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Experimentation within a Long Wave of Innovation
Patrik Schumacher, London 2008
Published in: Out There – Architecture Beyond Building, Volume 3: Experimental Architecture,
Catalog of the 11th Architecture Biennale, Venice 2008

Architecture is often associated with longevity, primordial arche-types, eternal values etc. This is the view from outside of the discipline. From within originality is the fundamental criterion of architectural self-evaluation. Originality is a conditio sine qua non of being recognized as important architect.  How can the values of longevity and originality be negotiated?
The positive valuation of originality does not signify the celebration of personality – it signifies the necessity of permanent adaptive innovation. Architecture is the societal function system that takes responsibility for the continuous, progressive-adaptive development of the built environment of society. Experimentation must not be arbitrary experimentalism. It makes sense only if it is framed within a style, i.e. within a paradigm that gives guidance to a collective design research effort.

Looking back over 30 years of work the most striking feature is the strong sense of continuity – bearing witness to Mies’ famous dictum that you cannot invent a new architecture every Monday morning. However, architecture must be reinvented each time the discipline is confronted either with a radical transformation of society or with a radical shift in its means of production. The last 30 years brought us both: societal challenges and technological opportunities.

Zaha Hadid Architects has grown into a collective force of 300 architects. Several hundred projects  - authored over a period of 30 years -  partake in a unified effort: the quest for architecture to take on the dynamic complexity of contemporary society. At the same time there is a cumulative build up of virtuosity, resolution and refinement. This is a function of the consistency of agenda, ambition and values that allow us to build achievement upon achievement.

This continuity of the work also reflects our participation in a collective discourse. This discourse encompasses avant-garde practices as well as various key schools like the AA in London, Vienna Applied Arts, Columbia, Yale etc.
There is an unmistakable new style manifest within avant-garde architecture today. Its most striking characteristic is its complex and dynamic curve-linearity. Beyond this obvious surface feature one can identify a series of new concepts and methods that are so different from the repertoire of both traditional and modern architecture that one might speak of the emergence of a new paradigm for architecture. The shared concepts, formal repertoires, tectonic logics and computational techniques, that characterize this work are engendering the formation of a new hegemonic style: Parametricism.1
Parametricism is the great new style after modernism. Postmodernism and Deconstructivism have been transitional episodes that ushered in this new, long wave of research and innovation.
Modernism was founded on the concept of space. Parametricism differentiates fields. Fields are full, as if filled with a fluid medium. From compositions of parts we proceed to dynamic fields of particles2. This sensibility has been both radicalized and refined over the course of 30 years of work. New modes of representation played a crucial part in making this possible.

Avant-garde styles might be interpreted and evaluated in analogy to new scientific paradigms, sponsoring a new conceptual framework, and formulating new aims and methods. Styles are design research programmes3.
Innovation in architecture proceeds via the progression of styles. This implies the alternation between periods of cumulative advancement within a style and revolutionary periods of transition between styles. A similar rhythm structures scientific progress. This rhythm has been captured in Thomas Kuhn’s famous distinction of two very different patterns of scientific communication: “Normal science”proceeding within a dominant scientific paradigm and “revolutionary science” engendering paradigm shift4. Accordingly, we can distinguish cumulative design research from revolutionary design research. During cumulative periods the avant-garde designers are eager to solve problem after problem posed by the shared style/research programme. Revolutionary periods ensue when the dominant research programme looses its fertility. The search for alternative routes forward produces schisms and isms and soon philosophers trump the designers, until a new vital paradigm gains ground and ascends to hegemony engendering a new style setting the agenda for a new long wave of work.
Styles represent cycles of innovation, gathering the design research efforts into a collective endeavor. Avant-garde design projects are best understood as speculative hypotheses, formulated within a certain style. The style serves as a cohering research programme that allows for the construction of a systematic series of design experiments. Stable self-identity is here a necessary precondition of directed evolution.
With respect to the critical evaluation of avant-garde work, it is important to emphasize that the status of the avant-garde project as original, speculative hypothesis is its very raison d’être. Improvements that can compete with the state of the art bench-mark of performance cannot be expected from those who set out to push the boundaries. Avant-garde architecture produces manifestos: paradigmatic expositions of a new style’s unique potential, not buildings that are balanced to function in all respects.
This initial task-inadequacy of avant-garde styles is mirrored in the initial inadequacy of new paradigms in science. New scientific research programmes often start with idealized, knowingly unrealistic assumptions, without yet expecting empirical corroboration. The theoretical edifice that can eventually stand full empirical testing will be constructed via a series of interim stages that can only cover partial aspects of reality, remaining enveloped by preliminary assumptions. The research programme is thus a rough roadmap for a future that is based on radically new principles.5
To hold on to the new principles  - the hard core -  in the face of difficulties is crucial6 for the chance of eventual success. This tenacity  - abundantly evident in the spectrum of our projects -  might at times appear as dogmatic obstinacy. Each style has its hard core of principles and a characteristic way of tackling design problems. There can be neither verification, nor final refutation merely on the basis of its built results.7
The programme/style consists of methodological rules: some tell us what paths of research to avoid (negative heuristics), and others what paths to pursue (positive heuristics). The defining heuristics of parametricism are fully reflected in the taboos and dogmas of our design culture:
Negative heuristics: avoid familiar typologies, avoid platonic/hermetic objects, avoid clear-cut zones/territories, avoid repetition, avoid straight lines, avoid right angles, avoid corners, …
Positive heuristics: hyberdize, morph, deterritorialize, deform, iterate, use splines, nurbs, generative components, script rather than model, …

The most profound new scientific research programmes are preoccupied with working through their own internal logic and implications rather than focusing first on empirical verification. In the context of developing architectural research programmes/styles this prevalence of mathematical over empirical problems transposes into the prevalence of formal over functional problems, especially in the early productive surge of a new style. This phenomenon of a formalist emphasis can be observed in all emergent styles of the 20th Century: Modernism, Post-Modernism, Deconstructivism, and Parametricism. In this context the charge of formalism that has been leveled against the Zaha Hadid Architects becomes a badge of honor.
Patrik Schumacher, London 2008


1 There is neither space nor need here to characterize the central features of this style.

2 We might think of liquids in motion, structured by radiating waves, laminal flows, and spiraling eddies.

3 It is important to distinguish between research programmes in the literal sense of institutional research plans from the meta-scientific conception of research programmes that has been introduced into the philosophy of science, i.e. whole new research traditions that are directed by a new fundamental theoretical framework. It is this latter concept that is utilized here for the reinterpretation of the concept of style.eImre Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, Cambridge 1978

4 Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, University of Chicago Press, 1962, Second enlarged edition, 1970

5 The individual design hypothesis, together with the style it is embedded within, is being empirically tested through its detailed elaboration, construction and social use much later.

6 The history of science testifies to this.

7 The final reckoning takes place later, in the arena of the mainstream adoption which only indirectly feeds back into the central, discursive arena of the discipline.


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