Architectural typologies

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.

I walked by this interesting and charming residential building in northern Berlin the other day. It turns out it was designed by Brandt und Simon Architekten, who incidentally also designed my local bar, Kohlenquelle which, to be perfectly honest, I up to now suspected had never been designed at all. The striking feature of the building however is the pixelated façades made up from tiles or shingles, allowing the building to merge with the surrounding garden, to dematerialise and disappear depending on how you observe it. It is in a sense a form of ‘stealth architecture’, the term is, if I remember this correctly, borrowed from Mike Davis’ ‘City of Quartz’ (a terrific portrait of Los Angeles and a great analysis of the militarisation of urban and architectural space for anyone who has yet to read it). Mike Davis uses the term to denote alleged (it is in their nature to be elusive) buildings in Venice Beach that are built for affluent clients yet designed to appear insignificant and shoddy from the street so as not to attract burglars. The building above is a different type of ‘stealth architecture’, where the stealth element is more a matter of style than of military tactic.

In the military sense of the word, man has constructed ‘stealth architecture’ since he started building. Shelter was always constructed so as not to attract attention, at least until city walls and other defensive structures replaced the need for concealment to an extent. In times of peril, many smaller mountain towns would have hidden refuges as a last resort of protection. All ages have produced stealth architecture in the military sense. Bunkers constitute the avant-garde of military stealth architecture. Recently however, the civilian application of stealth as style has evolved, from all corners of the world, for various motives, but with one common aim; to create architecture that pretends it does not exist.

One example of ‘stealth architecture’ is ‘Old House’ in Tyson Street, Melbourne, by Jackson Clements Burrows Architects. Commissioned by a client to build a modern building, restricted by the preservation zone the site was located in, the architects negotiated a compromise. They constructed a modern building, but the street façade was clad with a full-scale photography of the old building. The result was a trompe l’oeil, if one stands directly in front of the building; the new and the old merge and become indistinguishable. Its angles and perspective lines line up from that one point, in a way thus preserving the homogeneous character of the area.

The architects describe their project like this:

“The project attempts to elevate the difficulties of obtaining planning approvals in heritage areas into a sublime and ironic gesture which may generate debate about the problem itself. In this sense it is both a critique of the process and a surreal architectural solution which is evocative of the site’s memory and historical context.”

It is a compromise where the new building and the image of the old merge, forming a very strange unity of past and present. One could argue that the project enters into a dialogue with its context through its obvious falsification of the history, while the jabs at the planning department and the complications created by heritage laws are perhaps a commentary that can best be expressed in other ways than architecture.

Sweden has its fair share of stealth architecture. The gallery designed for Magasin 3 by Block Architecture is one interesting example. The façade of the building was clad by a ‘fence’ of reflective aluminium louvers that mirrored the surrounding landscape, allowing the building to appear or disappear as one looked at it. An almost shy structure that hides behind a mirror, a very non-intrusive form of architecture that dissolves into the park. Was this ever built by the way? I have never seen it, but then again, that was half the point, perhaps it is there and I have just never looked at it from the right angle while squinting. It is an interesting thought; perhaps it lies there, forgotten, only to be discovered accidentally one day by an old lady walking her dog.

Another interesting project is the Tree Hotel designed by Tham Videgård, a hotel room halfway up a tree in the gigantic forests of Northern Sweden. Its reflection distorts the view of the forest, creating a very light building completely subjecting to the natural landscape. The slight distortion of the forest and its perspective is the only sign of the building. I cannot help but think this will make a marvellous ruin if its location and existence is ever forgotten and then stumbled on by chance decades later.

A similar project, also subservient to the landscape is ‘Juniper House’, by Murman Arkitekter on the island of Gotland. A modern wooden building is here covered by a second skin, a camouflage suit, of full-scale photographs of the juniper landscape making up the context of the building. The resulting building becomes almost invisible and suddenly materialises and dematerialises depending on weather conditions and angle.

It is easy to dismiss ‘stealth architecture’ as a simple comment on the context, or in some cases even the planning department. In that sense, stealth architecture would simply be apost-modern, tongue-in-cheek, double-coded nod to the history of the site, and the context. In the worst case scenario, it is only a method for imposing new architecture in sensitive contexts disguised by a barely credible veneer of adaptation, a deliberate falsification undertaken to exploit new territory. On the other hand, the architects of these buildings have sought a way to construct a house, while at the same time offering the opportunity to view the scene without the building. In other words, ‘stealth’ is a method for having the cake and eating it too, a great feat to which mankind has always aspired but never quite pulled off. This type of architecture can also be interpreted as a more complex post-modern dialogue with context and history. Furthermore the architecture questions the nature, role and impact of architecture. Creating optical effects of dematerialisation is part of the interchange with context and beholder. It is however also a will to be invisible, an architecture of invisibility and transparency, ephemeral architecture in a sense, that disappears with the blink of an eye. This architecture presents a hyper-real image of the world without the architecture, a world where the sun is always shining on the driveway, where the junipers are sunlit forever. Stealth architecture becomes scenography for a dream.

The dream of immaterial architecture is more prevalent than one would imagine, particularly so in Sweden. Take one more  look at competition winners over the last years, many if not most, renderings present buildings that are transparent, half hidden behind trees, ephemeral and light, sometimes even with either top or foundation covered in mist, erasing the structure or at least disconnecting it from the context in which it is to be inserted. This is how both architects and clients envision their buildings: invisible.

The most simple expression of this is of course the characterless glass box, always transparent in visions and renderings, almost always surprisingly massive in reality. In a sense, these are paper versions of ‘stealth architecture’, visions of nothing. The trees in renderings are almost toxic green and the lawns and playing children as saturated in vivid colours as the buildings are transparent and discreetly invisible, out of focus. Abstraction of materials and details enhance the illusion of the unreal, an ephemeral, hovering, building that sits in a sea of vibrant green invisible to all but those who look directly at it.

Actual ‘stealth architecture’ is paradoxically comparatively honest, making an actual effort to dematerialise, stealth architecture is invisibility with a purpose. The glass boxes, on the other hand, become bulky faits accomplis, realities we realise we cannot ignore and learn to live with. The desire to dematerialise architecture in different ways raises the question of architecture’s role in society and our cities. Is this a way of addressing the dichotomy between the taste and aesthetic preferences of architects contra those of the public? Is the architectural profession simply engaged in a process of creating invisibility cloaks for modern buildings, to camouflage our work, saying “–look, it isn’t so bad, you can hardly see the building behind all those kite-flying children”? Architects are conjuring up images of a world without architecture. It is an act of legitimisation through self-effacement. The glass boxes can be interpreted as manifestations of a society fearing architecture, and of an architecture fearing society.