Infrastructural Art in the Emerald City: The Unexpected Impacts of Two Unrelated Laws
“Rules do not solve all problems; they only simplify life.” Elizabeth Colson. Tradition and Contract: The Problem of Social Order (1974)
Laws and formal regulations are strange and funny things. They can be designed to prevent or enable very specific outcomes, are crafted by often overworked and under-resourced civil servants and pushed through the legislature by politicians who can ignore or downplay possible consequences of new regulations. Certain laws may indeed be crafted to “simplify” life and some can be so obvious they should not need to be formalised – does anyone really need to be told that, under the Prohibition and Inspections Act of 1998, it is an offence to cause a nuclear explosion within the United Kingdom? However some laws can have unforeseen and often very strange consequences once they are released into the messy and contested machinations of the real world. Lawyers can make lucrative careers by finding and exploiting loopholes in often mundane laws (see for example, the celebrity favourite “Mr Loophole” Nick Freeman).
For some laws “mission creep” can become a very real problem. During the financial crisis in 2008 the UK government used laws passed under the Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (2001) to freeze the assets of the failed Icelandic bank Landsbanki in an attempt to “protect British savers” – stretching the definition of “terrorism” to breaking point. The bank was listed as being a proscribed terrorist regime alongside Al Qaeda, the Sudan and Lebanon in an attempt to claw back cash for British bank customers.
One growing interest of mine is the often unintended consequences of laws and regulations and how the combination of two or more very different laws can create some very odd and unexpected outcomes. During a recent research trip to Seattle my work focused on two unrelated laws that, once they came into contact with the real world, have had very strange impacts on the physical geography of the city.
Washington State’s Accountancy Act
The first is Washington’s Public Accountancy Act, crystallised in the state constitution under Article VII, Section 5:
“No tax shall be levied except in pursuance of law; and every law imposing a tax shall state distinctly the object of the same to which only it shall be applied.”
One effect of this stipulation is that the city’s energy and water utilities can only fund projects that relate to their core mission – the energy utility must fund energy-related projects, the water utility must fund water-related projects. Despite both utilities being publically-owned by the City of Seattle, the two must remain separate. One consequence of this is that the energy utility, despite its name of Seattle City Light, is unable to fund or maintain the city’s street lights, while the water utility is prohibited from maintaining the city’s fire hydrants. Both services have been ruled by the courts to benefit city tax payers generally and should be funded from the city’s general fund, not by utility rate payers.
Once Percent for Art Law
The second law of interest is a 1973 law to promote public art within the city. The One Percent for Art ordinance stipulated that city departments have to allocate one per cent of their capital improvement funds to public art. Because Seattle’s energy and water utilities are publically owned, they too must contribute. Yet, because of the strict tax rules that separate the two funds, Washington’s Supreme Court ruled that the two utilities cannot pay for art that is not closely related to their mission to provide electricity and water. The court also made the highly subjective decision that some art projects, such as a documentary on the energy utility’s Boundary Dam, were permissible but others, such as a sculpture under a highway, were not.
The combination of these two laws has led to some strange changes in the physical geography and development of art in Seattle. One example is the Denny Substation project, a new electrical substation being built to cope with growing demand in the South Lake Union area of the city. While the building will mainly be used as a substation, the site will also consist of an “active public space” for visitors and will integrate artwork from two design studios “that expresses both the past history of the site as well as its promise for the future”.
While art here is incorporated into the design of the new building itself, the 62-storey Seattle Municipal Tower, home to the energy and water utility, has been transformed into an informal art museum, holding a variety of commissioned artwork. The following images are just a selection of the art on display.