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Venice Biennale 2012


Liam Ross and Tolulope Onabolu
British Standard, Lagos Exception

In Britain’s current architectural climate many practices consider the industry to be over-regulated. Architects argue that burdensome building standards stifle innovation and creativity, resulting in monotonous design. At the same time practitioners acknowledge a need for the state to take responsibility for the population’s health and safety. Architects Liam Ross and Tolulope Onabolu travelled to Lagos, Nigeria to reframe this debate and offer an alternative critique of regulation through an examination of risk, personal responsibility and sovereignty.

The exploration compares Edinburgh and Lagos – two quite different legislative structures – and reflects on the different ways they distribute risk and responsibility between the state and individual. Their research provides a critique of the inclusive and universalist rhetoric of British building regulations and suggests that the purpose of rules is actually to generate the possibility of exceptions.

Interview with Liam Ross and Tolulope Onabolu

Why did you want to be part of Venice Takeaway?

We wanted to engage with the debate on regulation in British architecture, which unfortunately is at an impasse. On the one hand, most British architects consider architecture to be over-regulated, stifling creative freedom and leading to standardised and monotonous designs. On the other hand, they long for a risk-free creative practice, asserting that the government needs to take responsibility for the population’s health, safety and convenience – a recipe for disciplinary impotence. Our aim is to reframe the debate. We want to clarify that it is only through exposure to risk that we develop responsibility as architects, clients and building users. The problem with regulation is not the freedom it takes away, but rather the freedom that it grants; regulation frees us – architects, clients, building users – from the need to take responsibility for ourselves.

Where did your idea come from?

Our idea was shaped through two phases. The first took place during a workshop at the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture in which students surveyed the city. Their drawings depicted the built environment as it responded to a particular ‘British standards’. These drawings clearly illustrated that much of contemporary architecture resembles the clauses of building regulations set in bricks and mortar. Secondly, we wanted to compare the highly formalised set of regulations in Edinburgh with a less regulated city. How would the same risks be managed, and what tactics would individuals adopt to manage that risk? We chose Lagos partly because it’s Tolu’s hometown, but also because it’s a former British settlement. We expected to discover imported or inherited ‘British standards’ to make comparisons.

Did you discover what you set out to find, or something different?

We had hoped to record the behaviour of individual Lagosians through film and photography but soon discovered that this was impossible. It is very difficult to shoot photographs or films in Lagos. There is hostility towards the photographing of personally invested property in Lagos – from the self, to the home, to places of employment or perceived national heritage. As a result, we decided to concentrate on differences in the regulatory apparatus and document the physical fabric of the city.