Francesca Hughes of Hughes Meyer Studio, explored “Matter, Measure, and the Misadventures of Precision” during her talk at the second UQ Architecture Lecture Series event for 2015.

Francesca Hughes: Matter, Measure, and the Misadventures of PrecisionFrancesca Hughes’ lecture was based on the content of her recent book The Architecture of Error: Matter, Measure and the Misadventures of Precision published by the MIT Press. It picks at loose threads of present-day ideas and apparently self-evident truths about architecture, until the whole discipline seems to unravel. Assumption about measurement and its consequences lie behind everyday procedures of design and construction but are not as straightforward as they seem, neither in their surprising history nor in their consequences, as digital technology gives the potential of an infinite precision to a level that’s beyond comprehension and possibly, use.

By rescuing the psycho-phenomenological from the confines of the mistaken and misshappen, Francesca offers us a model for how to build, live, and cope in the world of extreme precision science. She presents a series of examples of the beauty of error’s seduction and offers a way back to the subtle and precarious zones where contingency trumps precision and architecture thrives.

Francesca began by stating the eternal quest of increased exactitude across fields appears as a receding mirage, leaving us with the sense that we have failed and have fallen. “There is another layer to the threat physical error has always constituted, and its origins are to be found in Aristotle’s metaphysics and in Aristotle’s conflation of error always with matter and never with form. Error emerges both as a possible agent of matter, and curiously its only physical form or register. It then follows any elaboration of error as an active category in architecture. It can potentially access that most evasive category, matter itself, somehow out of the kind of formally mediated trap of representation, and also potentially avoiding the traps of fetishisation the 20th Century fell for. But this also means that physical error embodies everything Aristotle assigned to matter, that is a complex intersection of indeterminacy, difference, existence, inferiority, process – process resides in matter – and entropy. Literally when things go wrong it’s because of matter.”

Francesa says the architect has developed precocious tools for managing his unique fear of physical error and collectively these defensives ensure that almost any error that gets through is effectively neutralised, and “instituted in architectural practice behind the complex methodological fortifications erected to protect against material error such as margins for error, tolerance, standards and specifications, material failure thresholds and so on.”

How are we to understand the function of redundant precision in architecture? Francesca says that in the last 100 years a no-man’s land has opened up between precision and material error control in which not only is the meaning of these terms far from stable, but the relations that govern our tolerance of material behaviour have reached a point of acute crisis. “The rise of precision and by implication its presumed control of error, like a ghost, can be understood to shadow the dominant narratives that stitch together the removal of ornament at one end of the century to fabrication and digital fabrication directed by a network at the other end of the century,” she says. “What these narratives don’t tell us is that in each of these, their seminal moments of crisis, precision and error relations were fundamentally transformed.”

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