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Architecture Schools as Design Research Laboratories
Patrik Schumacher, London, December 2010
Published in: Zaha Hadid & Patrik Schumacher (Editors), Total Fluidity, Studio Zaha Hadid 2000-2010 (University of Applied Arts, Vienna)
Springer Wien/New York 2011


The University of Applied Arts in Vienna is of one those rare schools where teaching gives rise to original design research in the form of a systematic, theory-led exploration of new architectural possibilities. In the absence of dedicated research institutes it is certain schools, as well as certain professional firms, that have taken up the task of experimental design research and innovation. Together they form the avant-garde segment of the discipline responsible for the discipline’s permanent innovation. Design research within a professional practice is limited in a serious way. It must construct its research agenda on the basis of chance commissions. Academic design research can be more systematic. The creative work of the Zaha Hadid Vienna master class testifies to this.
In the absence of explicitly dedicated research organizations architecture schools offer the closest approximation to a coherently structured research effort. Thus some schools become laboratories in distinct but equally important ways, performing two different tasks.
1. One task is to scan society to find architectural problems and define briefs, even if no client has yet articulated them. This updates the agenda of architecture and thus helps architecture to anticipate challenges rather than waiting to be prompted to so by a client. The anticipation of challenges and the considered elaboration of sustainable responses are important to avoid a crisis of competency with myopic, ad-hoc reactions.
2. A second task is the proliferation of new formal repertoires in conjunction with the exploration of the new design media and modeling techniques. Such research leads to the expansion of the general solution space available to any architectural design effort. Initially such research should be independent of any stringent brief or strict criteria of instrumentalization. The task is to chart potentials that might inspire the search for problems on the basis of discovered «solutions».
This latter reversal of the usual means-to-ends logic is impossible within mainstream professional practice – and highly constrained within avant-garde practice. The freedom to post-rationalize is greatest where no specific problem is posed from the outside – the only requirement being that a form–function relationship is established at the end. This is only possible within academia. The function of this academic laboratory research is thus not primarily to criticize professional practice and to directly lead the mainstream, but to irritate and inspire avant-garde practice and thus, indirectly, mainstream professional practice. The idea that academia itself could establish models of best practice is utterly misguided. This needs to be remembered in the calibration of the project’s realism.
Innovation always emerges between the two tasks listed above: the investigation of a domain of problems and the expansion of the domain of potential solutions. Within the discipline of architecture this polarity of innovation has often been an occasion for a productive division of labour between the analysis of new societal/programmatic demands on the one side and the proliferation of new spatial repertoires on the other side. The independent elaboration of the two domains makes sense as a division of labour allowing for specialization. However, this divergence of orientation has led to two equally one-sided, opposing ideologies: the insistence on the priority of program as opposed to the insistence on the priority of form. This opposition poses the question of synthesis. Significant architectural innovations must involve both dimensions. The synthesis of new programs with new forms requires the oscillation between the two domains and is itself an act of creative intelligence. There are no one-to-one correspondences between “problems” and “solutions”. Solutions can go in search of problems as well as problems in search of solutions.
It is the goal of the Hadid master class to establish design research agendas that allow the «solutions» that were evolving within an ongoing formal proliferation effort to find appropriately circumscribed programmatic problematic to demonstrate their performative potential. The master class sets a new research agenda every year - each framing the formal research within a broad programmatic frame. Agendas have included new mixed use high-rise typologies, parametric urbanism for new large-scale city extensions, public interiors. Within those broad programmatic frames the projects initially pursued a formal strategy. Some of the agendas were formulated without any programmatic given, e.g., the perception of space and orientation in complex urban scenes, or form-finding on the basis of environmental parameters. In all projects the specific programmatic articulation emerged later, driven by the potential of the evolving formal strategy rather than by a preconceived brief. This kind of form-to-program approach is only possible within the academic context. It means that each project has sufficient freedom to allow the formal logic to flourish. The overarching programmatic agenda acts as a guiding horizon.

Formal strategies are given the opportunity to specify programmatic particulars that suit them in their attempt to discover convincing form-function alignments. The endgame of design research remains the establishment of new form-function relations.
Our method involves a consistent form-to-program heuristics, i.e., form-selects-function instead of function-selects-form. Project development thus extensively relies on post-rationalization, and programmatic adjustment to the initial briefs. But this procedural reversal is not a deficiency. Within contexts strive for a high level of innovation, such reversals of the normal course of ends-means rationality is acknowledged as a powerful form of rationality. However, less-stricter (premature) demands for precise purposes are certainly not intended to be a carte blanche. While our methodology and concept of rationality is in many important ways quite different from the linear and determinist conceptions of the early functionalists, functional requirements are only expelled at the very beginning of the design work. The projects oscillate between play and analysis throughout and aim at elaborating new form-function relations. “Function” is here understood as capacity or affordance that opens itself up for an evolutionary formation of new purposes rather than fulfilling a fully predetermined purpose.
While the master class works collectively on loosely set agendas with the focus on formal principles and computational processes, the students’ final diploma projects are thesis projects that start with a specific, individually selected design task, for instance, the brief of a recent design competition. Here, in the final project, the student has to demonstrate his/her maturity by addressing a task that is much more like the tasks professional architects face. Now the student has to demonstrate that 5 years of design research have led up to a versatile formal repertoire and analytical intelligence capable of (innovatively and convincingly) addressing and solving real-world design tasks.

