Building Code Violations

Lu Jie


“Building Code Violations” is a metaphor. Born from the legal lexicon of urban planning and management in the era of modernization, this concept positions certain individual actions or designs as in contravention of a “unified, integrated” social order. The use of the building code violation, evidently, depends on a cultural understanding of “modernity” enforced on Asia in the guise of an assumed “universality”; a top-down movement that has resulted not only in the overturning of local epistemological systems, but also in the displacement of our sense of nature and space, a distortion of bodily experience. Class tensions, far from decreasing, have mutated and grown. The democratic system of modernity may be a necessary stage in a universalizing process, but how do we confront this system’s total lack of universality—indeed, its insistence that universality is unattainable? These proscribed “violations” may seem to be founded on offshoots of the individual need for survival, but running beneath their surface is a concrete revolt and subversion set against the idealist aesthetics of integrated social construction. Today, people are born into a slew of failed, improvised “building code violations,” whose paradoxes manifest in social, political and cultural realms beyond the merely material and architectural. We all know building code violations are everywhere: Culturally speaking, therefore, they are general points of reference. The absurdity of undermining one “error” with another is represented in a conscious, instinctual resistance to order, wherein violation is no longer a basis to determine right or wrong, but rather becomes synonymous with “self-construction.” It is articulated in everyday experiences that are ubiquitous, decentralized, visible and invisible, known and unknown; it is an aesthetic attitude in the face of the futility of difference.

If we take “architecture” to simply mean that which signifies the collective will or cultural logic of an affluent society—airports, highways, bridges, theaters, art galleries, clubs, apartments, and parking lots—we will be concerned with rules of technical qualification to the exclusion of any suitable reflection on the social and intellectual parameters of actual living conditions. We are all familiar with the differences between Rem Koolhas and Herzog & de Meuron, as well as with ideological conflicts between the local architecture school of parochial nationalists (itself a paradoxical tradition invented by a hybrid mix of modernists, late modernists and postmodernists) and the pan-traditionalists, nationalists and environmentalists who defend anything old. However, when these two camps met upon the “experimental ground for international architects” that is China, the opposing forces within each group ended up uniting against their counterparts for a kind of “building code violation” enforcement—this conflict between two self-appointed opposing parties epitomizes the “building code” logic inherent in any modernization plan. In 1980s China most high-rises in Beijing were crowned with rooftops designed after traditional pavilions to symbolize the national spirit, standing in incongruous opposition to most other buildings. The ‘90s were the era of Roman pillars: From rural barber shops to government buildings in urban centers, entities assiduously replicated pillars in classical style. After the turn of the century, luxury complexes in Beijing started naming themselves after famous districts or real estate projects in North America, such as Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue, California Garden, Yosemite and Vancouver Forest. The disturbance caused by these epithets’ overnight landing on the communities involved, as well as the reflection of passive modern subjectivity evident in the first two examples, are all—measured by the ideal principles of a harmonious society—instances of “building code violation.” Narrowly defined, this concept of “violation” is a reactionary reification of the rules imposed by some dominant, collective game. From a cultural standpoint, a question ensues: “Who is running this game?” Its most significant contribution has been to cast both sides of the mirror that is the “ideal construction of an integrated modern world” into an illegal graveyard.

During the transitional phases of any developing country, the schizophrenic confusion of memory caused by the loss of its own historical and philosophical logics is experienced as an unreal illusion, a “real world” in which every one is “living elsewhere.” Relationships between active and passive swiftly and unconsciously alternate. Take China as an example: From a historical vantage point, its modernity has always resulted from the guidance, even coercion, of “others.” However, the postcolonial discourse flooding China today puts undue emphasis on the concerns of identity politics, from condemning the violent interference of colonial power to propping up a shrinking national confidence squeezed by the slogans and rules of “global integration.” By relying on a simplistic dualism to account for the tension between “local” and “foreign,” this discourse has incited the rise of parochial nationalism while neglecting many real complexities of modernity. Through the paradox of “building code violations,” however, we can relink knowledge and bodily experience, rethink the conflict between human subjectivity and the totality of knowledge.

This deconstruction entails the articulation of an unstable subjectivity that turns the inside outward and vice versa: Rather than treating modernity as a “building code violation,” it should take the experience of modernity as that which violates the building codes of modernity itself. Globally, the consequences and terms of such “violations” vary across contexts. In China, “building code violations”  are defined as “construction projects that are implemented without having obtained construction and planning permits or that violate the provisions of such permits to the detriment of urban planning. They mainly include: 1. Buildings built without applying for, or having failed to obtain after applying for, a planning permit for land use and a permit for construction projects. 2. Buildings built by making unauthorized changes to the provisions of the permit for construction projects. 3. Buildings that make unauthorized changes to their nature of use. 4. Buildings that turn temporary buildings into permanent ones without authorization.” Such is the paradox of modernity that, while temporary buildings are transformed into permanent buildings, permanent buildings themselves become temporary instances of building code violation.