Liam Ross MA MArch ARB

Architect & Lecturer in Architectural Design, Theory and Professional Studies


An Unexpected Application of the Rule: On language games, legal exceptions and architectural jokes

Volume | No. 38 | 2013

“This lady resembles the Venus of Milo in many respects: she, too, is incredibly old, like her she has no teeth, and there are white patches on the yellowish surface of her body.”1

Paulo Virno, in Multitude, between innovation and negation (2008), proposes that jokes illustrate the logic of innovative action in general. Through a cross-reading of Freud’s taxonomy of Witz, Schmitt’s Political Theology and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Reflections, Virno argues that jokes illustrate the ‘diagram’ of creativity; they represent in miniature the logical and linguistic techniques through which the human animal is capable of modifying its own form-of-life, or ‘life-style’. How so? Jokes employ the ambiguity inherent in language to make ‘false’ arguments or unexpected inferences (for instance, attributing an accidental predicate – the white patch – to the grammatical subject – the Venus of Milo). Jokes are linguistic games, but games that demonstrate the transformability of all linguistic practices. That is, jokes demonstrate that the rules of language are never sufficiently precise or flexible to determine what a given statement will mean within a particular context; they draw our attention to a constitutive gap between the semiotic register (the system of signs) and the semantic register (the meaning of statements). Indeed, jokes are techniques for opening up this gap, for creating a momentary crisis of signification – the familiar lag between the telling and the ‘getting’ – in which the audience is left temporarily adrift. By making unexpected applications of grammatical rules, jokes demonstrate that the meaning of our statements are not dependent upon those rules, but rather, draws upon some other capacity for sense-making. What is this other capacity?…


Tacit Knowledge and Technical Standards: The Architecture of Fire Safety Regulation

Theory by Design | Antwerp | 2012

We come to know our environment tacitly.  We have to see things before we can say them;  conception proceeds from, but is continuous with, the rich mute flux of experience [Gibson, 1979].  As educators and parents we try to spare our students and children some of the effort; we pass down concepts through depiction and description, codifying what we have seen through words and pictures.  In order to learn, though, the next generation must decode this information, translate the explicit back to the tacit, assume it in silence, make it dumb again.  Building codes and standards are one way that knowledge about the built environment is collected, stored and transmitted.  Building regulations represent generations of accrued experience, trials and errors to be spared us.  However, while such technical literature is an effective means of legislation, it is tricky to teach.  Leading students forward toward such pre-determined ends traps them in the abstraction of the explicit (and the design studio always favors the rich, the mute and the fluctuating).  Is it possible, though, to work back through such explicit codes, to (re)discover and assume their tacit content?  This paper documents and presents a studio design-research project, conducted at the University of Edinburgh, which aspires to both tacit and explicit knowledge production.  Run in association with an interdisciplinary teaching and research programme – Integrating Technical and Sociological Aspects of Fire Safety Engineering – the studio asks students to study the implications of a number of specified fire-safety regulations (further details attached).  Its ambition, though, is not simply to teach technical competencies, nor to ensure compliance.  The project draws on concepts from ecological psychology to explore the ‘invitation character’  of the built environment; the tacit means through which the environment tells us what its good for.  The project suggests that Regulatory limits – which seek to maximize the benefits and minimize the potential risks of the environment – codify and inscribe an ‘invitation character’ into building.  It asks students to work with and through regulation, then, in order to (re)discover something inviting embedded in them, engages them as designers in the production of (new) tacit understandings.



Standards & Exceptions: Regulatory Limits and Sovereign Exceptions

Venice Take Away  |  The British Pavilion at the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale  |  2012

This exploration, commissioned as part of the Venice Take Away project, compares two differing legislative frameworks, as a means to reflect upon differing distributions of risk and responsibility between State and Individual. Edinburgh UK, and Lagos Nigeria, are taken as case studies.  The exhibition offers a comparative study of British Standard 8213 and Lagos State Physical Planning and Development Regulation 15, considering their effects on the architecture and urbanism of Edinburgh and Lagos.  Through this comparison, the exhibition offers a critique of the rhetorically inclusive and Universalist ambition of British building regulations, suggesting that our technical standards often function as a means to generate states of exception from them.

Venice Take Away


On Contradictory Regulations: BS8213 & Edinburgh City Council Conservation Policy

ARQ |  Volume 16 |  2012

This piece of design-research identifies contradictory requirements between British Standard 8213 and Edinburgh City Council Planning Policies, and reflects on what designers should we make of the problem posed by such contradictory regulations. The existence of unresolved concerns within our regulatory framework might be taken as evidence that further and more integrated tiers of national and international master regulation are required, so as to make the definitive judgements required to resolve their contrary concerns; our current building standards are themselves the result of such a historical process, through which local practices and byelaws are gradually superseded by nationalised norms and standards. On the other hand, the design challenge posed by these contradictions might be seen as providing an architectural potential, as a means of evidencing and making tangible this historical struggle.

Standard Errors: Architecture and the Biopolitics of Regulation

PhD by Design | ESALA | 2011 – present

My research in architecture by design offers a historical account of the emergence of building regulations, as well as a study of their effect on architectural design, and design practice.  It is concerned with situating building regulation within the history of a specifically liberal government, and as a characteristic element of our ‘biological modernity’ [Foucault]. That is, it understands such regulatory frameworks – which aspire to free those involved in the construction and use of buildings from specified risks to their health, safety, convenience and environment – as means through which liberal governments develops an increasingly sophisticated knowledge of, and a capacity to intervene in, the biological life of the population.

