The Architecture of Error: Matter, Measure and the Misadventures of Precision – Francesca Hughes

15 January 2015
Evening Lecture

The rejection of organic materials that marked the material tolerance crisis central to modernity didn’t just produce the steel and glass architecture we know so well, but also a generation of newly metalized aircraft that were so heavy they could not fly. These engineered dodos, which resulted directly from architecture’s ideological reconfigurations around predictability and precision, ask of us difficult questions about the role of inference and approximation in instrumental rationalism, and about the exemption from cultural and sociological explanation we reserve for the technological artefact: what if it doesn’t work? At about the same time, but in an utterly different cultural milieu, that last Victorian architect, Edwin Lutyens, was conducting two scalar experiments in domesticity, power and entropy: the 3⁄4 mile wide house and grounds of the Viceroy at New Delhi and Queen Mary’s 4’8” Dolls’ house. Lutyens, like James Clerk Maxwell with his demons beforehand and Erwin Schrödinger with his “architect” gene soon after, fast realized that by installing power in not the giant, but the miniature (that was to become code), architecture’s already precocious tools for managing its unique fear of physical error would redefine precisions relations to the truthfulness. This lecture will examine some of the ways in which these and other tools, and the fears they barely conceal, intersect in the seminal technological and cultural crises that mark architecture’s twentieth-century and the exponential rise in redundant precision that it witnessed.

Francesca Hughes taught at the AA from 2003-2011 where she was Diploma Unit master of Dip 15 and taught in diploma history and theory. Prior to this she ran design units at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, from 1993- 1998. She has lectured internationally and served as external examiner in numerous schools, both in the U.K. and abroad. She is Author/editor of The Architect: Reconstructing her Practice (MIT Press: 1996), Drawings that Count (AA Publications: 2013); and most recently, author of The Architecture of Error: Matter, Measure and the Misadventures of Precision (MIT Press: 2014). Hughes Meyer Studio is an art/architecture practice whose work has been published by AA Files, AR, ANY, Art Forum, Merrel, Routledge, Monacelli and Wiley and exhibited in the UK, Europe and Asia. Francesca is currently working on Piano Falling, an Arts Council funded multi-media project with artist Catherine Yass.

Francesca Hughes’ book ‘The Architecture of Error: Matter, Measure and the Misadventures of Precision’ will be available for sale after the lecture.

Details of the book: When as architects we unquestioningly draw even a brick wall to six decimal places, usually with software originally designed to cut lenses, it is clear that the simple logic that once organized relations between precision and material error in construction has long since unraveled. Precision, already a promiscuous term, has slipped loose 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 fetishisation of redundant precision lies a special fear reserved for physical error. What, she asks, 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, as by an unspoken horror of loss of control over error, material life, and everything that matter stands for? Why is it that the more we cornered physical error, the more amplified our fear of it became? From the removal of ornament at one end of the century, to the digitalization of fabrication at the other, Hughes traces the rising intolerance of material vagaries that drove the blind rejection of organic materials, the frenetic proliferation of materials testing, and the rhetorical obstacles that blighted early cybernetics and remain instituted in the software we use. Her critique of redundant precision exposes an architecture of fear whose politics must be called into question. Drawing on seminal interrogations of approximatory strategies and the pathways of inference from the Exact and Life Sciences, Hughes proposes error as a missing category from architectural thought. With reference to the economies of precision at play in the practices of visual artists Vija Celmins, Barbara Hepworth, Gordon Matta-Clark and Rachel Whiteread, she argues for practice that incorporates the critical capacity of error and that holds precision accountable.


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