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Beyond the error

DART, (Department for the Environment, Network and Territory) of the "G. d'Annunzio" University, Chieti-Pescara, Italy

by Rosario Pavia

We live with errors, disasters, devastating public works and incorrectly conceived infrastructures. Error is a feature of our contemporary landscape, just like our political reality and personal life. In any case, nowadays, error is inert, incomprehensible and furthermore, its ever-invasive presence is accepted. Error is no longer opposed, criticism that it may raise is somewhat superficial and does not really enter into the merit of the issue. We ask that it be removed, yet, if it remains there, in place, we are not scandalized. Habit prevails over reason and over a master plan to transform.
In politics and in private life, errors that are evident on the territory no longer constitute a dialectical element that would want to make us correct our route, it is no longer a necessary experience for teaching and the discovery of truth, it is no longer a signal that exposes us to complexity and uncovers research potential. The viaduct that foolishly cuts through the landscape of a valley; great maritime works that upset the coastal equilibrium just to realize a port that will be useless; and waterless dams are all errors that do not have a reply, that are destined to remain for a very long time, that constitute modern ruins, that are the evidence of what remains of forgotten, interrupted, incorrect projects.
The infrastructure error is a paradigm. We find it equally difficult to understand political errors and what may have motivated them, as a consequence a reflection upon the notion of error in public works and infrastructure takes on a much more profound meaning. The intervention project to be carried out on the infrastructure error is in fact a political action, not only a statement but also a proposition for a new operational means.

Error as a concept had always been at the centre of philosophical thought, but only in modern times (with the onset of Empiricism, Darwin's evolutionary theory, Hegel's dialectic idealism and, more recently, with theories relating to complexity and catastrophes) has error gained a dynamic and propulsory meaning. However, we do not wish to embark upon a philosophical discussion, our scenario is contemporary urban planning and related intervention practices.
The modern project for transforming a territory has always been an instrument desired by the political will of governments. Error was part of the game: modernization, as admirably depicted by Goethe with Faust, called for sacrifice and error. In any case, the politician and the person in charge of exercising intervention has always had the capacity to evaluate, has always taken on sometimes tragic and demanding responsibilities, which made error necessary, which made it part of the possible outcomes of the project.
Experts such as Haussman, in the case of the urban plan for Paris, and Moses, in the case of New York, demonstrate the capacity that one has to measure oneself against error, to suspend it in time, in the awareness of its contradictions.

In modern times public works and infrastructures supported development and profoundly influenced the design of cities and the territory. These projects were characterized by efficiency and were representative at the same time. Furthermore, infrastructures were not understood to be strictly sectoral but rather responded to the demand for various functions on the territory (for this reason, nowadays, they appear to integrated into the contexts they are located in, to be an essential component of the place they are located in and a constituent for social use).
In the second half of the '900s, modernism underwent a profound change. Our contemporaienty, in going beyond any debate on post-modernism, is still in search of its own modernity, or better still the very many possible forms of modernity. On this rather ambiguous and broad topic, poets and Octavio Paz, subsequent to Baudelaire, still have reason to connect modernity with the simultaneousness of the times and presences … and say we are pursuing modernity in its incessant metamorphoses, but we can never manage to grasp it.

It is not out of place to insist on searching for our notion of modernity. We are convinced that the project for visibility (and shape), which is so fundamental to our modern movement, has been completely exhausted (today, a totalizing visibility has been substituted by a mosaic of landscapes and possible readings of it). In the attempt to interpret the urban disorder and the velocity of visual consumption, there is not only a figurative complacency, not only fashion and trends, but also a search for a potential design, for a clue to direct our vision and a clue to return to measuring and living in a space.
Our contemporary surroundings are not only characterized by discontinuity and interruptions, but also by continuous lines. Many of the intuitions, many of the experiences of the modern times that have just transpired continue to radiate into our present, illuminating our prospects for research (refer to Roberto Secchi Architettura e vitalismo, Officina, Roma, 2002). A new project for modernity can even be realized on an error in infrastructure.

Today we are witness to contradictory behaviours: on the one hand the awareness of risk and danger has increased, and as a consequence every error needs to be rectified or excluded, and on the other infrastructure error is accepted in its obstinate completeness. On the one hand we have sophisticated plants and calculations (e.g. nuclear power stations and large scale dams) and on the other large infrastructure works realized in a rather sectoral manner, deliberately harming local communities, the landscape and the environment (an appraisal of environmental impact inflicted by infrastructure has revealed how inefficient these systems really are).
Infrastructure errors are much more evident given that they have become more sectoralized and are considered as separate from architecture and urban planning. Error manifests itself in a multitude of forms. The incorrect economic assessment of the coal producing port in Gioia Tauro; the inaccurate estimate of geological risk for the Vajont dam; and the design and layout of the motorway network in Italy, in particular the viaducts, are all examples of error. Often the talent involved in working out the mathematical calculations for such projects is annulled in light of lack of quality in terms of design and the devastating effect that infrastructure can have on landscape.

We live in the midst of errors. The sectoral nature of infrastructures has caused breakdowns, malfunctioning, diseconomies. At times error persists and continues to survive in the context of its very peculiar nature.
Infrastructure policies that have not been co-ordinated by planning and management authorities have disseminated errors in territories. How can we react to their negativity, to their violence? What course of action can be taken? Action that is not a passive acceptance (this type of action is proposed by environmentalists) or action that rejects error via the impractical choice to destroy and demolish.

To emerge from this situation a different perspective is required. It is necessary to retrieve the error, go back to the source of its negativity, to the very project that it is a part of, that absorbs it as Slavojzezek would say (S. Zizek, Benvenuti nel deserto reale, Meltemi, Roma, 2002).
This perspective provides us with a notion of recovery that is very important for our contemporary living.
Absorbing the planning error to subsequently redeem it and correct it via a new, advanced, sustainable solution is the political and cultural challenge the present moment is imposing on us. Accepting the dialectic in error is a way of overcoming its contradiction and incorporating its negativity in a more complex and aware project. In thus doing the project rediscovers the vitality of the dialectic process that does not reject evil, but rather wishes to understand it, cross it and transform it into a new possible resource.

The word "error" has the same root as the word to "err". In our erring we cross territories and landscapes that have been shaken violently by the presence of errors. The crossing cannot be passive or obstinate, but rather one that seeks to research and to propose. To cross an error implies reading its profound reasons for being, exploring in its negativity a resource, a utopia for a possible redemption (for this reason E. Bloch's notion of modernity continues to renew itself).
Crossing the error requires imagination and deep inquiry, commitment to denouncing it and the search for consensus. For error to be overcome, the plan to eradicate it must be solid, convincing and feasible. At times it will be necessary to request compensation for damages, compensation that will make it possible to intervene on the error in order to annul it, contain it or even redeem it by contaminating it with the beauty and quality of a new project.
Intervention is not easy, however, an intervention project opens up an infinite field of reflection and application. Many upgrading and recovery programmes for the territory and landscape are tied in with this new dimension in project design. Crossing the territory of error will teach us to demand new infrastructure projects that are more aware, more profound and able to make technology fuse with nature, to make infrastructure networks fuse with settlement areas and the environment, as well as to make engineering works fuse with architectural works. It is not by chance that Ben Van Berkel spoke of deep planning for his complex intervention projects.

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