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Editorial: form follows failure

Web mies van der rohe photo farnsworth house plano usa 8

The AR airs architecture’s dirty laundry, arguing that even the success stories are built on failure and proving it is all the better for it

Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House is an exemplar of minimalism and purity, a heroic representation of the International Style and a pivotal moment in the architect’s career. He was aware of risks of flooding from the nearby Fox River, and so raised the visually weightless glass box on 1.6m pilotis – to protect the dwelling from all but the ‘once-in-a-hundred-years flood’. So he thought. But the project flooded only three years after completion. Pictured on this month’s cover, flood frequency has increased dramatically in recent years, partly due to the ravaging speed of suburban development upstream, and the caretakers of Farnsworth House are working on a flood mitigation project to prevent further irreversible damage.

‘The story of architecture is nothing more than a catalogue of errors that needs to be studied, challenged and revisited’

When Modernist masterpieces adulated for their aesthetic perfection appear at their most vulnerable, it can be unsettling – we are used to flawless images, often airbrushed like Hollywood pin-ups. Architectural history rejects failure, as deplored in this month’s Outrage, preferring to concentrate instead on tales of heroism, ground-breaking feats, innovative experiments and laudable performances. While such accomplishments ought to be recognised – uplifting narratives are undeniably necessary to inspire a profession – it is disingenuous and unhealthy for architecture to be chronicled as an untroubled story. Honest accounts are more productive as they raise questions and open up opportunities for debate. 

From the financial crash to climate change to the migrant crisis, Keller Easterling argues in this issue’s keynote that ‘solutions can be mistakes’ that, sooner or later, form closed loops and highlight the importance of thinking laterally to avoid the absurdity of ‘smart vehicles in a dumb traffic jam’. It is a misconception that failure ought to carry only negative associations, translate as embarrassment, and have no utility. Instead, it should ‘force us to redefine value’, she argues, because ‘change can only occur through combat or collapse’.

‘Overcoming and harnessing failure is the very nature of the architect’s job’

Beyond issues of flooding, Mies aimed to express ‘dwelling’ in its simplest essence at Farnsworth House, yet the client raised questions of both liveability and practicality in the lawsuits that followed the construction of her weekend retreat. But buildings should not be reduced to binary assessments of good/bad, success/failure. As Peter Buchanan argues in these pages, ‘there is no failure, only feedback’. Because buildings need to accommodate the unexpected messiness of life, it is crucial to revisit projects months, years and decades after completion – especially in an age of instant dissemination, where the paint is still wet on the barely finished but immediately photographed projects, quickly uploaded on digital platforms and already forgotten. Judgement tends to be premature and absolute, failure implies finality. Like a dead end, the impossibility of turning back, game over. 

Flaws, mistakes and accidents are easier to embrace at the design stage, where ‘failure’ is intrinsic to the creative process – overcoming and harnessing failure is the very nature of the architect’s job. Endless iterations and permutations eventually lead to design decisions, as shown for instance in Case Design’s Avasara Academy. When do you put the pencil down, when is a project ever finished? This issue is not about bad buildings, or tragic collapses, or ruin-porn. Projects considered as masterpieces often conceal thorny backstories – we feature Sydney’s Opera House, Mallorca’s Can Lis, London’s National Theatre. When buildings approach their expiry date, we are confronted with dilemmas of architectural preservation, such as at San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and faced with new opportunities for adaptive reuse – Owen Hatherley assesses south London’s transformation with recent interventions by 6a, Assemble, Carl Turner Architects and Haworth Tompkins. What do we keep, what do we destroy, and what is the impact of these decisions? Eddie Blake’s short history of deconstruction reveals we have replaced spectacular, explosive demolitions by piecemeal removal. Yet the remains shouldn’t make us feel ashamed, as proved by Rotor’s productive reusing and recycling of salvaged building components.

From early sketches to site visits to post-occupancy investigations to rubble, the story of architecture is nothing more than a catalogue of errors that needs to be studied, challenged and revisited. The process is both cathartic and instructive. As trends come and go, as political systems change and power balances shift, architectural failures reflect and unveil the complex forces that shape the world around us. Architecture is cluttered with paradoxes and contradictions – and is all the richer for it.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

This piece is featured in the AR February 2019 Failure issue – click here to purchase your copy today