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Fluid Totality – The dream of inhabiting a nature-like built environment
Patrik Schumacher, London 2015
Published in: Fluid Totality – Studio Zaha Hadid 2000-2015, Institute of Architecture, University of Applied Arts Vienna, Birkhaeuser Verlag, Basel 2015

The subtle variation in the title from Total Fluidity (2000-2010) to Fluid Totality (2010-2015) implies not only a continuity in our basic stylistic commitments but a further escalation in our ambitious agenda of impacting the totality of the global built environment and the world of artefacts. The notion of a fluid totality can be understood as both the characterization of an existing societal condition and as an architectural concept/ambition to make this condition perceptually palpable within the global built environment and to further intensify and facilitate its complex flourishing.
That the concept of totality has been out of fashion is due to (a perhaps temporarily prudent) methodological retreat in the face of the collapse of communism as part and parcel of a much wider crisis of modernisation theories who’s generalisations turned out to be invalid. The reintroduction of this term here is certainly not manifesting a return to the megalomaniacal pretence of total control. (Central planning is dead, both within the economy as a whole as well as in the domain of urban development.) Rather, the concept denotes the interconnectedness of all social phenomena which is now more intense and far-reaching than ever. It is indeed this intensified interconnectedness with its unpredictable, non-linear feed-back loops and self-amplifications that became the unsurmountable complexity barrier that frustrated all modern total control agendas, and led to the crisis and demise of modern urban planning. And it is precisely this heightened interconnectedness that more than ever calls forth the necessity to theorize and engage the social world and word civilisation as a totality. This totality is a fluid, bottom-up, evolving totality that has no control centre that we could call on, petition, or be commissioned by. Nor can such a control centre be conceived or designed. Instead we are thrown into the ongoing co-evolution of semi-autonomous subsystems. The built environment - with architecture as its driving discourse and professional innovation machine – is just one of these co-evolving subsystems. The political system is also just one of many communication systems and cannot provide an overarching control centre, not even a world government could do this. Nobody and no institution can control all the simultaneous communications that coalesce and interconnect in various parallel but co-evolving systems of communications like the sciences, mass media, art, and architecture. This condition gives us all an enormous freedom and – if we like - responsibility. For us architects/designers it is the subsystem of the built environment and the world of artefacts  - a sub-totality within the totality of total social reproduction -  that is ours to shape or mutate and inject into the overall societal selection process and evolution. And what goes for the totality of world civilisation, applies equally to the world’s built environments: they form an interconnected, inter-aware, inter-competitive, and interactive (sub)totality that can be given form through our evolving discourse and design practice. The more the discipline is able to converge on a unified paradigm and approach to its task of shaping the global build environment as a fluid totality, the more chance there is for contemporary architecture to make an impact. This is the raison d'être of promoting parametricism as prospective unified epochal style of our time.


Two related analogies

The architectural project of fluid totality is the grand project of a nature-like, rule-based, differentiated built environment that promises to allow for the subliminal animal-like navigation of the endless forms of a multi-author urban ecology. The ambition of this project is perhaps best described by the two analogies that are alluded to in the phrases ‘nature-like environment’ and ‘animal-like navigation’:

  1. The analogy of unplanned multi-author parametric urbanism with a multi-feature and multi-species ecology: The analogy can be illustrated by the following image: Consider the way the various features and creatures within a natural environment coalesce to create a complex variegated order on the basis of rules  - in turn based on the complex interaction of multiple laws of nature – that establish systematic correlations between the various subsystems and respective differentiations. The topography correlates with the path of the river, the river together with topography and sun orientation differentiate the flora and the differentiation of the flora – together with river and topography - shape the differentiation and distribution of the fauna, which in turn impacts back on the fauna and thus often also on rivers and even topography. While thus causality is complex and not easy to unravel, correlations and thus inference potentials are being established in all directions, and give information independently of causal analysis. The key here is the build-up of correlations (associations, dependencies). Each new species of plant or animal proliferates according to its own rules of adaptation and survival. For instance, the moss grows differentially on the terraced rock surface in certain shaded slopes, i.e. depending on surface pattern, sun orientation, self-shading rock formation etc. A population of a certain species of birds then might settle on these slopes accordingly etc. In the same way parametricism envisions the build-up of a densely layered urban environment via differentiated, rule-based architectural interventions, that are designed via scripts that lay out and form the new architectural interventions, just like a new species settles into a natural environment. This process delivers rich diversity, yet fully correlated, if designed according to the heuristics of parametricism. Each new architect/author can be uniquely creative in inventing and designing the rules/scripts of his/her project and participate in its own unique way in the build-up of a variegated, information-rich urban order.
  2. The analogy of the urbanite’s orientation within a parametric urban environment with animal cognition/navigation in a natural environment: Given that the various subsystems and features in a natural environment are correlated through their co-dependent laws of growth, survival and proliferation they potentially become indexes or representations of each other, depending on the cognitive capacities of the animal species in question. Whatever comes into the ambit of the animal’s senses could give the animal clues and orientation about all those systems and features that are not yet directly seen or sensed or which are indeed invisible. The same applies to the human inhabitants of natural environments. They can read the signs and home in on the vital resources that are otherwise hidden within the natural landscape, like underground water, prey, fruits, potential dangers etc. This kind of orientation could also be expected in an artificial urban environment that was designed in the rule-based methodology of parametricism. Here too, each feature and subsystem (topography, roads, fabric, fenestration, interior accommodation etc.) would become an index, clue or representation of some (or all) of the other subsystems and features (in contrast our current, nearly random urbanisation process that produces only disorienting visual chaos, without much visually articulate information and inference potential). Here too the reflection on the cognitive capacities of the inhabiting species  - here human urbanites -  is vital to assess the effective orientation potential of the designed environment. (This leads to the project of parametric phenomenology.) However, the human case involves a further complexity and variable, namely the variable of the specific (and evolving) visual language various urban populations might have been socialized into. (This leads to the project of parametric semiology.)