The prevalent institutions and communication patterns of society have undergone momentous changes during the last 30 years. Social communication has become dynamic, differentiated and intensified. The static organizing principles of Fordist mass society – separation, specialization, and mass repetition – have been replaced by the dynamic principles of self-organization of an emerging post-Fordist network society: variation, flexible specialization, and networking. Accordingly, modernist urbanism (zoning) and modernist architecture (serial monotony) have experienced a fatal crisis. The inherent limitations of the linear models of expansion that characterized Fordism became apparent both in terms of the ecological, the socio-economic, as well as the urban crises of the 1970s. The emerging network society implies that the intensity and complexity of social interaction has increased exponentially. Even while the use of the internet and mobile devices has increased, the demand for face-to-face communication – mediated by architectural and urban spaces –has increased as well.[1] Post-Fordism requires new, more variegated, complex, and densely integrated patterns of spatial ordering that are inherently multivalent and adaptive. Architecture has finally found the pertinent theoretical inspiration to answer this challenge in complexity theory analyzing and simulating self-regulating systems ranging from simple, homeostatic feedback mechanisms via organisms to evolving eco-systems. A second, related source of conceptual inspiration comes from the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari. On the basis of this a new approach was developed to meet the societal challenges of our time. In retrospect Postmodernism (1980s) and Deconstructivism (1990s) might be understood as first tentative steps in this direction. They have since been superseded – their partial insights and discoveries having been preserved and elaborated – by a new powerful paradigm and style that promises to guide a new long wave of design research and innovation: Parametricism. The author first enunciated “parametricism” at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale, arguing that an important new style has been maturing within the avant-garde segment of architecture during the past 10 years, and that this style deserves recognition and explicit endorsement. In retrospect all the work done in the Hadid master class can be described in terms of parametricism.[2] By now the style encompasses a large part of the world’s architectural avant-garde. There is no other movement of similar vitality and coherency. Parametricism is gathering momentum to become the first new global, unified style that can and must replace Modernism as a credible epochal style. Parametricism confronts both the remaining vestiges of Modernism’s monotony and the cacophony of the urban chaos that has sprung up in the wake of Modernism’s demise, with a complex, variegated order inspired by the self-organizing processes of nature.
The premise of Parametricism is that all urban and architectural elements must be parametrically malleable. Instead of assembling rigid and hermetic geometric figures – like all previous architectural styles – Parametricism brings malleable components into a dynamical play of mutual responsiveness as well as contextual adaptation. Key design processes are variation and correlation. Computationally, any property – positional, geometric, material – of any architectural element can be associated with – made the “cause” or “effect” of – any other property of any other element of the design. The designer invents and formulates correlations or rules akin to the laws of nature. Thus everything is potentially made to network and resonate with everything else. This should result in an overall intensification of relations that gives the urban field a performative density, informational richness, and cognitive coherence that makes for good legibility, easy navigation and thus quick, effective participation in a complex social arena where everybody’s ability to scan an ever-increasing simultaneity of events and to move through a rapid successions of communicative encounters constitutes the essential, contemporary form of the cultural advancement.
Recently the Hadid master class has started taking on the ecological agenda. That the ecological challenge is among the defining moments of our epoch has been evident for a long time. Its impact on contemporary architecture and urbanism is second only to the challenge posed by the dynamic and complexity of post-Fordist Network Society. The same design concepts, techniques and tools of Parametricism that allow contemporary architects to ramp up the communicative complexity of the built environment are also congenial to the agenda of optimizing architectural forms with respect to ecological performance criteria.[3]  Morphological output variables can be programmed to respond to environmental input parameters. For instance, a data set like a sun exposure map that maps the radiation-intensities a façade is exposed to during a given time period can serve as data input for the adaptive modulation of a sun-shading system. As the system of shading elements wraps around the façade the spacing, shape and orientation of the individual elements gradually transform and adapt to the specific exposure conditions of their respective location on the façade. The result is a gradient, continuously changing façade pattern that optimizes sun protection relative to light intake for each point on the façade. At the same time, this adaptive modulation gives the building an organic aesthetic that also makes the orientation of the building in the environment legible and thus facilitates the comprehension and navigation of the urban environment. The differentiated articulation of the façade contains and transmits information about its position rather than remaining indifferent and blind. The same principle of conspicuous, adaptive variation and correlation is applied to the activity and event parameters of the urban life process. The disorientating, generic neutrality and monotony of Modernism gives way to the ecologically adaptive eloquence of Parametricism.

Patrik Schumacher, London, December 2010



[1] That is why the solution to the ecological crisis cannot involve the shutting down of the urban porosity and urban flow.

[2]For a full statement concerning the meaning and merits of Parametricism see: Patrik Schumacher, Parametricism: A new global style for architecture and urban design, in Neil Leach (ed), AD Digital Cities, Architectural Design, vol. 79, No 4, July/August 2009.

[3]The same theoretical resources and computational techniques that allow meteorologists to reconstruct and predict the global weather system and scientists to speculate about the earth’s evolving climate are available to contemporary urbanists and architects in their effort to meet the challenges posed by the ongoing post-Fordist socio-economic restructuring. The task is to project the growth and transformation of cities as a rule-based, multi-variable morphogenetic process. Ecological parameters are but one subset of the potentially relevant parameter sets.

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