September 17, 2010
jeu zeus
Still from Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu, 1939 (source)


‘If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then the builder shall be put to death’.


—The Code of Hammurabi



In Judeo-Christian tradition, not since the Old Testament have rules been so codified, eye-for-eye, or really Hammurabi-like. If, after Job, the rise of humanism and man’s self-reflection brought with it hypocrisy and moral loopholes, so too came mercy. Or, to put it more comfortably: the socially accepted subjective interpretation of rules. Rules, however, are not meant to be disregarded altogether – bourgeois society depends on certain rules for delineating murkier areas of ambiguity or, to be sure, having fun. Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu classically trades rule-breaking of one kind (the aviator Jurieux crosses the Atlantic in a mere twenty-three hours) for another (Jurieux loves Christine, a married woman). Life’s a game, and rules are applied or gotten around easily so long as the superstructure remains undisturbed (Jurieux, the bachelor, dies at the end of the film). Of course relations between the sexes have always been fraught, and managed along lines of presumed propriety; the phrase gender-‘bending’ certainly inclines for a reason.


But for architecture, structural rules are inherently less flexible; modernism’s sliding doors and windows grow creaky and stick with humidity and age. In public space the ramifications of engineering become political, in mitigating subtle social conventions of meeting, seeing, and being seen. Richard Serra’s infamous Tilted Arc (1989) was thus as masculine as it was dismissive of the rules and pathways wound into the plaza’s social fabric, but should one consider, too, how Khoury’s spa in Riyadh simply reifies the prescribed visibility of women in Saudi society? Or how parametric design proposes myriad alternatives (that follow all the rules) at the expense of more polemical schematics? There is not only for or against, but the softer flesh of chance and happenstance pulsing in between the lines.


Kari Rittenbach


Olympieion, Athens, Greece, 2AD (source)


Architects spend significant creative energy designing around rules. To simply follow the rules doesn’t produce good architecture. Rules are bent or broken, selectively ignored, self-imposed, or capitalized upon. They are deformed, repurposed, manipulated, and transformed. Rules ask to be transcended. In architecture school, the adage that ‘cheaters never prosper’ sounds fallacious, as cleverly skirting the regulations can inspire respect as often as condemnation. A professor once told me that it is acceptable to cheat and lie so long as what I make is beautiful and smart.


Rules secure continuity and ensure that a work of architecture is always contingent. As one of architecture’s materials, they create connections or formless relationships between part to part, building to building, building to context, or work to time. An architect’s self-imposed rules across his or her works are a means to design the character of their oeuvre. Urban regulations are designed to ensure that buildings relate to their neighbors and occupants. Architecture’s great rulebooks, such as the Ten Books by Vitruvius, have carried and established meanings of architecture throughout its history. Architects, in short, rather than play by the rules, have to play with the rules.


Henry Ng



Edited by Erandi de Silva


One Response to “RULES”

  • Kari Rittenbach says:


    There is something inherently moralistic about the concept of a ‘cheater,’ which is particularly Western and perhaps even puritanical. I always prefer to read the cheater contextually. In Washington Square, master of bourgeois social mores Henry James asked: “Do you think it is better to be clever than to be good”? And then ‘cleverly’ answered: “Good for what? … You are good for nothing unless you are clever.” How true it is that virtue and shrewdness are so often at odds!


    As for playing — what a nice way to look at it.
    (Alas, I had misremembered this song containing the lyric ‘cheaters gonna cheat’.)



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