The Architecture of Error
Matter, Measure, and the Misadventures of Precision
Why the rise of redundant precision in architecture and the accompanying fear of error are key to understanding the discipline's needs, anxieties and desires.
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.
Paperback$19.75 T | £15.99 ISBN: 9780262526364 328 pp. | 7 in x 10 in 17 color illus., 94 b&w illus.
[a] hugely enjoyable and rather brilliant book …
Hughes's target - one that she skewers with unerring accuracy - is the disciplinary obsession with precision at a material level. (...) She talks not of catastrophe, collapse and epic malfunction, but the pursuit of accuracy to the point of redundancy, and the debilitating effects this quest generates. The Architecture of Error, while it deals in specificities, necessarily provides a rich generalist history of the pitfalls of the sort of means-end rationality that became doctrinaire across almost all professions in the post-enlightenment age.
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.
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.
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.
Dean, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University, New York