This historic photograph was plastered on the side of a building in Alberabello, Puglia, Italy. Original photographer unknown.

This historic photograph was plastered on the side of a building in Alberabello, Puglia, Italy. Original photographer unknown.

The form of urban settlements and appearance of constituent structures reflects underlying culture and regulation. In times of change, buildings, landscapes and objects transform to reflect the impact of new or modified policies or regulations. And the resulting shapes of compliance – such as the patterns of height, bulk and density dictated by a new downtown zoning code – can potentially reinvent the urban landscape.

Conversely, in response to regulation, the urban landscape can also be dramatically altered to reflect a contrasting city form collectively composed of “shapes of avoidance.” Consider, in the context of everyday urbanism, those shapes and patterns dictated by focused avoidance of regulation.

I am not only referencing spontaneous “parklets” or sidewalk dining tables of “guerrilla urbanism” or “pop up” cities, but urban forms that result when policy or regulation is creatively defied on a widespread basis. Call it the urban landscape’s manifestation of French American microbiologist René Dubos’ classic discourses on remarkable and unpredictable human adaptation to environmental change, Man Adapting and So Human an Animal.

A compelling historical example is the alteration of a southern Italian landscape in the 15th to 17th centuries premised on the avoidance of taxes or fees – the apparent explanation for the unique shape of trulli houses in the province of Puglia – and the resulting appearance of the Itria Valley and the town of Alberobello. As the story goes, conical houses that don’t look like houses were built without mortar for easy destruction so the Counts of Conversano could avoid property tax payments to the King of Naples on permanent structures (such as residences).

What are today’s trulli? Are they merely a list of un-enforced zoning violations (e.g. unpermitted home occupations, illegal accessory dwellings, unsanctioned tent cities, vehicles on lawns) or perpetual temporary uses?

Given the extent of land use regulation today, could spontaneous, repetitive trulli-like “shapes of avoidance” define a sustainable urban landscape more interesting than those that are planned? Or are the most visible “shapes of avoidance” now limited to freedom of expression in the ballot box and on urban walls?

After all, some might argue that graffiti and the recent electoral landscape are the trulli of our times.