Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Flames and Consequences—City Building Codes from the 1700’s

I can see that perhaps the subject of historical building codes and regulations sounds deadly dull (there aren’t even any photos!), but in researching Stockholm’s City Building Codes from the 1700’s, I found that these antiquated laws defined a framework that is still starkly evident in Stockholm today.  Many of the rules and regulations resulted directly from fires and an ever-expanding effort to curb them, but the most interesting of the rules stemmed from the government’s desire for Stockholm to grow into a beautiful, harmonious city.  If you don't have patience to read the nitty-gritty, feel free to skip down to the conclusions.

A Historical Perspective:
First, I think that it is important to understand that fire codes in Stockholm are nearly as old as the city itself.  A 1280 law sets a minimum width for city streets at 8 alns (about 15’-6”).  This minimum width was partly established to ensure that the streets were wide enough to get goods in and out of the city, but the wider streets were also meant to create a firebreak between blocks of dense structures.  The law additionally specified that if a fire on a neighboring property is threatening your property, you are allowed to enter the neighboring property and do what you need to do in order to put out the fire.  Stiff fines were assigned for accidentally starting a fire, and deliberate arson was to be punished with death.  Obviously, fire was a serious issue in medieval Stockholm.

In the mid-14th century, Magnus Eriksson’s City Law widened the requirement for the width of new streets and also encouraged building with non-flammable materials.  One was required to build with consideration to one’s neighbors and building permission from the city was required before building activity began.  It didn’t become common practice to actually seek permission until much later, but I find it interesting that the city started to try to control what was built and how it was built even 700 years ago.  It is also important to note that while the law doesn’t go into detail about how one is supposed to build with consideration to one's neighbors, the idea that building activity affects more than just the property owner is a theme that threads its way through Stockholm’s building laws even today.

By the mid and late 1500’s, fire had become such an issue in Gamla Stan (the Old Town) that there was a general prohibition to build in wood on the island.  Existing thatched and plank roofs were to be replaced with peat or preferably with clay tiles within a defined timeframe.  While fire was probably the driving force behind this law, there were at least two other simultaneous issues.  First, the forests surrounding Stockholm were becoming depleted, and the stipulation to build in stone was meant to conserve forest resources.  Secondly and perhaps most importantly for the planning discussion at hand, is that this law states that stone buildings contribute “to the city’s honor and glory.”  A city of stone was considered more impressive and literally awesome than a city of wooden buildings.  (All of the texts say “stone” buildings, but I am positive that the term stone also included brick.  It has always been quite uncommon to build in stone in Stockholm, but building with brick became more and more common as the laws prohibiting wood became stricter and stricter.)

Although technically outlawed in Gamla Stan, wooden buildings with thatched roofs continued to appear on the island for at least another 100 years because only the wealthiest of merchants could afford to build in stone.  The prohibition against wood as a building material was repeated several times under the various monarchs and it wasn’t until Queen Kristina’s time in the mid 1600’s that the prohibition against wood was generally obeyed on the island.  She admonished the city saying that it should be obvious from its buildings that Stockholm is the nation’s capital and that the city shouldn’t be mistaken for a minor backwater.  Economic prosperity finally caught up with the rulers’ ambitions and building activity on Gamla Stan finally began to be solely in stone.  However, on the mainland and on Södermalm outside the downtown area, wooden buildings were allowed for an additional 100 years. 

The 1686 and 1694 Building Regulations:
A major fire in Norrmalm (on the mainland just north of Gamla Stan) in 1686 spurred city architect Jean de la Vallée to write a specific building regulation for that part of the city.   He specified maximum building heights for stone and wood buildings (buildings were allowed to be taller if they were built in stone).  He also specified permitted roofing materials and delegated wooden buildings to “blocks on the outskirts and with insignificant meaning to the city’s honor.”  Again, fire and aesthetics both played determining roles in the shaping of Stockholm’s laws and hence its resulting building landscape. 

In 1694 minimum street widths were widened to the incredible distance of 24 alns (about 46’-6”!!!!).  For the first time, alleys were also given minimum dimensions at 16 alns (~31’).  Perhaps most importantly, responsibility for faulty buildings was officially assigned to the builder.

