back to WRITINGS

Advancing Social Functionality via Agent Based Parametric Semiology   
Patrik Schumacher, London 2015
Published in: AD Parametricism 2.0 – Rethinking Architecture’s Agenda for the 21st Century
Editor: H. Castle, Guest-edited by Patrik Schumacher, AD Profile #240, March/April 2016


This paper presents the refounding of architectural semiology as agent based parametric semiology. It explores how the built environment can be designed as a system of signification that communicates its complex spatial structure and its rich offering of designated spaces with divers programmatic contents to a multitude of interrelated user groups. This re-foundation of architectural semiology relies on a new methodology, i.e. the use of a generalized crowd modelling (life process modelling) that brings the meaning of the designed spaces – the designated functions or interaction processes – into the design model. This allows for the elaboration and successive refinement of the design with respect to its social functionality, i.e. with respect to its ultimate criteria of success in the relevant terms of the life- and communication processes to be facilitated: the density, diversity, quality and relevancy of the interaction scenarios to be facilitated.

The overarching theme of this issue  - the re-launching of parametricism as Parametricism 2.0 – posits that a mature paradigm and style that has the ambition to go mainstream, to become the hegemonic epochal style of the contempoary era, must do more than merely provoke and inspire through newness and virtuoso form making. At least some of the protagonists of parametricism must start to explicate the style’s capacities and advantages, and indeed demonstrate its superior performance in terms of both technical and social functionality.
Demonstrations of parametricism’s technical superiority are well under way in the domains of structural optimization, adaptive environmental engineering as well as in the domains of CNC fabrication and robotic construction. Parametricism is indeed congenial to the new computationally empowered engeneering intelligence, in terms of its computational methodologies as well as in terms of its rich formal repertoire and its aesthetic values calling everywhere for rule-based differentiation and correlation. The design research of protagonists like Mark Burry, Achim Menges, Marc Fornes, and Phillipe Block a.o. demonstrates this congeniality and shows how this can lead to a new technological best practice. In fact, the architectural protagonists of parametricism have been pushing their engineers along a new path of optimizing differentiation that has exposed older forms of engineering and fabrication that were tied to the modernist canon as irrational and wasteful. The architectural protagonists of parametricism have thus played the role of proto-engineers in the advancement of the technical functionality of the built environment. While this goes on (and will continue in the future) the author has made it his mission to shift the attention of the movement from technological advancement towards a long overdue focus on the build environment’s social functionality. This is ultimately where architecture’s true core competency must be located, while the build environment’s technical functionality is ultimately the responsibility of the engineering disciplines.

All Design is Communication Design

Architecture’s social functionality resides to a large extent in its communicative capacity. The built environment orders social processes through its pattern of spatial separations and connections that in turn facilitates a desired pattern of separate and connected social events. This is social organisation via spatial organisation. However, it is important to reflect that the functioning of the desired social interaction scenarios depends on the participants’ successful orientation and navigation within the designed environment. The built environment, with its complex matrix of territorial distinctions, is (or should become) a giant, navigable, information-rich interface of communication.

1,2 Zaha Hadid Architects, Galaxy for Soho China, Beijing 2012
The designed urban space as information-rich social environment, a navigable and legible 360 degree interface of communication where interaction offerings are presented above, below and all around in layers, and where new deep vistas open up with each step forward.


Before a specific intercation event can commence, relevant participants must find each other, gather and configure into a constellation germaine to the desired interaction scenario. Their respective expectations, moods and behavioral modes must be mutually complementary, i.e. they must share a common definition of the situation. It is thus the spatially pre-defined situation that brings all actors on to the same page, and into conducive position, with their respective, compatible and/or complimentary social roles. The built environment thus delivers a necessary precondition of determinate social interaction. (This is indeed the profound societal function of the built environment and the specific responsibility of the discipline of architecture and urban design.)
In order for this to suceed the built environment must be legible to the prospective participants. This legibility has two aspects, a phenomenological and a semiological aspect. The phenomenological aspect requires that each participant is able to perceptually decompose the spatio-visual field into identifiable units of interaction as precondition of his/her orientation. The semiological aspect requires further that each participant understands the social meaning of the spatial units he/she can identify within the environment. The participant can then respond to the spatial communication that is broadcast by the designed space, e.g. by entering a space and social situation. As a communicative frame, a designed space is itself a communication as premise for all communications that take place within its boundaries.
The designed spaces deliver the necessary pre-definition of the respectively designated social situation, thereby reducing the otherwise unmanageable excess of action possibilities that exist in our complex contemporary societies. They ‘frame’ social interaction. Spatial communication/framing is thus architecture’s core competency. Spatial communication implies that the built environment can be understood as a text or permanent broadcast that represents and informs us about the social order we have to navigate and participate within. All social institutions that involve the interaction of simultaneously or successively present participants rely on architecture’s framing communicative capacity and thus on its semiological or sematic dimension. The elaboration of spatial complexes as systems-of-signification is thus promoted here as a key to upgrading architecture’s core competency.