However, it is also concerned that the effectiveness of such governmental frameworks are limited by the degree to which they are understood and applied by the living subjects that are caught up within them. In order to have effect, rules must be represented, and enforced, and they are always open to interpretation. The history of building regulation, and its effect on the design of the built environment, is not simply evidence of a progressive standardization; it also evidences the result of the unintended consequences, collateral effects, contradictory requirements and constitutive exceptions of such standards.

The thesis suggests that the errors of standardization should be understood as an important aspect of the biopolitics of governance; that our contemporary, normative, legislative frameworks are not only the result of applied Malthusian calculation, they are also the result of contingency and struggle, accident, ignorance and hubris.  It suggests that the development of building standards describe not only the discovery of building as a passive technology of government, but also the constant re-discovery of its open potentiality.  Through genealogical study of the history of regulation, and unexpected applications of regulation in design practice, my research describes and defines the legal and architectural extents of these ‘errors’ – the erring of building standards – as a means to overcome the double negation potentially implied by the conjunction ‘bio-politics’.


Regulated Landscapes: Diagramming Scottish Building Standard 4.3


Scottish Building Standard 4.3 regulates the geometry of stairs and ramps to provide for safe and comfortable access within and around buildings. It sets limits on the going, rise and pitch of stairs, recognizing that the more public a stair – the less familiar it is to its user – the more shallow its pitch should be. It sets limits on the length of a fl ight, noting that short flights pose a trip hazard, while long fl ights are tiring, requiring regular breaks. It limits the pitch and length of ramps, ensuring that the steeper a ramp, the more frequently it is broken. And recognising that the ground is never truly level, it establishes categories of gently-sloping ground, as well as considering the minute falls required for surface water drainage. The limits set by the standard are principally bodily indices – measurements of accepted limits to comfortable gait, to the duration and extent of acceptable exertion, and of our familiarity with, and attentiveness to, our environment. In complying with this standard, our built environment becomes both an anthropometric index, and a regulatory devise; it measures, represents, and limits, bodily movement. This also requires the regulation of the natural environment. Not being built to our measure, the natural terrain is frequently inaccessible; being variously too steep to ascend comfortably, not providing regular resting places, offering trip hazards, as well as being liable to ponding. This project – Regulated Landscapes – makes a series of proposals for accessible routes across a natural terrain. Each proposal begins by taking a specifi c clause of Scottish Building Standard 4.3, and using it as a means of measuring the accessibility of that terrain. Seeking to maximize the accessible area at the same time as minimizing the modifi cation of the terrain, each proposal explores tolerances within the regulation that allow for a close fi t between the bodily abstraction and the specific terrain. In doing so, the project enjoys the control of regulation as a means of measuring, and coming close to, the irregularity of the land.



Dramatizing Risk: Regulatory Limits and the Materiality of Risk

Further Reaching Required  |  Bartlett  |  2011

Candide Vol 4  |  Actar  |  2011

British Standard 8213 regulates the design of windows, doors and roof lights in order to limit our exposure to risks associated with their use – entrapment, collisions and falls from height. Drawing upon a range of anthropometric data, the document specifies standard sizes for glazed lights that ensure both faces can be reached from within by 95% of the UK’s adult population, limiting the height of all domestic windows to a maximum of 1.8m. We understand standards such as BS8213 as an apparatus of government – standards and regulations posit specific freedoms for the population, by establishing standards that negate threats to those freedoms – that employs the built environment as a bio-political device. Though we recognise this as a threat to the open potency of architecture, the common-place critique of this apparatus – that it stifles our creative freedom – demonstrates the degree to which we are caught within it; to understand ourselves as subject to a trading of liberties – between creativity and safety – is to be captivated by the liberal govern-mentality. This project – Diagramming BS8213 – suspends a critique of regulation in favour of a careful study of its implications. Drawing out the standards imposed, they are seen to reveal something of the potency of building – the materiality of risk – in the process of limiting it. The project presents a series of studies that enjoy the communicativity of regulatory limits, indexing the open potential of building precisely in its being withheld.


Designing Risk: The Architecture of the Scottish Domestic Handbook

HSE  & RIBA  |  2011

This document presents selected projects from a 10 week architectural design studio completed as part of the MA Architectural Design programme at the University of Edinburgh, 2008-09.  Each projects begins with an analysis of a single clause of the Scottish Building Standards.  Students provide a brief verbal and diagrammatic description of the regulation, coming to understand the hazard it represents, and seeks to limit; trips and slips on stairs and ramps, falls from height while cleaning windows, or lack of access to daylight.  The projects continue by identifying an architectural potential in the limitation of these risks; that a regulated stair acts as an index of the familiarity of its users, that a window choreographs and represents the everyday act of its cleaning, that a window negotiates and represents a relation between programme and context.  Each project concludes through the design of a mixed-use building in the centre of Edinburgh that enjoys playing-out the implications of the regulation in a range of circumstances.  The document was published as part of an HSE and RIBA led project as an exemplary mode of teaching of Health and Safety issues within a design-school context.

HSE RR925 Research Report

RIBA Research Fund

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September 14, 2012 at 10:46 am

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