Law and Architecture -

To Hell with Synthesis


published in ‘Deutschlandschaften’ – Catalogue to the German Pavilion at the architecture biennale, Venice 2004



Today the architects cannot escape the role of the fool. We are the perpetual court jesters. As a comical but tragic figure, we try with wit and cunningness to satisfy the client, the city, the courts and regulations and simultaneously meet our own demands. We smile a fake and forced smile when the client echoes in a patronizing and demanding way the architect’s own anthem that “good architecture doesn’t have to be expensive”. And we shyly bow and nod our heads to the planning departments arrogant assumption and truism that the limitations through rules have never prevented good architecture. Within the context of the mediocrity and the mundane of the small or anonymous project we cannot hope for a state-supported and -subsidized wildness and lawlessness as is seen in key projects like the Bilbao Guggenheim or the Jewish Museum of Berlin. We also cannot count on the power of the corporate with their fleet of lawyers to find the loopholes for projects like the Prada shops or a vegetable shaped insurance company headquarter. Here the fool has been replaced by the architect as the cynical knave: “a crook who tries to sell the open admission of his crookedness as honesty, a scoundrel who admits the need for illegitimate repression in order to maintain social stability.”[i] A cynic who turns lip service into an act of heroism. No, in the case of the anonymous project, our discussion with the planning department becomes a case of “Realpolitik”.


Breaking the planning rules and attempting to build something of an illicit nature has a provocative and rebellious quality for those small and anonymous projects. But this rebelliousness might also fit into the matrix of the urban interest of the local institutions who are pushing for the average and the conforming. Our architect’s struggle is for the city’s enjoyment. Cologne uses the small and unconventional buildings as a showcase in its campaign for the cultural capital of Europe, but continues to select the most conventional and conservative architects for its large projects.


Of the two approaches that seem prevalent in the violation of planning rules, the subversive way formulates the rule-break in a way that it appears as conforming to the rules, through the use of loopholes, of ambiguities and of infiltration. The project is displayed and represented as if conventional, technical necessities are used as pro-forma reasons to achieve another goal or the supposedly transitory nature of a certain building part turns out to be permanent. It is an approach characterized by the exploitation and abuse of the existing system. The approach by confrontation on the other hand operates through the very explicitness of the rule-breaks. The contradictory nature of the legal system of building codes is shown and the city is forced to react to the “attack”, exposing its weaknesses. Whereas the subversive approach seems to remain occupied within its own logic and its ever-specific case, the approach by confrontation has the ability to reach beyond its particularities. Whereas the approach relying on ambiguities is mastered anyway much better by the large corporate structures with their teams of lawyers, and subversivness smells by now of a right-wing neo-liberalism, the bluntness of a confrontational approach still embodies some critical power and partly, even if often futile, tries to escape the predicament of the architect as the fool.


When Pheidias, one of the greatest architects and sculptures of Greek classicism fails to meet the emperor’s demands and requirements in his work for the Athena statue in one of the Greek provinces, Plataiai, he has to take responsibility and is sent to prison as a criminal, where he eventually dies 430 BC.


Today, in contrast to ancient Greece, planning law is part of civil or administrative law, not of criminal law. The fact that as architects (with very few exceptions) we cannot be sent to prison, means that differences of opinion are always resolved through negotiation. Rule-breaks, violations of the building code and other breaches of standards are not punished through prison sentences but are mediated. Mediation is the perfect means where, under the flag of tolerance, the improper is stripped of its confrontational power. Architectural rules and regulations suffer from a contradiction. Their role is to produce a contextual architecture for general consensus. They are to safeguard against the “too high”, “too ugly”, “too monofunctional”, “too risky”, “too unsocial”, “too dark”, that is, they are to act as the bulwark against the unfitting and the conflictual and make sure that the architecture meets a minimum of general interest. The outcome though is problematic. Architectural laws have helped to produce an extremism of the middle ground, a radicalism of the liberal center (i.e. lets have all cities paved with townhouses for urban professionals and all suburbs filled with low-density fully detached houses for the young family with two kids). As negotiation always takes the basic system of rules as a given and operates only within the framework of what is permissible by a general consensus, the solutions remain within the existing regime of mediocrity. The prize the architect pays for the luxury of not being sent to prison is a forced negotiation and the obligation and commitment to a common standard: “After thesis and antithesis [= opposition] should follow the synthesis of this dialectics”. No! To hell with synthesis! We don’t need the middle ground and add more greyness to our consensual urban fabric. We don’t need to annul the disagreement through negotiation in an endless sea of conformity. The refusal of negotiation would allow solutions to be sought that can be more fundamentally critical. Turning on its head the popular demand that architects should be punished for their bad designs, as architects we should insist on making our work as a whole punishable in terms of criminal law. Acts of architecture should not be “administered” and “civilized” anymore. While exposing us to a penal risk, it would give us a power to escape the liberal regime of synthesis and negotiation. The fool would regain a “sociopolitical efficacy”, a “performative power” when the state and its institutions realize the risk within the architect’s task, and, once again, prison looms over the drawing board.



Manuel Herz, 2004



[i] Zizek, Slavoj: The Ticklish Subject, Verso, 2000, p 206