The Re-foundation of Architectural Semiology

Architecture’s  semantic dimension is a crucial aspect of architecture’s ordering function. That all architecture and urbanism has an inevitable semantic dimension is generally accepted. However, so far nobody seems to have succeeded in making architecture’s semantic dimension the arena of an explicit, strategic design effort. Earlier attempts to develop an architectural semiology (under the auspices of Postmodernism) failed to convince1. There was too much reliance on familiar motifs which hampered innovation. More importantly, the task was not clearly delimited and no means to operationalize the concept of meaning was available. Consequently, not much was achieved and the whole idea was rejected  in the early 1990s when ‘performance’ was counter-posed to ‘representation’. This opposition was the expression of a necessary retreat from an unproductive engagement with semiology. However, this opposition is ultimately a false opposition. The correct formula is: ‘Performance via representation’. Architecture functions via its semantic associations as much as it functions via physical separation and connection. The built environment functions through its visual appearance, via its legibility and its related capacity to frame and prime communication. The built environment is not just channelling bodies. It is orienting sentient, socialized beings who must actively comprehend and navigate ever more complex urban scenes.

Above I distinguished the technical functioning of the built environment from its social functioning. While the technical functioning considers the physical integrity, constructability and physical performance of the building in relation to its users understood as physical-biological bodies, architecture must take into consideration that a building’s social function, i.e. its function as ordering and guiding communicative frame which succeeds via its visual legibility. The core competency of architecture is thus the task of articulation. Legibility involves two aspects: the perceptual tractability/palpability and the semantic-informational charge. Accordingly architectural theory distinguishes phenomenological articulation and semiological articulation .
The relationship between the technical and the articulatory dimension of the build environment leads to the concept of tectonics, here understood as the architectural selection and utilization of technically motivated, engineered forms and details for the sake of a legible articulation that aims at an information-rich, communicative spatial morphology. 

3,4 Google Campus as Parametric Semiological Project, Harvard GSD studio Schumacher/Fornes 2013,
Group 3 – CatenaryField, Alessandro Boccacci and Mark Eichler
Tectonics is the utilization of technically indicated morphologies for the purposes of communicative articulation. The complex variegated order proposed within contemporary architecture is reflected and accentuated by optimized, adaptive structures.

5,6 Google Campus as Parametric Semiological Project, Harvard GSD studio Schumacher/Fornes 2013,
Group 4 – Woolthreads, Felix Luong, John Morrison, Joseph Ross
A project like Google Campus is a pertinent vehicle to speculate about the productivity of interconnected and interaware spaces for dynamic, intensely networked patterns of communication. The convex curvature of the shells makes the spatial units and relations easily recognizeable and traceable even if such spatial units proliferate and interpenetrate in complex arrangements.


