Architecture of Error

Architecture of Error

Reviews: Books

Francesca Hughes:

Architecture of Error

Matter, Measure, and the Misadventures of Precision

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“Noise,” the futurist painter Luigi Russolo wrote in this 1913 manifesto L’arte dei rumori, “is never totally revealed to us and it keeps in store innumerable surprises for our benefit."1 Claiming that the cacophonous, indeterminate sounds of the industrialized city will become the basis for new musical harmonies, Russolo opened the door for a radical embracing of chance, disharmonies, and ordinary accidents in art. The espousal of the marginal and inadvertent has since become a robust category of aesthetics within digital cultural and New Media, who have realized the potential of the glitch to reveal the untidy materiality of computing itself. Yet, in spite of its proven value within the creative faculties of artists, the error or glitch as a realm of productive thinking within architecture remains elusive. Francesca Hughes seeks to address this oversight in her new book, Architecture of Error: Matter, Measure, and the Misadventures of Precision. Using a series of revealing case studies in art, industrial design, and science, Hughes forwards a potent critique of architects’ disuse of error and its obverse twin, precision. Pinpointing the many fallacies of misplaced precision, such as brick walls dimensioned to the fraction of a millimeter, Hughes’s main argument centers on the reluctance of architects to acknowledge the gap between conceptual thinking and its physical realization, where the inability of materials to live up to our powers of abstract thinking can only be understood as a loss, as inherently erroneous. The conflation of error with matter, which she traces to Aristotle’s hylomorphism, has led to a culture of fear, anxiety, and delusion that falsely drives architecture’s fetishization with precision and increased control over matter. The infatuation of architects, scientists, and engineers toward error, “defined as that which exceeds the constraints of required precision” (3), has created a power regime that is blind toward material realities. The turn toward digital design and fabrication, she argues, has only reinforced these tendencies by offering astonishing levels of control over materials and, thus, our desire to rule over them in redundant and superfluous ways.

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Hughes’s analysis of error begins in the seventeenth century with Robert Hooke’s astonishing revelations of a tiny world in his Micrographia (Figure 1). This, she argues, represents an early beginning of our collective drive toward greater precision in matter relations and our dominance over them. Contrasting to the world of science, she then examines the practices of several artists who have embraced error and accident as a creative force, such as Gordon Matta-Clark (Unbuilding) and the English sculptor Barbara Hepworth’s deep imperative to pierce holes through solid materials. The full-on assault of precision in the twentieth century is next examined in early airplane manufacturing, where aluminum (precise, predictable) was inserted by materials scientists as the favored material over wood (organic, indefinite), in spite of clear evidence otherwise. Following this, Hughes demonstrates how the fusing of error and matter in concrete, that wild and fluid material of early Modernism, was seized upon by the regime of precision required by architects and engineers. 

Figure 1. Edge of razor blade. Robert Hooke, Micrographia (1665).
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She then offers important insights on parallel advancements in developmental biology, where the discovery of the chromosomal structure opened new space for the ideological prejudice of form over matter. In the concluding chapter, Hughes returns to architecture via the Wittgenstein house and argues that the loss of ornament in early twentieth-century Vienna may be seen in its replacement by obsessive surface precision. 

Taken together, these case studies paint a picture where form and matter are in a constant scuffle, and matter loses. As a cultural assessment of deeply held values about precision and error, this book offers an invaluable addition, especially in exposing the scope and depth of the problem across multiple disciplines and periods of history. Error within architecture has been a topic of occasional interest, most recently in Perspecta 46 (MIT Press, 2013), which opened up the question about error as a productive activity for architects, and Rumiko Handa’s Allure of the Incomplete, Imperfect, and Impermanent (Routledge, 2015), offering a critique of error-free completeness. One may reasonably look all the way back to Vitruvius, however, who demonstrated the optical error of relying on rational proportions alone to calculate column and building dimensions (Figure 2). And, centuries later, L. B. Alberti devoted an entire chapter in De re aedificatoria to architectural errors, recommending methods for both reducing and correcting them. The notion of error, as an affront to reason, was brought into the modern era by books such as Marc-Antoine Laugier’s Essai sur l’architecture, and Teofilo Gallaccini’s provocative Trattato sopra gli errori degli architetti of 1767, and it has been the prevailing assumption in architectural practice ever since.

Hughes’s working definition of error rather narrowly follows this tradition, and in this regard she formulates a welcome and spirited critique. However, as Eric Owen Moss recently coined the term “Messi-computing,” after the magical movements of the Argentine footballer, Lionel Messi, even the most rational machines do not always behave as expected.2Particularly relevant is architects’ capacity not only to project ideas but also to guide them through realization, an opportunity to work with error well captured by John Cage, who wrote: “An error is simply a failure to adjust immediately from a preconception to an actuality."3Cage’s error, like Russolo’s a half century earlier, resides in the adaptation of the performer and not in the age-old clash between concept and material so central to Hughes’s argument. Unfortunately, Hughes never broaches the subject of specific architects or examples in which error has operated productively through improvised, ad hoc, or indeterminate modes of practice.

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Figure 2. Optical Adjustments. Cesare Cesariano, De architectura (1521).
Figure 3. Still frames from Ivan Sutherland’s demonstration of Computer Sketchpad (1963). MIT Museum.
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Instead, the book relies on an image of the heroic architect who orchestrates a building project from afar through concept sketches, a facile characterization that conceals a gambit of architects, both current and past, who have operated quite provocatively otherwise (Henri Labrouste, Carlo Scarpa, and Renzo Piano come to mind, not to mention the surge in practices incorporating digital fabrication and design in new ways). In the end, Hughes’s assumption that architects desire, indeed fetishize, a kind of hermetic representational space between mind and material greatly undermines the potential of this book.

Hughes states her intention in the introduction to offer a critique of error without theory, choosing to focus on a notion of error perhaps more familiar to architects, one where impure materials undermine pure form. This creates a sharply focused critique, but the choice to exclude notable sources in the broader theory of error weakens some of the her claims. Looking at contrasting theories of error between René Descartes and Giambattista Vico, for example, would have shown that the correlation of error to the senses, so central to Hughes’s assumptions, relies on a view that excludes myth and imagination as legitimate categories of knowledge. At the same time, French theorist Paul Virilio has convincingly reasoned for the positive guidance of accident or error, arguing that in a modern society, the artist must use such accidents to guard against the hegemony of technology, a position that would be of key importance to bolstering the author’s argument.

Hughes’s book appears during a surge of interest in the topic of error in architecture, underscoring its importance for educators, particularly those interested in computational design and digital fabrication. With robotics enabling a host of new research into indeterminacy, the question of precision and mistakes is more relevant than ever for architects. Particularly valuable is that Hughes directs her critique toward some of the more common questions that preoccupy architecture students, as in her revealing analysis of Ivan Sutherland’s precursor to CAD software, Sketchpad (Figure 3). Extensively researched and poignant in its approach, the book raises important questions for the next generation of architects and educators contemplating the role of materials and precision in fabrication, conception, and design thinking.

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Francesca Hughes at MIT

Francesca Hughes at MIT
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