Buildings have always been plagued by glitches, from the notorious collapses of Gothic cathedrals to engineer William LeMessurier's timely structural retrofit of the Citigroup building in 1978. The enduring fascination with design blunders is evinced by the popularity of the Pisa Campanile and books such as Why Buildings Fall Down. But perhaps these are only the most spectacular examples of a condition that bedevils every project; as Stewart Brand sighs, "All buildings are predictions. All predictions are wrong." Can the discontents of contemporary architecture really be 'debugged,' or is the elimination of error a hopelessly utopian aspiration?
Error has stood as both an indictment of failure and a provocation for improvement. In the 19th century, subjective ideas of taste gave way to an empiricism based on statistical distributions, particularly around the 'normal' curve. Modernization created 'risk societies' rife with 'manufactured' accidents that feature prominently in the public imagination. In the post-modern moment that followed, one strategy of the avant garde was to stray from reality and to embrace error for traction, in the form of follies, fictions, and purposeful aberrations.
Today, the ever-increasing complexity of buildings compounds the proliferation of errors, even as, in many cases, space has become more generic. In a networked society where the ultimate attribution of organizational responsibility is often impossible, the desire to quantify and control error has become pathological. Intentional errancy is being re-examined as a survival tactic under multinational capitalism and as an opening onto productive multiplicities that can overcome the hangups of linear thinking.
Indeed, architects might be the consummate 'errorists,' trained to realize their own intentions precisely but not to judge the validity of these intentions. (This mindset may explain why global warming and other large-scale societal errors often escape the discipline's focus.)
- Exerpt from Perspecta 46: Error (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2013 [forthcoming]), edited by Zachary Russell Heineman, Joseph Clarke, and Emma Bloomfield