Bottom-up Urban Order

These analogies help us to conceive and work on the idea of a legible, complex, variegated urban/architectural order that facilitates orientation and thus the coordination of social interaction (on the new level of complexity and versatility required today). The methodology of rule based design and associative logics should allow users to retrieve the information embedded in the scripted, rule-generated environment, and to make inferences from the visible to the not yet visible offerings, as well as to the invisible qualities of the environment. My dream is a built environment that is so rigorously differentiated and correlated like most natural environments, where, as described above, e.g. the river’s path can be inferred from the topography etc. Such environments are information-rich,  afford cognitive information processing, and thus allow its various inhabitants to navigate and home in on their respective vital resources. The most primitive example is perhaps the bacteria’s navigation along a nutrition gradient. The most complex and sophisticated version should be the human browsing of information rich urban environments with the deep relationality we can expect from a hegemonic and thus consistently applied parametricism. Humans should be able to navigate cities and home in on the vital, life enhancing social resources on offer, with the same assuredness that characterizes animal navigation, with the same kind of subliminal cognitive processing, i.e. in a ‘state of distraction’ rather than via an effortful deciphering of signage or maps.
A corollary of this design methodology would be the emergence of intricately beautiful city-scapes and unique urban identities instead of the current ugly and menacing visual chaos and disorienting, identity-less white noise sameness that is the result of the current “garbage spill urbanisation”. 

The desired urban identities, each with its own a legible urban order, do not require any central planning but could emerge through a bottom-up, multi-author, market driven process of rule-based urban self-organisation, whereby the differences in initial urban, topographic, climatic, social conditions would lead to unique, path-dependent results and self-amplifying identities. The pre-condition for this process must be a rigorous hegemony of parametricism within the discipline of architecture/urbanism, so that rule-based design and associative logics are the operative principles that underlie all urban evolution rather than the current unconstrained, un-self-regulated excess of options and moves. The idea of a methodological hegemony or a pervasive global best practice ethos is nothing scary. In fact parametricism implies the enhancement of both order and freedom in comparison with all prior styles. The universe of possibilities and the new creative opportunities it opens up are exhilarating. The apt analogy here is once more with the “endless forms of nature”. Here too richness evolves on the basis of rigorous laws of nature. The multi-author accumulation of an intricately layered and correlated urban order can be viewed once more in analogy to the evolution of a complex ecosystem. Each architect’s new urban intervention can be compared with the evolution of a new species that finds its own way and scripts according to which it registers, adapts and resonates with the given urban ecology. As suggested above, think of a certain species of moss growing over a rock formation and accentuating the rock’s shallower slopes. What is excluded is a random, wilful, arbitrary imposition that disrupts the city’s evolving intricate texture, like garbage thrown into nature. What is instead demanded is that the new contribution resonates and thus communicates with its context by scripting its solution as a function of what it encounters. However, the way a new intervention transcodes and accentuates what is there  - by amplification, inversion, camouflage or whatever else  – is a matter of the architect-author’s creative invention. Let a thousand flowers bloom, but prevent the current garbage spill pollution that is choking us everywhere. This is the meaning of parametricism’s positive and negative heuristics. More and more architects are keen to participate and subscribe to parametricism’s life-enhancing rigours and to run with its creative opportunities.

