1st Edition

Pyrotechnic Cities Architecture, Fire-Safety and Standardisation

By Liam Ross Copyright 2022
    240 Pages 49 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    240 Pages 49 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    This book explores the relationship between architecture, government and fire. It posits that, through the question of fire-safety standardisation, building design comes to be both a problem for, and a tool of, government. Through a close study of fire-safety standards it demonstrates the shaping effect that architecture and the city have on the way we think about governing.

    Opening with an investigation into the Grenfell Tower fire and the political actors who sought to enrol it in programmes of governmental reform before contextualising the research in current literature, the book takes four city studies, each beginning with a specific historic fire: The 1654 Great Fire of Meirecki, Edo; the 1877 town fire of Lagos; the 1911 Empire Palace Theatre fire, Edinburgh; and the 2001 World Trade Centre attack, New York. Each study identifies the governmental response to the fire, safety standards and codes designed in its wake and how these new processes spread and change.

    Drawing on the work of sociologists John Law and Anne Marie Mol and their concept of ‘Fire Space’, it describes the way that architectural design, through the medium of fire, is an instrument of political agency. Pyrotechnic Cities is a critical investigation into these political implications, written for academics, researchers and students in architectural history and theory, infrastructure studies and governance.

    1. Introduction: Gathering around fire

    2. Context: Studying standardisation

    3. Edinburgh: The shape of the British National Anthem

    4. Lagos: The flight of a muzzle spark

    5. Tokyo: Spectres of Edo castle

    6. London: Engineering uncertainty

    7. Grenfell: Trial by fire

    8. Conclusion: Fire-space


    Liam Ross is an architect and senior lecturer in Architectural Design at the University of Edinburgh. He studied at the University of Edinburgh and the Architectural Association, and completed his doctoral dissertation under the supervision of Prof. Mark Dorrian. Through his research he responds ‘to a call to study boring things’, paying attention to taken-for-granted aspects of design practice that nonetheless have pervasive effects. Over the past six years his work has focussed on fire-safety standards; he has sought to foreground the contingencies that underpin these universalising codes, and to illustrate their often surprising side-effects. That work has been published in Arch +, arq, Architectural Theory Review, Candide, Gta Papers and Volume, was exhibited at the British Pavilion at the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale, and features in the edited collections Industries of Architecture and Neoliberalism on the Ground. At present he is working on a study of fire metaphors, considering them part of the conceptual infrastructure of architectural theory.

    "Ingenious and revelatory, Pyrotechnic Cities brings into view the invisible apparatus of fire-safety regulation that has shaped modern cities. These insights into the reciprocities of law and architecture, seen through the flickering threat of fire, will challenge architectural discourse to envision new arrangements of governance, the built environment, and the social contract."

    Timothy Hyde, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

    "In this radical reading of fire-safety standards, Liam Ross broadens the discipline of architecture to include concerns often unconscious to the designer’s mind; the legal assumptions and agreements hidden within design codes. Pyrotechnic Cities provides a fascinating and truly new take on the 'lawscape' of cities and shows the productive side-effects of regulations."

    Helena Mattsson, KTH School of Architecture 

    "Fire has often figured as the mythical beginning of architecture, and of the properly human, but it is also an agent and marker of its end. In this erudite book, Liam Ross addresses the relation between architecture and fire through a series of case studies that, taken together, build into an episodic cultural history of the way the threat of fire has been mediated through building standards and the particular effects – social, spatial, material, and technological – to which these have given rise. With a final section on Grenfell Tower, this is a topical and important study that throws light on the discursive construction of standards and the management and distribution of risk in our increasingly combustible world."

    Mark Dorrian, University of Edinburgh

    "All your burning questions answered: Liam Ross' book on the history of fire and architecture is not only erudite and witty, it's also extraordinarily informative. Through a range of urban settings, from twentieth century Edinburgh to colonial Lagos, and contemporary London to Edo period Tokyo, Pyrotechnic Cities shows how fire has not only shaped the regulation of buildings, but the anatomy and economic fate of cities. There's an art to telling a fireside story, and Dr Ross has perfected it here, in a book that I believe will be a future classic for architects, historians and the curious alike."

    Adam Jasper, ETH Zurich

    "Pyrotechnic Cities is an insightful study of building standardisation. Drawing on Science and Technology Studies, the book offers a much-needed rethinking of the role of incidents (like the Grenfell Tower fire) in revealing regulatory practices that were not visible before. Drawing on a range of local and global examples, analysed carefully in their historical or geographical specificity, the book puts forward a compelling argument about the social and technological networks of translation underpinning the production of standards in the built environment (with a focus on fire-safety standards). A must-read for every student, academic and practitioner in Architecture."

    Albena Yaneva, University of Manchester