Every designer adapts to and intervenes intuitively within the spontaneous and historically evolving semiological system of the built environment. The aim of the project of architectural semiology is to move from an intuitive participation within an evolving semiosis to an explicit design agenda that understands the design of a large scale architectural complex as an opportunity to design a new, coherent system of signification, a new (artificial) architectural language (without relying on the familiar codes found in the existing built environments). 
An important premise of the author’s re-foundation of architectural semiology is the necessity to limit the domain of the signified: Architecture does not symbolize everything, it does not tell us stories, it must only tell us what to expect within its bounds (or in its vicinity). We need to ask and answer the question: What does the user need to know about an urban or architectural environment and what can an urban or architectural space communicate about itself? The answer is three-fold: We expect a space to communicate its designated function, then who this space belongs to, and finally what we might expect to find beyond our current field of vision. The three dimensions to which we must limit the domain of the signified of any architectural language can thus be defined as ‘function type’, ‘social type’ and ‘location type’. This restriction is necessary and empowering. The failure to delimit the domain of the signified was one of the reasons why the earlier postmodernist semiology could not succeed.
The next preliminary clarification concerns the minimal unit of any meaningful architectural sign or communication. In verbal language it is the sentence that constitutes the minimal unit of communication. In any prospective architectural language only a spatially defined territory can function as such a complete sign or minimal unit of meaning. Architectural elements or motifs can only count as incomplete sign radicals that by themselves communicate nothing, but might contribute to the demarcation and characterization of a territory or place. The crossing of a demarcation or threshold implies the entering of a different place and different (potential) social situation. The spatial distinction implies a social distinction. Only a territory is a full communication, i.e. something that calls for being either accepted or rejected.
Each territory is a communication. It communicates an invitation to participate in the framed social situation. To enter the territory implies an acceptance of its spatial communication and the act of entering thus communicates one’s willingness to participate in the respective interaction scenario. Everybody who enters is expected to adopt the behavioural rules implied. (Thats the point of all signification: the coordination of behaviours facilitating cooperation.)The precise characterization of the situation depends upon the orchestration of the various semiological registers that come together in the articulated territory: its position in the overall matrix of territories, its spatial shape, its tectonic and material articulation etc. The articulate territory might thus be designed according to a ‘grammar’ as a well-formed combination of sign radicals. The build-up of a spatio-visual grammar affords a momentous combinatorial enhancement of architecture’s versatility of expression. A small vocabulary might afford a vast number of different communications.2

My re-foundation of architectural semiology is thus based on three premises or axioms:

  1. the domain of the signified is limited to function type, social type, location type
  2. the territory is the minimal unit of signification/communication
  3. architectural semiology must exploit the combinatorial power of grammar

Altough these three axioms are important innovations that make the semiological project in architecture viable, the most important innovation of architectural semiology’s refoundation as ‘agent-based parametric semiology’ is the introduction of crowd modelling as crucial device to represent the meanings of the designed architectural communications within the design model.This thus leads to a fourth axiom:

  1. the signified is integrated into the semiological design model via agent based life process modelling

This methodological innovation delivers a potent operationalisation of the semiological project.


Operationalizaion via Agent-Based Life-Process Modelling

The functional heuristics of parametricism conceives of the functions of spaces in terms of dynamic patterns of social communication, i.e. as parametrically variable, dynamic event scenarios rather than in terms of static schedules of accommodation that list functional stereotypes. It has now become possible  to model the thus conceived functional layer of the city and thus incorporate it into an iterative design process. This is made possible by computational crowd simulation techniques via agent based models. Such models reproduce and predict collective patterns of movement, occupation and interaction as emerging from individual, rule-based actions.

The social-functional layer of architecture is  - according to the appropriate delimitation of the domain of the signified – at the same time its semantic layer. Both can now be worked on via agent-based crowd modelling.  It is of great importance that architectural semiology can hook its project onto a new design simulation tool that is bound to become a pervasive medium to test and anticipate architecture’s social functionality. The augmentation of the semiological project by means of agent-based crowd modelling enables us to test and ascertain the enhancement of the project’s social functionality, i.e. the gains in operational efficiency delivered by the semiologically augmented design should become manifest via the crowd simulation. This ambitious agenda will in turn leave its innovative imprint on the very premises and tools of crowd simulation. There are three key innovations that are on the horizon:

  1. the generalisation of crowd modelling from circulation flow simulations to a generalized life process modelling
  2. the shift from physically conceived agents and crowds to comunicatively conceived agents and crowds with the crucial augmentation of sign- or frame-dependent behaviours
  3. the differentiation of agents according to different social roles and social valencies