The 1723 Katarina District Fire and 1725 Building Regulation:
In 1723, a destructive fire raged throughout the Katarina district of Stockholm (on the island of Södermalm just south of Gamla Stan).  Two years later, City Architect Göran Josuæ Adelcrantz inaugurated the first city-wide building regulations.  Adelcrantz had two goals: to protect the city against fire and to increase the city’s beauty.  He emphasized that stone was the only acceptable building material in Gamla Stan and added that wooden buildings would no longer be allowed on main streets and thoroughfares as well as on squares and public spaces in other parts of the city.  Existing wooden buildings would be torn down and replaced with stone within a determined timeframe. 

Adelcrantz also wrote the first active fire-fighting building regulation for Stockholm.  Previous rules limiting building materials were passive measures that hoped to retard the spread of flames.  But Adelcrantz’s new regulations established public streets along all shorelines, required street access through the city down to the water’s edge, and ordered the building of quays and docks to ease access to the water in order to make active fire-fighting possible.  These measures weren’t fully realized until the 1800’s, but Adelcrantz was the first to recognize their necessity.

Adelcrantz’s second but not secondary goal with the 1725 Building Regulation was to enhance the city’s beauty.  Building permission had been technically required for new projects in the city since the mid 1300’s, but Adelcrantz was the first to require that drawings be submitted in order to receive a permit.  In this way, the city architect could actively control the aesthetic appearance of all new buildings.  (A byproduct of this nearly 300 year-old requirement to submit drawings in order to receive a building permit is an incredibly rich archive of drawings showing the evolution of architectural styles and tastes.)  Aldelcrantz and his team judged the buildings according to the following criteria: Facades should be uniform and beautiful, especially on squares and public spaces.  Buildings should maintain “regularity above all else.”  Facades should lie on the lot line toward the street to give the street a uniform edge.  Streets should be straight and meet width minimums.  Lot sizes should be uniform.  

The 1736 Building Regulation:
In 1736, City Architect Johan Eberhard Carlberg expanded upon Adelcrantz’s Building Regulations.  In addition to requiring drawings, Carlberg also required building inspections to ensure that the submitted drawings were being followed.  While this new building regulation did completely outlaw wooden buildings even in the outskirts and included a few more advanced fire measures—a general prohibition against flammable roof materials, requirements for non-flammable hearths and chimneys, and firewalls at lot lines—this building bylaw is almost entirely aesthetic in nature and the “City’s neatness” was Carlberg’s main concern.

While Stockholm had had an overriding city plan since 1636 and it had been more-or-less followed since then, Carlberg was the first to make following the city plan law.  However, he also stated that there was a need for more squares and open spaces than provided by the plan.  Carlberg also stipulated that lot sizes should vary according to location in the city.  Larger lots were appropriate for prominent, in-town locations while smaller lots were appropriate on the city periphery.  It was understood that wealthier people should live and work in the middle of the city while those of smaller means should live on the outskirts.  After all, those of smaller means could hardly contribute to the city’s beautification and enhancement through their modest buildings.  While no longer stipulated by law, this exact pattern of segregation by income level continues in Stockholm today.

For Carlberg, uniformity and homogeneity among buildings was of upmost importance.  He stipulated that facades were to be handled with architectonic care—toward the street, facades should have a “clever window and door rhythm/pattern.”  When facing squares and public places, it was even more important that the facades be beautiful as well as that they be harmonious with their neighbors, matching the order and rhythm of the surrounding existing buildings.  Only light colors in the light grey and light brown-yellow color ranges were acceptable.  Facades should be smooth except at window and door surrounds, at pilasters, and at ground level. 

Stockholms’ Building by-laws through the generations had been building up to the 1736 Building Regulation.  Aesthetic rules had become stricter and stricter until Carlberg even restricted plaster color choices to a very narrow range!  Carlberg hardened to stone the precedent that the city had strict control over what was built within it.  This is still the case today.

The 1763 Building Regulation:
In the 1763 Building Regulation, written after the devastating 1759 Maria district fire, Carlberg focused on fire prevention.  Buildings on tall hills were limited to 7 alns in height (about 13’-6”) so that they wouldn’t have the ability to topple and spread flames great distances downhill (apparently this was a major contributing factor to the Mara fire).  It was now forbidden to for attics to be inhabited or to have fireplaces because even if building and roof materials were inflammable, roof trusses were still constructed of wood.  The law also stipulated that fireplaces could not come into contact with beams.  Regular chimney sweeping now became mandatory.  These new building regulations were law until 1842.    

