Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Intersection of Law and Architecture --- The Building Code

Architecture is the most political art form. It is an expression of conformity with the previous occupants of a space; "I will build a box next to your boxes, and with the exception of a few accoutrement I will not disturb the social order of the space by doing anything new. I will rent an existing box to live in, I will not build something out of the material at hand. I will accept the social order, that land is held privately, by an individual, a corporation or a state and I will not disrupt that social order by pitching a tent in the middle of a suburban parking lot, sleeping in a public park, building a tipi in the middle of a subdivision, or a geodesic dome among bland, boxy condominiums".

Homelessness is deemed to be the absence of architecture. But is not homelessness a rebellion against conventional architecture and all the mind prisons which accompany it? A homeless man is free in a way that the suburban slave can not even fathom. His home, his architecture is the very space he occupies, the air he breaths, the ground under his feet. He may not gather the sticks around him and construct a yurt, or a tipi, or a dome, because in doing so he clashes with the social order, his trespass takes on a physical manifestation, a visible ember in the eye of the civilization which occupies the ground around him.

Is this why the shanty town is always a hotbed of political uprising: The shacks on the hills in Rio, the slums of South Africa, the burgeoning tent city in Haiti, refugee camps the world over? Are these people not the embodiment of every failing of the civilization in which they and we live? They are a visible embodiment of the lie that is the center of world culture, namely that man is born as a slave, and shelter is not a right but a privilege reserved for the chosen few that perpetuate the system.

A child has no right to shelter. A legal entity has no obligation to allow a child to live on the property that it owns. Thus a homeless child is by definition an illegal human being.

In Amsterdam I believe there is a law which allows unoccupied buildings to be legally squatted in. If I remember correctly this creates problems for landlords whose property becomes vacant because if a squatter manages to physically gain entry that person gains certain limited rights. Although I can appreciate how inconvenient this would be for a property owner there is a certain logic to this law.

Such a law if enacted world wide would alleviate a great deal of homelessness. The Bauhaus art movement could be replicated in every abandoned building, house, church, warehouse, industrial space, strip mall, Wal-Mart etc. It does not assault our reason as lunacy to see a homeless person walking through a blighted urban area in which massive parking lots are being overrun with weeds because the buildings it surrounds like a concrete fortress have been unoccupied for so long that nature is reclaiming the blacktop.

And it does not strike us as maniacal that this homeless man, standing in the rain in front of a million square foot empty space would be classified as a criminal if he stepped inside that space to shelter himself, his child, his humanity. I wonder if one were to divide every unoccupied space in the world by the number of homeless how much square footage could be allotted to each.

Those of us in wealthy western countries may convince ourselves that we are safe and secure snuggled up in our mortgaged or rented properties but the reality is that a very small percentage of the population is anything but a few missed paychecks aways from homelessness.

The shattered state of the economy makes such a statement seem plausible even though twenty years ago it would have seemed laughable.

So the beginning of true political revolution is the defiance of the conventions of architecture: the suburban shanty town, the blighted Wal-Mart with thousands of tents, tipis, yurts, earthships, campers, and cardboard houses in the parking lot, and in the building itself. The subdivision with a campsite on every vacant lot. The "homeless" becoming unmarginalized and exercising what few rights we have to gain more rights.

What rights does a suburban American have? Are there city charters, county regulations or state laws that grant people the right to shelter? Are their laws anywhere in America which resemble those like the squatters rights in Amsterdam?

To see architecture as repression one must imagine how the political process would unfold if homeless people were to attempt to gain more political rights in a community. I can imagine what the city council meeting would look like in Beavercreek if someone proposed that such a measure be passed. The first thing in every property 'owners' mind is "what is going to happen to my already depreciated real estate value if this becomes the next Santa Monica?"

A brief reading of the Urban Institute's 200 plus page evaluation of the homeless situation in Santa Monica illustrates the politically repressive nature of society's approach to the homeless. Among the recommendations made by the institute is the "criminalization of panhandling" which the report notes has been struck down as unconstitutional but nevertheless holds out as a desirable solution. Nowhere in the report could I find an enumeration of the rights of homeless people and the tone of the report generally dehumanizes the people it is supposedly trying to help.

We are all homeless. We are all homeless. In this culture we are all homeless. Of course there are exceptions, but even outright title to a piece of property is not an absolute right to shelter. Property can be lost in a lawsuit, taken by a state or county agency for failure to pay taxes, etc. Without a legal right to shelter every human being in simply living in a varying degree of insecurity with the vast majority being truly close to homelessness.

This brings to the fore the relationship between law and architecture. Most of the laws in this country are designed around the idea of amassing and protecting wealth including land and real estate. It is only reasonable that those who have the most of both when the laws are written construct the laws to insure that their property remains in their hands and remains valuable. The primary value of land is its potential use as shelter.

So what this country needs is a new homestead act. Just as a man could gain title to land by simply developing it in the 19th century west we need a new piece of legislation which opens every decrepit urban area, defunct strip mall, blighted box store and fallow farmland to settlement and development of single family homes.

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