Francesca Hughes: The Architecture of Error

Architect and writer Francesca Hughes spoke about her new book, The Architecture of Error: Matter, Measure, and the Misadventures of Precision (published by MIT Press) last Thursday. The premise is arresting: she argues that a particularly virulent fear drove architects’ increasing obsession with “redundant precision” in the twentieth century, to the point that precision became “uncoupled” from the truthfulness it claimed to represent. Her book claims to propose error as a new category for architectural thought, drawing upon the work of scientists Nancy Cartwright and Evelyn Fox Keller, visual artists Gordon Matta-Clark, Rachel Whiteread, and others.

Her talk focused largely upon the preoccupation with precision, although I admit I would have liked to hear more on her proposition for engaging error productively (but, of course, that is what the book is for!). Negligible error has infinite capacity to grow — like when you zoom into your CAD model and find that those three lines don’t actually intersect at the same point, and the more you zoom in the more egregious it looks. But, Hughes asked, what is the point of drawing a brick wall with an exactitude that extends into a sixth decimal place? When the physical brick you use will never be that exact, what is the point? What is the fear that drives our desire for an accuracy that is simply not useful?

Perhaps the unnecessary decimal points are a rejection of the error-riddled materiality of the brick in favour of the purported precision of form. She illustrated how this conflation of material with error and of form with precision sometimes had ludicrous results, as with a rejection of strong/durable/cheap wood in favour of (still strong and durable but expensive) metal to build aircraft, specifically the Beardmore Inflexible.

Beardmore Inflexible (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Yes, the craft had a wingspan of almost 158 feet, but being manufactured of metal, rather than the wood that aviation engineers were so accustomed to using, this “engineered dodo” hugged the ground, unable to take flight. Hughes pointed out that it was curious that the American government, for example, stopped funding wooden aircraft construction despite these ignominious early failures in experimenting with metal. Wood, she asserted, had come to be the “deceitful hardware of error”, despite its efficacy, and metal synonymous with “precision, predictability, and truth” (which was fine, she joked, unless you actually wanted to fly).

I also found intriguing her example of Edwin Lutyens, the Victorian architect who designed the Viceroy’s House in New Delhi (1924) that is now home to the President of India, who also designed an unbelievably functional doll’s house for Queen Mary for the 1924 British Empire Exhibition (it had hot water on tap, soap that really lathered, a fully functioning elevator, and “tiny Rudyard Kiplings in tiny cursive writing”). She observed that the function of the immense palace and the miniature model were about strategic location of power — attempts to thwart the inevitable dissipation of the British Empire. She also elaborated upon Erwin Schrodinger’s “architect gene” (and his similar preoccupation with doll’s houses), linking the trajectory of modern science with that of architecture in this scrutiny of entropy, and of a search for a form so precise that it was both able to explain and to be explained.

Splitting, Gordon Matta-Clark (Image Source: Artnet)

Hughes touched on some of the ways in which this redundancy of precision has been subverted (by non-architects). Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1974 piece Splitting, for example, is completely unable to engage with that kind of precision; its in-the-moment action left no margin for either redundant precision or error. Matta-Clark improvised and responded to feedback (quite literally by having to jump and catch as the house tipped). Meanwhile, Georges Perec, in his 1968 novel The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise (the piece is written as a breathless, punctuation-less inner monologue, echoing the title), builds up a precise architectural environment — but its precision is its undoing. It is an endlessly ludicrous IFTTT loop wherein the if-this-then-that logic has completely unravelled, as embodied in the flowchart-illustration at the top of the post. In doing so, it pokes fun at the serious IBM computers that forecast a number of scenarios when fed a stream of data, underscoring the ramifications of the quest for precision.

If you would like to view the lecture in its entirety, head over to TechTV (I believe it can be viewed publicly).

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One comment

  1. […] I’m hoping to post more regularly to arch_kiosk this semester — I also hope I’ll be better at sticking to my alternate-Sunday slot! This week, I covered Francesca Hughes’ talk at MIT Architecture on her new book, The Architecture of Error. You can read the blog post here. […]

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