On Imperfection

2012// Rome Studio 2012. Contemporaneity and Architecture, Edited by Anne Bordelau.

“Imperfection is in some way essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of process and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent... and in all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies, which are not only signs of life but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry, All admit irregularity as they imply change; and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyse vitality.”

John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, the Sea Stories

The imperfections that derive from time I will leave, for now, to time. I am concerned here with the imperfection that comes not with aging, but with making. While the aging of a material reminds us of our own temporality, the imperfections that derive from making are a token of our fallibility. This fallibility, is one we experience and embody only in making, and it is, in the absence of many other common grounds, our connection to others.

To make something with the hand is to render it, from the very beginning, imperfect. This imperfection is what connects the material world with our own physicality. It is what makes the very act of making, human.

In the process of making the tiles, probably one of the simplest forms a material can take, imperfection makes each piece unique - a child of human hands. Each material is forgiving in its interaction with the hand; it admits variations that become imperfections. Both clay and concrete tiles were to be the same; but made one by one, from the same materials, mold and operations, the tiles, as if unaware of our efforts for uniformity, resulted in literally hundreds of variations.

With clay, the very nature of the rough material makes the final product unpredictable; tiles made from the same patch of ground, hands, water and fire, emerged from the kiln each different from the other. Even with the concrete, surely less capricious than the clay, the mixture changed slightly with each pouring. Not only the measurements of each: water, cement and aggregate were never exactly the same, but even the time of day changed the outcome of the process; the tiles made after the morning dew, when the sand sitting outside was slightly damper than the night before, were smoother and lighter.

Each tile, when assembled in the arch, is no longer perceived as unique; but the difference between them has never been more apparent. They read as an irregular surface: tactile and deep.

Chemistry accounts for human error that depends both in the experimental and theoretical value of a magnitude. Can contemporary architecture, in a world where the human hand is slowly fading, suspend efficiency in order to return to the tactility of the imperfect? An affirmative answer would be unlikely and perhaps just the product of nostalgia, but the opposite would only leave us with the white smooth surface of infertile neutrality.


2013// On Site Review 30. Publics and Ethics. Guest Editor: Thomas-Bernard Kenniff.

“Nicolas leads me through the barrio. He was born here and he waves at everyone, stopping constantly to introduce me to them: the basketball player who tends an abasto, a hairdresser , the local musician – a timbal player, a nurse on her way to work. There are many others without any further description than their names and a friendly handshake cooled by the beer bottles in their hands. We walk the barrio Santa Cruz, one of nineteen barrios at the southwest end of Caracas. We go up steep stairs and down narrow alleys, above creeks and around garbage dumps, always avoiding one particular street, ‘Ahi esta la droga - that’s where the drug is’ Nicolas says. On my second visit and after some convincing, we walk there. ‘No tomes fotos aqui – don’t take pictures here’. Turning the corner a group of girls play, their pink t-shirts a blur as they run. A few metres away, two men on motorcycles are trading what is probably cocaine. They take a look at us, finish and leave — no pictures are taken and the girls never stop playing. It is a sunny Saturday morning, thirty degrees with a bright blue sky..”

Striving for subsistence, the growing population of Caracas has radically transformed the city in the course of the past fifty years. The accelerated growth from mass rural migrations left millions to find land, shelter and basic services themselves. The barrios, once thought to be a provisional solution to the housing shortage, are now home to more than half the population of the city. With five times the density of the formal city¹, barrios condense and multiply all the paradoxes inherent in the capital of a developing country. Overcrowded and invisible, alive and remote, violent and unregulated, these informal settlements, located on steep hills, unstable soil and flood plains, have limited or no access to electricity, water or sanitation, waste removal, transportation or emergency services. Until recently omitted from most census data and official maps, and without land titles or addresses, barrios are also legally excluded from the formal city.

Action and Necessity  -  Infrastructure and Proximity
According to Hannah Arendt, necessity is confined to the private realm, and therefore by definition it is foreign to action². But shared necessities generate action. Arendt’s definition of action is that of a generative force, distinct from labour and work, created directly between people without the mediation of objects³. When considered within the context of the barrios, action creates the built environment by means of constant negotiation. Building in the barrio is done out of necessity, but the process is so essential that it cannot be framed inside the infertile nature of labour or the predictable consequences of work. In their shared search for land, shelter and services, people living in barrios have proven that necessity transcends social and political affiliations, and that strong community networks can form around shared needs. If rendered accessible and intimate, infrastructure can fulfil basic needs while cultivating the extraordinary power of action.

Action and Politics  -  Infrastructure and Visibility
For Arendt, not all action is political⁴. Action is only political when it originates in freedom. Politics—in its ideal form—exists in the relationships between people⁵ and is derived from plurality, not in the modern sense of representative democracy, but simply from individuals acting together. Plurality, for Arendt, is the ‘equality and distinction’ inherent in people⁶, realised only in public. It is the necessary presence of others that makes politics, and action, essentially public. Shared, visible infrastructure can make action manifest, and consequently, political.
Barrios often benefit from the infrastructure of the formal city but reject the official systems that govern it. Barrios’ economic, social and physical networks are never isolated from the predominant culture of the city, yet their placement outside all regulatory systems limits their complete integration with it. Beyond any bureaucratic mechanisms to regularise barrios, infrastructure can legitimise the informal through the provision of legal services. These services can challenge barrios’ precarious condition and their prevailing image as temporary settlements.

Action and Promises  -  Infrastructure and Citizenship
For Arendt, action is also the experience of freedom⁷. But freedom cannot be fully realised without the existence of promises. Reality reflects both the uncertainty that comes from the freedom of action and the potential certainty of promises. In the barrios, institutionally unregulated and constructed through improvisation, the built environment itself emerges out of the reification of promises. Promises originate from two facts: our own unreliability as free individuals and the impossibility to foretell the consequences of our actions in a community of equals⁸. These promises can be of abstention or deed, but it is in this latter category where the potential for action truly resides. Barrios are built out of a constant negotiation between individual desires and the promises that, as a community, its individuals have tacitly made to each other. As barrios operate outside any official rules or regulatory entities, promises become more poignant while at the same time more fragile — they are the unstable base upon which a barrio functions. Barrios redefine citizenship as a direct involvement in the production of the city. They have eroded citizenship’s exclusionary limits (traditionally attached to property) and have delineated a new definition based on their informal urban practices. These practices are mediated by the constant exchange of promises, though these are wilfully broken, easily forgotten, and wrongly replaced.
Challenging infrastructure’s traditional role of purely utilitarian systems GroundTower combines infrastructure with civic space, giving promises a place for existence and exchange. This civic space sits between the accessibility of the public realm and the intimacy of the private, strengthening the active participation that generates action. An infrastructure that is accessible, visible and responsive can provide a space for the exchange of promises and the performance of action. In this space, it becomes possible to recognise the barrio and the city as a shared resource, fostering kinship and empowerment. Through action, public space can be transformed into civic space, and its users into citizens. Walking through the barrio I clearly see poverty, violence and exclusion, but talking to its people, I understand the extraordinary will, effort and hope that sustains these settlements. Infrastructure is able to build on these potentials to frame a civic space that is generated on the auspices of individual promises and the actions they engender.

(1) Rodriguez, 54% de Población Vive en Barrios, El Universal, April 9, 2008
(2) Arendt, The Human Condition, 175
(3) Ibid., 7-10
(4) Arendt, The Promise of Politics, 95
(5) Arendt, The Human Condition, 244
(6) Arendt, Between Past and Future, 149
(7) Arendt, The Human Condition, 246
(8) Ibid., 244