Tax-optimised Architecture

image copyright Rossanna Bartoli

The relationship between architecture and property taxation is a territory that is largely unexplored as far as I know. A few attempts are made to create tax incentives, primarily to create walkable neighbourhoods or to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency. There is, however, an entirely different side of architecture influenced by taxation to explore: tax-optimised architecture, or the architecture of tax evasion. Tax-optimised architecture is a typology of architecture designed to exploit loopholes in taxation laws, preferably to avoid taxation entirely, or at least to minimise it. This means that the tax laws, or rather the areas  not covered by them, become the primary factor influencing the design of the architecture. Architecture as an e contrario interpretation of the tax laws in short.

In Sweden, the ‘Friggebod’ has been the primary expression of tax-optimised architecture. In 1979, the then-Minister of Housing Birgit Friggebo created a law allowing homeowners to build small sheds on their properties without construction permits. The sheds, maximum two per property, were not to exceed ten square metres in area (this was later raised to fifteen) or three metres in height, and were to be placed a certain distance from the edge of the property. Apart from these stipulations, there are practically no limitations on their design. Since the introduction of Friggebodar, Sweden has seen an explosion of construction of these sheds: twenty years later, there were already about a quarter of a million spread across the country; the exact number is unclear. Pretty soon, Swedes started to elaborate on the Friggebodar, maximising the limited area with temporary extensions and foldable walls to extend the sheds. One of the more radical examples was designed by architect Sören Stenqvist and exhibited at the H99 housing exhibition. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find any images of it. As far as I remember, it was a structure whose size could increase to double the regulation size, and then be reduced to comply with the legal ten square metres should the tax department pay a visit. I sometimes suspect that the real motivation for these elaborations is as much spite for the tax department as it is a real need for extra space.

The history of tax-optimised architecture is presumably as old as property taxation. History contains many legendary examples. Perhaps obviously, there is no recorded history of tax-optimisation of architecture, and most examples presented here are – from a scientific perspective – dubious at best. The most famous historic example in the Anglo-Saxon world is the window-tax imposed in England in the 17th and 18th centuries, which (legend would have it) gave rise to the expression ‘daylight robbery’. At the time of the window-tax’s introduction, personal integrity was a matter taken very seriously, which prevented the state from basing its property tax on any of the more common parameters such as area or value of the building, as disclosure of such information would have necessitated an uncivil intrusion into the private life of the property owner. Thus, tax had to be based on elements discernible from the outside and somehow related to the value and area of the property; hence, the number of windows. As a result, three different tax levels were imposed on properties: those with less than ten, those with between ten and twenty, and those with more than twenty windows. Naturally, owners of buildings with eleven or twelve windows were disadvantaged and often bricked up a window or two in order to lower their taxes. New constructions were equipped with a number of windows in the upper end of the different brackets, and as a result, properties were often constructed with fewer windows than they normally would have been equipped with.

Another historical example is Amsterdam, a city with deep narrow houses with the gable facing the street. Allegedly, this was the result of a property taxation based on street frontage imposed during the critical centuries of the city’s construction. The houses were often so narrow that furniture could not be brought up the stairs, and instead had to be hoisted up from the street to the upper levels. Each house was therefore equipped with a small crane. I’m sure there were other reasons as well, but to an extent, what we consider Amsterdam’s vernacular architecture is an example of tax optimisation: a thrifty population elaborating on the opportunities to minimise their taxes.

The most radical example I have encountered are the trulli of Apulia, southern Italy. According to Bernard Rudofsky’s ‘Architecture without Architects, ’These were built of “annual layers of stone that terminate in a false conic cupola crowned by a keystone”. The origins of this type of dwelling are disputed. Popular belief suggests that this peculiar type of construction was an innovative method of tax evasion. As they were constructed without mortar, they could be pulled down when word spread that tax inspectors were in the area, and then reconstructed upon their departure. The town could thus double its size, while its taxes remained at the level of a village. Again, this is a theory with little scientific and great popular support. In reality, the trulli’s form is reminiscent of very early human settlements, and the constructions most likely predate property taxation.

Whether the examples above are true or just folklore, it is both exhilarating and somewhat unnerving to imagine vernacular architecture as not only the product of climate, available construction materials and local cultural traditions, but also the product of a profound unwillingness to pay taxes which is quite apparently engrained deeply in the human consciousness. In a sense, the extensions and elaborations of the small Friggebodar is part of a battle between people and tax inspectors that has raged since the dawn of taxation. Makes you wonder if tax inspectors really are the root of all evil and the creators of this type of architecture are righteous, justly standing up for their rights, or if people have just always been stingy.

It would be interesting to further study the effect of taxation on the emerging vernacular of the Friggebod and other contemporary examples. I suspect there is a great market niche here. I’m contemplating setting up an Office of Tax- Optimised Architecture, based in the Cayman Islands, developing new vernacular architecture around the world, generated by local taxation laws. Then again, I think there are a number of firms doing exactly this already- and with less conspicuous names. Venturi and Scott Brown focused on semiotics in their analysis of the Strip in Las Vegas, but it could be argued that the architects of tax evasion, along with their corresponding adversaries in the tax departments, are the authors of a parallel strain of vernacular architecture, running through history, individually tailored to the local conditions across the globe but as of yet uninvestigated.

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11 comments
  1. Markus said:

    Very interesting post, me and a friend have just started thinking about writing a book about this very issue – examples of how taxes and subsidies affect our physical environment in a micro-perspective, so I’m thankful for some examples here that I’m going to explore further. Have you happened to have heard about any other example like this?

  2. waua said:

    Sounds like an interesting project. I reckon there are plenty of other examples. My mother-in-law told me the other day that in Savannah, Georgia, there used to be a tax on doors. As a result Savannah has plenty of houses where there is no access to the balcony and where rooms are separated by curtains rather than doors.

  3. Another example from the southern US. In New Orleans taxes (at least a portion) were based on the number of windows on the street. So most neighborhoods have narrow, long lots. These produced the building types: shotgun, double shotgun, and camel-back.

    Notably at a larger scale the major organizing principle was access and orientation to the Mississippi River.

  4. south said:

    More proof that efforts to avoid tax are usually more innovative and effective than efforts to collect them. Here in Japan beer is taxed by its malt content… And so the past few years have seen a boom in cheaper, malt-free beer.

  5. Cool. At the other end of the scale–which has been much more widely examined, and which you allude to with your ‘Cayman Islands’ reference– is the growth and development of off-shore tax-haven states and the infrastructure to support them. Keller Easterling territory, in terms of architectural critique. But I’ve never seen it discussed at the scale of the individual, dwelling or village. Great Stuff.

  6. The article is missing the greatest tax evaders, Greeks. Recently there was a law that allowed the owners of properties that had closed off their semi-open spaces (spaces with floor/ceiling and up to 3 sides closed) thus turning them into taxable space (if with permit), to make the use of those spaces a legitimate one without further conciquences other than a fine (per sqm).

    This made public the common secret that the majority of Greek owners had a illegally transofrmed non taxed spaces in to (in normal conditions) taxed spaces.

    • Cyndi said:

      Everyone has great examples, but how does one actually find copies of the original property tax laws that led to these unusual buildings?

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