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Earthquakes, Building Codes and the Politics of Architecture

<p>Mark Kingwell observes the sharp -- and deadly -- contrast between shining Shanghai skyscrapers and the poorly-built prefab concrete structures in China's rural areas that proved to be deathtraps in the recent earthquake.</p>
May 26, 2008, 9am PDT | Michael Dudley
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"China's recent growth is sometimes called a microcosm of modern capitalism, but a more accurate metaphor is the pressure cooker. But note the strange pincer of Chinese building: It is one boom with two styles, the prefab concrete deathtrap, but also the shining signature skyscraper. In downtown Shanghai, height then becomes a measure of time as well as money: The more you rise above grade, the closer you come to entering the 21st century dream of position and power. At the pinnacle, in penthouse apartments and rotating cocktail bars of the showcase buildings, lies the dream-world of postindustrial success, the elite perch. Everyone else will have to make do with walls that pulverize from a decent shake and bricks that come apart in your hands like a child's mud pie.

This fact raises some difficult questions. Yes, it's easy - and necessary - to condemn subcode building practices and the hazards that attend to them, wherever they happen. China's record here makes a reassuring target, just as decrying its human-rights record by tackling an Olympic torch-bearer offers a surefire exercise in moral superiority. A little hypocrisy goes a long way. We like to think this would be impossible in a democratic country, where violations would have immediate costs, ideally reducing to nil the incentive for taking shortcuts on materials or practices.

In fact, building in North America and Europe routinely falls short of this ideal. Building codes are fat tomes of cross-referenced regulation and constraint, some of it philosophically confusing. Architects are required to conform to the code, of course, and most large projects include a code-compliance professional who makes sure that they do. But many smaller projects slip under this radar, and even large ones face the daily realities of budget and time. Nobody can police every rivet or wire of a building.

Hence more troubling is the question of whether great architecture is any longer possible under democratic conditions."

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Published on Monday, May 19, 2008 in The Globe & Mail
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