­dictory? And which laws serve individual interests above all? The “Form Follows Paragraph” exhibition at Architekturzentrum Wien considers how construction law and standards affect city and architecture.

For decades, Austrian planners and architects have chuckled over the fact that people walk differently in Burgenland than they do in Vorarlberg, and houses burn differently as well. How else to explain the gaping discrepancy between building regulations in Europe. The sometimes glaring differences when it comes to stairway slopes, railing height and fire protection class defies logic. But how do all these standards, guidelines and building regulations come about? How does an architect maintain a clear overview in the maze of paragraphs, not to mention creativity?

This is precisely the line of inquiry at hand in the exhibition “Form Follows Paragraph” opening on 22 November 2017 at Architekturzentrum Wien. “One of the central questions of the show is how norms and construction law affect architecture, and how they shape the city,” says new Az W director Angelika Fitz, who stepped into founding director Dietmar Steiner’s shoes on January 1 this year. “This is because the built environment we live in is characterized and formed not only by creative, but also by economic and, above all, legal forces.”

Is the exhibition explicitly aimed at lawyers, experts and journalists? “Quite the opposite,” say the three curators Martina Frühwirth, Karoline Mayer and Katharina Ritter. “Our goal is to make an accessible and also funny exhibition that would give laypeople and anyone interested insight into the nature of why architecture looks like it does, and how it looks – why toilet doors are so wide, why building entrance doors are so heavy and why most fire protection doors are so incredibly ugly.”

Much in the way of safety precautions, technical installations, building physics improvements and structural and design decisions is beyond planners’ control, Frühwirth notes. “It’s always architects who are left holding the baby whenever people are pondering a strange, possibly even impractical detail. But really they’re just prisoners of the law.”

This wasn’t always the case. The Josephinian Fire Regulations, a facsimile of which will be displayed in the exhibition, fill something like a thin brochure with just a few pages. Over time, Mayer explains, building regulations for Vienna alone have grown to more than 1,000 pages in the commented version. This is compounded by countless building regulations, construction engineering guidelines and state-specific funding guidelines. Say nothing of the approximately 2,000 Austrian standards that apply to the construction industry. How is a planner supposed to keep a clear overview of it all?

Going beyond the depiction of this madness, the exhibition “Form Follows Paragraph” addresses some hypothetical questions as well: Could the baroque variety of Vienna, the elegance of Otto Wagner’s urban rail stations or a small, angled staircase solution à la Adolf Loos ever have emerged with today’s regulations? And how would the Karl-Marx-Hof, the high-rise on Herrengasse or the residential tower on Matz­leinsdorfer Platz look if all these structures were built today? Students at the Vienna University of Technology have been hard at work on this thought experiment, adapting the architecture of ten Viennese architectural icons to the current regulations. The results should be quite interesting.

“Ultimately,” says Az W director Angelika Fitz, “the exhibition has to do with all of us. Today, every one of us is part of a comprehensive insurance society that wants everything to be regulated, and has to discuss liability and responsibility whenever the smallest accident happens.” And so it remains to be seen: What rules does a society need to protect life and facilitate cohabitation? Which are overburdening, contradictory, or fulfill mostly individual interests? And what can each of us do to bring light and air back into the jungle of paragraphs?

Text by Wojciech Czaja:

Wojciech Czaja, born 1978 in Ruda Śląska, Poland, works as freelance journalist for daily newspapers and magazines including “Der Standard.” He is the author of numerous books including “Das Buch vom Land” (2015), “Überholz” (2016), “Der Erste Campus” (2017) and “Hektopolis. Ein Reiseführer in hundert Städte” (forthcoming). He lectures at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and the the University of Art and Design Linz, where he teaches Communication and Strategy for Architects.

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