Frame dependency is a crucial aspect of the generalisation of crowd modelling. Only in circulation scenarios (and especially in evacuation scenarios that reduce the problem to physical bottle necks) can the simulation abstract from the encoded social meanings that otherwise always structure and modulate behaviour. As soon as we move beyond these exceptional scenarios to the simulation of interaction scenarios  - e.g. a gallery opening event -  we must indeed augment our agents with a semiological capacity delivering social sensitivity, i.e. agent behaviours are regulated by an assumed or designed system of signification. The modulation of the agent’s behavioural rules is made dependent on the configurational and morphological features of the environment designed in accordance with a semiological code. Agents must thus be implemented with a whole stack of different behavioural scripts, while the crossing of spatial thresholds triggers behavioral script switches or modulations. This indeed initiates a crucial innovation within the field of crowd modelling3. Only on the basis of such frame-dependency can we move from the current evacuation- and traffic engineering crowds to architectural and semiological crowds as the basis of a generalized life process simulation.  The framing encvironments must accordingly be designed as systems of signification that encode the diversity of behavioural scripts.
The designed system of signification works if the programmed social agents consistently respond to the relevantly coded positional and morphological clues so that the expected behaviours can in turn be read off the articulated environmental configuration. What is important to appreciate here is that the global event pattern – e.g. the ‘successful mingling pattern at the gallery opening -  must be constituted from the bottom up by autonomous individual agents who act on the basis of their frame-dependent behavioural scripts. This operates according to the dialectic of simple individual/local rules and (potentially complex) emergent global/collective patterns.


7 Parametric Semiology – Re-Formation, Y.Samun, D.Ding, A.Tippa, S.Ravichandran, AADRL 2012,
Tutor: Patrik Schumacher
The project demonstrates how architectural configurations order social interaction scenarios.
Agent based life process modelling allows designers to keep track of the nuanced meanings of new semiological systems of signification without falling back on familiar motifs.


8 Parametric Semiology – Re-Formation, Y.Samun, D.Ding, A.Tippa, S.Ravichandran, AADRL 2012
Tutor: Patrik Schumacher
Agent based life process modelling allows designers to speculate about the social meaning of unusual architectural forms. The lecture theatre morphs gradually into a lounging area.


The meaning of architecture, the prospective life processes it frames and sustains, is modelled and assessed within the design process, thus becoming a direct object of creative speculation and cumulative design elaboration. This allows for the elaboration and successive refinement of the design with respect to its ultimate criteria of success, in the relevant terms of the life and communication processes to be facilitated: footfall, dwell time, encounter frequency, encounter diversity, quality of interaction scenarios etc.
Here is a new key working methodology that focusses in on architecture’s core competency. We should thus expect that the generalized life process modelling envisioned here will be compelling to both architects and clients, and soon become architecture’s new best practice standard. A drawing or model that does not include crowds or agents can no longer count as architectural drawing or model. The presence of crowds/agents within the model thus becomes the demarcation criterion that identifies and distinguishes architecture and design from the engineering disciplines.
Further, we posit the hypothesis that the augmentation of the organisational project with the semiological project should lead to a decisive augmentation of architecture’s capacity to deliver an enhanced social functionality. A semiologically cohered, information-rich environment gives every user more intuitively retrievable information and awareness. Further, the rule-based parametric design establishes chains of dependency (correlations) that deliver legible inference potentials4 from what is seen to what is not yet seen, in all three dimensions of the domain of the signified: function type, social type and location type. We can no longer assume the users’ familiarity with specific localities. Instead we need to rely more and more on a general language of space, within each large project (e.g. university campus) or indeed from project to project. A start could be made with a large project, e.g. Google Campus, which should be designed as a richly differentiated system of signification and tested by agent simulations that can start to demonstrate that the users’ utilization  of the enhanced information-richness of the designed environment leads to a life process of superior productivity according to relevant measures and criteria of success like space utilization, navigation efficiency, smooth flow of activities, encounter frequency, encounter relevancy, interaction density, interaction variety, interaction duration, and interaction relevancy with a hypothesized comparative enhancement in terms of the overall desired outcome: work satisfaction, learning and productivity.




1 See: ‘Meaning in Architecture’, edited by Charles Jencks and George Baird, 1970. 

2 For a more detailed account see: The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Volume 2, A New Agenda for Architecture, John Wiley & Sons, 2012, Section: 6.10 The Semiological Project and the General Project of Architectural Order

3 The author currently collaborates with the Smart Space Group, Buro Happold’s dedicated crowd modelling group, in the attempt to implement the idea of frame-dependent semiological crowds. This innovation is a necessary consequence of generalising crowd simulations beyond the simulation of circulation to encompass all human activities and modes of interaction in their dependency on designated spaces and spatial contexts.

4 If A determines B then B indicates A.

back to WRITINGS