The Architecture of Error
When architects draw even brick walls to six decimal places with software designed to cut lenses, it is clear that the logic that once organized relations between precision and material error in construction has unraveled. Precision, already a promiscuous term, seems now to have been uncoupled from its contract with truthfulness. Meanwhile error, and the always-political space of its dissent, has reconfigured itself.
In The Architecture of Error Francesca Hughes argues that behind the architect’s acute fetishization of redundant precision lies a special fear of physical error. What if we were to consider the pivotal cultural and technological transformations of modernism to have been driven not so much by the causes its narratives declare, she asks, as by an unspoken horror of loss of control over error, material life, and everything that matter stands for? Hughes traces the rising intolerance of material vagaries—from the removal of ornament to digitalized fabrication—that produced the blind rejection of organic materials, the proliferation of material testing, and the rhetorical obstacles that blighted cybernetics. Why is it, she asks, that the more we cornered physical error, the more we feared it?
Hughes’s analysis of redundant precision exposes an architecture of fear whose politics must be called into question. Proposing error as a new category for architectural thought, Hughes draws on other disciplines and practices that have interrogated precision and failure, citing the work of scientists Nancy Cartwright and Evelyn Fox Keller and visual artists Gordon Matta-Clark, Barbara Hepworth, Rachel Whiteread, and others. These non-architect practitioners, she argues, show that error need not be excluded and precision can be made accountable.
About the Author
Francesca Hughes lives and works in London, where she taught at the Bartlett School of Architecture and the Architectural Association for many years. She is the editor of The Architect: Reconstructing Her Practice (MIT Press) and Drawings That Count.
“'To err is human’—but it is much more than that. In an original tour de force Francesca Hughes tells us that to be human is to err. While the Enlightenment tradition idealized humans and their creations by comparing them against rulers and straight edges, The Architecture of Error takes the reverse stance, seeing architecture, for the first time, entirely in our terms. The eternal quest for increased exactitude across fields appears as a receding mirage, leaving us with the sense that we have failed and have fallen. By rescuing the psycho-phenomenological from the confines of the mistaken and misshapen, Hughes offers us a model for how to build, live, and cope in the world of extreme precision science.”
—Jimena Canales, Thomas M. Siebel Chair in the History of Science, University of Illinois-UC; author of A Tenth of a Second: A History
“We have entered a Brave New World in which the messy intercourse between mind and material, with all its attendant unpredictability, has been replaced by the quest for ever-more-immaculately conceived buildings. In this remarkable book, Francesca Hughes illuminates the beauty of error’s seduction and offers a way back to the subtle and precarious zones where contingency trumps precision, where architecture comes back to life.”
—Jill Stoner, Professor of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley; author of Toward a Minor Architecture
“In a relentlessly insightful and finely crafted analysis, Hughes shows how the architect’s discourse on precision is congenitally imprecise. This wonderful book gives error a history and a starring role in the ever more intolerant digital age. Fear of error becomes the very material of our field."
—Mark Wigley, Dean, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University, New York