Architecture, Rationalization, Codes, Power


Continuing themes raised in my previous post, I’d like to present another riddle of rationalization and reflect on its meaning and impact.

As part of the planning process for the building project in which I’m involved, I joined my colleagues in various fieldtrips to other institutions. In the course of those travels I saw and heard about many odd cases in which codes of various sorts, complicated by their local interpretation, had a significant role in shaping architectural decisions. The example that I wish to consider could have happened anywhere, so its precise location doesn’t matter. All you need to know is that the buildings in question are located at an American institution of higher education.

The institution built an addition that links two late 19th-century buildings. At the time of construction, local authorities said that only two of the four entrances on one side of the complex had to meet the accessibility standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Since the average distance between the entries is only slightly more than 50 feet, this seemed sensible. Adding two more large ramps would raise costs significantly and, more important, deface the historic buildings. (Although they are historic, they aren’t on the state or federal historic register, an issue I’ll get to in a second.)

A couple of years after the building was opened, though, the local code official, apparently under pressure from higher-ups elsewhere, reversed the earlier decision. Now all four doors either had to be made ADA-compliant or the two non-compliant ones had to be decommissioned as public entries.

The institution, like virtually all American colleges and universities, is committed to the letter and spirit of the ADA. But absent a budget for the addition of two substantial concrete ramps and a willingness to compromise the look of handsome old buildings, the institution removed exterior handles from the doors in question.

If you think about it, this is an absurd resolution to the code problem. It provides no benefit to motor-disabled people but inconveniences everyone else. In fact, by forcing everyone to use the same entrances at times of peak traffic, it probably reduces accessibility for the disabled. I was told that in nice weather, students engage in petty acts of resistance by jamming the two handle-less doors open so that they can enter more conveniently. The situation does little more than encourage grassroots contempt for the law, including the ADA.

Now if the original buildings had been entered into the Historic Register–itself a complex bureaucratic process–they might have been exempted from such a high level of ADA compliance. But entering the Register gives government authorities considerable power to determine how the buildings can be used and modified, something that the owner seeks to avoid if possible, if only because it adds another layer of paperwork to future decisions about campus buildings.

So there we are: one of those “death of common sense” cases that we’re all accustomed to trading with friends. Its practical impact ranks only slightly above trivial, but if you multiply this situation tens of thousands of times, you start to understand some of the reasons why great swaths of America are architectural wastelands. It’s vastly easier and cheaper to tear down old buildings and replace them with generic boxes that are known to be in full compliance with every relevant code, at the cost of visual interest. Similar logics get applied in realms like health care, education, and criminal justice, where the stakes are dramatically higher and the results more dehumanizing. The modern world is constructed by situations like this, one tiny piece at a time.

Affluent and educated people usually find ways to dodge bureaucratic roadblocks. The poor, the linguistically challenged, the socially marginal–they either find themselves crushed by regulations or forced to work outside them.

As I asked in the earlier post, where is power in this story? Whose interests are being served? It’s hard to figure that out. Codes may reflect public pressure for greater safety and for accommodation of the disabled. They force people to implement energy-saving technologies, which is good for Planet Earth. They may also feather the nests of particular building trades and especially for consultants who make their living by explaining insanely complex regulations to clients. They raise construction costs, which probably affects the working- and middle-class disproportionately.

Where is an anthropology that would give us purchase on these phenomena, which are at least as relevant to everyday experience as the (utterly predictable) race-class-gender mantra that defines contemporary work? Such an anthropology would have to integrate complexity theory with Weberian and post-Weberian work on bureaucratic structures, rationalization, and the sociology of expert knowledge. You can find shreds and patches of this in STS, hints of it in the recent AE issue dealing with Institutional Review Boards. But there’s a big space available for ambitious thinkers looking for something fresh and important to work on.

This post brings to a close my month as a visitor at SavageMinds. I’d like to thank the SM team for their hospitality and express my appreciation to those of you who chose to comment –approvingly or not–on my contributions.

2 thoughts on “Architecture, Rationalization, Codes, Power

  1. MB —
    Thanks for your superb blogging!In terms of how bureacracy functions, I think it is important to realize that the standardizing moves of institutions does in fact have an enormous literature, it is just outside of anthropology (unless you consider structure-functional accounts of kinship accounts of a bureaucratic institution, which I personally do). One of my favorite anthropological articles on how this concept works within anthroplogy, however, is:

    Matthew Hull “The File: Agency, Authority, and Autography in a Pakistan Bureaucracy.” Language and Communication, 23(2003), 287-314

  2. Rex–

    It’s true that a great deal of work on bureaucracy is undertaken outside of anthropology. It’s the turf of sociologists above all. But why should this be so? Disciplinary boundaries haven’t prevented anthropologists from making significant contributions to many subject areas once thought to belong to others.

    I take a dig at the race-class-gender focus in my post because I’ve found so many instances in which the Big Three blind anthropologists to other factors that loom large in social life. Occupational identity is probably the most obvious. Especially in high-risk professions, occupational identity may be more central to a person’s sense of self than ethnicity, for example, but you’d never know this by reading most anthropologist’s accounts. What accounts for our disciplinary myopia?

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