Dangerous Doors

The other day I set off the fire alarm in my new building. There are only two elevantors to the basement, and one of them was blocked. So I took the stairs. There is a great big sign claiming that opening the door to the stairwell will set off the alarm, but I had seen it opened with no ill effects so I tried that route anyway. And lo, no alarm was sounded. But I found the door to the basement locked, and the only escape was to set off the alarm. The sound was piercing. And no-one cared. I went right back into the building and took the elevator. Cindy tells me the man who turn off the alarm disregards it – he hears it so many times a week he simply switches it off without a worry.

So why have the alarm? Or why not change the locks on the inside doors? Then I remembered Beijing.

Blocks in Beijing are huge. When I stayed there in 1998, the compound I was in was a single block so large that it contained a university. It took an hour to walk around it. Inside, the block was a network of streets and apartments, including schools, shops, market places, and sports fields. Circling it all was a wall.

There were four exits from the block: one gate on each side. During the day, a guard sat in a booth by the gate and observed comings and goings. At 8:00 two of the guards locked their gates and went home. The steady stream of people was blocked. But no one wants to walk an extra half hour to an open gate. So they climbed over the fence: old ladies returning with groceries scrambled over, as did young couples dressed up for a night on the town.

What’s the point? I asked. Why bother locking the gate if everyone is going to climb over it? Why doesn’t someone fix this? Then it occurred to me that this has been the way for centuries in China. The Imperial bureaucracy divided the country into a hierarchy of administration districts, each smaller than the one above it. At each level there was one person responsible for those beneath him in the hierarchy. The layout of the city reflects this: apartments within compounds within superblocks. The hierarchy and control of the city reinforces the hierarchy and control of the society. And arbitrary rules like the locked gate accustom the people to arbitrary control. They accept the absurdity, and then work around it.

The people in my building are the same. And just like the people in Beijing, they lose their respect for the rules. Good for them: it is better to respect yourself than a pointless rule. It is better still to fix the rule.

Of course not all rules are pointless. The rule that we drive on the right is arbitrary in its choice of sides, but the rule itself is essential. We are told to turn off our cell phones in hospitals because some of the equipment really is affected by them. But our respect for the important rules is diminished by the pointless ones.

Nearly a century ago in New York, there was a fire in a garment factory full of workers. They saw the smoke and ran for the exit, but the crush of bodies pressed against the door shut. Over a hundred workers died because they couldn’t open an unlocked door. Ever since, North American public and commercial buildings have been built with doors that open outwards.

No-one made a rule that the door must open inwards. Probably it hadn’t occurred to anyone that this could be dangerous. Today we have fire alarms that are ignored and doors which are arbitrarily locked. We are aware of the absurdity, but we say nothing and surrender a little freedom. Someday someone will die, and those who made the rules and those who remained silent will be more guilty than the architects of that fatal garment factory in New York.

2004-07-13

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