Tolerance lies at the crux between the contingencies of context and autonomous production. The problem of detailing lies, in part, on understanding that the detail, from its representation to its actualization, is the architecture: tolerance is what transpires in the transformation. It is a byproduct of the disciplinary autonomy of architecture that is created out of understanding contingency: designing with it is the making of architecture. The whole is no thing without its parts.
Historian Kenneth Frampton discusses "tectonics" as a series of opposites, particularly between the “ontological” and the “representational.” The design of details is thus suspended between what it “is” and its appearance. What is crucial to consider in this relationship is that the construction of those details must be designed in any work of architecture. In the translation from drawing to built work, the design must accommodate reality: the imprecision of equipment, humans, materials, and site. The literal gaps given over to “reality” are what we understand as tolerances.
Tolerance exists between the lines of a drawing, but it is virtually the only way to ensure a building can be created on site. It can also be seen as something outside the control of the architect – a building is contingent on the tolerances supplied by manufacturers and agreed upon with contractors. The gymnastics of designing for or with tolerance is typically done behind the scenes so that the representation of the building (idea) and the building (form) appear the same.
This essay will explore architects with a particular insight into tolerance, and who seek to maintain control of the parameters of variability inherent to the design of construction through details. The work of architects including SHoP, Kieran Timberlake, and Frank Gehry will be considered for their attitude towards and understanding of the nature of tolerance. Their work will be studied from built object back through the design process, examining the ways in which tolerance is tied to tectonic expression, where the parts (and what lies between them) facilitates the whole.