Further Regulations at the end of the 1700’s:
Supplemental building regulations added at the end of the 1700’s further defended and defined aesthetic rules.  It was written that aesthetic regulations were considered suitable and important because the urban landscape is a public possession.  Because it is a public possession, it may not be neglected by any one property owner.  It was every property owner’s duty to contribute to a neat and well cared-for city. 

What does a neat and well cared-for city look like?  According to the supplemental regulations, every property owner was responsible for keeping the street directly outside their lot clean.  Streets should not contain buildings that don’t “fit in” and new buildings should match the aesthetics of the surrounding existing buildings.  No visual holes or irregularities were allowed in the street landscape and unbuilt lots were given a limited time to be infilled before the property owner forfeited his right to the land.  Outhouses, storage buildings, and temporary buildings were not to line the street but had to be shielded from sight by the main building.    

While the development of fire-prevention techniques over the ages is important, I believe that it is the aesthetic regulations that most forcefully shaped Stockholm’s character.

Perhaps it is because I am American with all the associated baggage of private property rights and individualism, but it strikes me as quite unique that so much of the building regulation rhetoric states that the aesthetic rules and measures were for the public’s benefit.  The aesthetic measures were in everyone’s interest because they contributed to a more beautiful city.  It seems to have been taken for granted that a property owner would willingly sacrifice some of his design freedoms in order to contribute to a greater good. 

Yes, Americans living in suburban communities with homeowners’ associations also willing give up some of their freedoms in order to contribute to an overarching neighborhood harmony.  However, this model is purely for the purpose of keeping up property values and is lacking in the sense of civic pride that I perceive in the historical Stockholm regulations.

I also find it interesting that the aesthetic regulations prize harmony, regularity, and a sense of “blending in” above all else.  The regulations do very little to define what a beautiful building looks like other than to say that a beautiful building fits in with the neighboring buildings and doesn’t stick out in any way.  In these historic regulations, beauty = harmony.

It is hard to describe how precisely this fits the Swedish mentality and culture even today.  There is a popular term “Jantelagen” which roughly translates to “The Joe Law.”  The Joe Law refers to the fact that unlike in America where you are supposed to outdo and outshine the Joneses, in Sweden, you are supposed to be exactly like the Joneses—not better off, not worse off.  In Sweden, it would be rude to outshine the Joneses.  One should never call attention to oneself, even positive attention.  There is an enormous social pressure to dress like everyone else, to get average grades in school, and to have average ambitions in life. The Joe Law affects every aspect of Swedish society, not least of which is Swedish architecture.

Even today, in an era of Santiago Calatrava and Zaha Hadid and Frank Ghery, very little of Swedish architecture is designed to stand out.  The goal of Swedish architecture is not to create “star” buildings, but to create harmonious, simple, graceful, and appropriate buildings.  Frankly, I find this attitude refreshing and feel that I and my design skills have a lot to learn from the Swedish approach.

When I started researching this topic, I never expected to find such an important part of contemporary Swedish mentality codified in 300-year-old laws.  But now that I have found it, I am not surprised to learn that such an overreaching and entrenched point of view is an old, old concept that has been rooted in Swedish thought for at least three centuries. 

In addition to my faithful copy of Hall’s Stockholm’s Anuual Rings, I also consulted:
~Den Måttfulla staden, Viveca Berntsson, editor, 1996.
~Den svenska staden, Thomas Hall & Katarina Dunér, editors. 1997.
~Södermalms stadsplan under 1600- och 1700-talen by Marianne Råberg, 1965. http://www.stockholmskallan.se/PostFiles/KUL/SSMB_0002802_01.pdf
~City, Del I: Stadsinventering 1974-75.  Stockholm’s Stadsmusem. http://www.stockholmskallan.se/PostFiles/KUL/SSM_City__byggnadsinventering_1974_75_D_1_1976_00.pdf
~Kortfattad sammanställning om brandskydd i historisk bygglagstiftning. http://www.brandhistoriska.org/bygglagar.html