The Semiological Project

The concept of fluid totality conceives of the built environment as a correlated multi-system urban ecology where everything resonates with everything else. This becomes possible through the epochal paradigm and style of parametricism as a collective commitment to rule-based methodologies and to the ethos of making, maintaining and intensifying connections and resonances. This paradigm and design research program has recently been augmented and further specified by my/our project of parametric semiology. The last 5 years of the Hadid Master-class have been steeped in this agenda of the re-foundation and design pursuit of architectural semiology under the general auspices of parametricism. The above talk of information richness, representations, indexes, inferences, clues, signs etc. in connection with orientation, navigation and coordination already points very much to the conception of a new architectural semiology and to the idea and project that the built environment could and should be designed as a coherent system of signification.
Architecture and urbanism order social processes via their semantic associations as much as 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. As a communicative frame, a designed space is itself a communication as premise for all communications that take place within its territory. Accordingly my thesis is that all design is a form of communication design. The built environment, with its complex matrix of territorial distinctions, is a giant, navigable, information-rich interface of communication. This goes beyond navigation and way finding, and involves the definition and recognition of specific social situations and the eliciting and coordination of appropriate moods and modes of behaviour. The information that is embedded in the built environment and might be usefully retrieved by users trying to navigate, orient and act in this environment is of three kinds: location type (where am i here relative to other locations, what should I accordingly expect beyond my immediate field on vision, and what in which direction?); function type (what kind of space is this here, what kind of interaction is to be expected here, and how am I to behave accordingly?); social type (what social status groups or types of people are admitted, welcome, to be expected here?). The semiological project involves the careful design of a spatial-visual language and can thus enhance the communicative capacity of the designed environment far beyond what can be achieved by the mere reading of inadvertent signs or indexes. The semiological project over-determines all layers of the positional and morphological parametric differentiation according to the requirements of its system of signification understood as a network of distinctions, contrast and similitudes. It utilizes structural differentiation, environmental differentiation, as well as tectonic differentiations due to fabrication logics as media of semiological articulation. The build-up of a spatio-visual grammar affords a momentous combinatorial enhancement of a architecture’s versatility of expression. A small vocabulary might afford a vast number of different communications.
Each territory is a communication. It gives potential social actors information about the communicative interactions to be expected within its bounds. It communicates an invitation to participate in the framed social situation. Designed spaces are spatial communications that frame and order further communications. They place the participants into specific constellations that are pertinent with respect to the anticipated communication situations. Like any communication, a spatial communication can be accepted or rejected, i.e. – the space can be entered or exited. Entry implies accepting the communication as the premise for all further communication taking place within its boundaries. Crossing a territorial threshold makes a difference in terms of behavioural dispositions. Entry implies submission to the specific rules of conduct that the type of social situation inscribed within the territory prescribes. In this way, the designed-built environment orders social processes.  This spells the unique, societal function of architecture: to order and frame social interaction.

Life process modelling

The aimed for ordering capacity of a designed information-rich, semiologically charged environment can be operationalized, worked on and tested via a generalized, agent based crowd modelling. The life processes that we expect to flourish in our built environments can conceptually and methodologically be treated in the same way we have been treating all the various subsystem of our layered and correlated built environment, i.e. as one more rule-based, correlated layer or subsystem. However, this layer must be recognized as the crucial layer that should be understood as the destiny and purpose of all the other layers’ orchestration. This is the layer or subsystem we need to watch out for and finally try to shape and facilitate. (This is the layer we can only “design” indirectly, via the literal design of all the other layers.) This is the subsystem in the stack of correlated subsystems where the ultimate criteria of success of our whole design effort and enterprise are measured. So the discipline takes a very significant step when it can get a grip on the occupants’ interaction patterns and bring those into the parametric design model via agent simulations.
The use of agent-based crowd modelling can and must be expanded beyond issues of circulation to become a general life process modelling. Further, the agents’ behavioural scripts don’t respond only to the environment conceived in terms of objective, physical channels and barriers, but they are rather conceived to respond to communications embedded within a semiologically charged environment. Agents are thus defined in terms of multiple, variable behavioural rule sets or scripts that are selectively activated and modulated according to the designed spatial frame, i.e. according to the framed/designated social situation the agent enters. The key innovation here is thus the conception of situation-dependent agent behaviours. (This situation-dependence is implemented through frame-dependence, i.e. the definition of the situation is given via the architectural frame, designed according to the semiological system of signification. Without this architectural definition the agents’ interaction situation would remain indeterminate.) This is a necessary innovation posed by the attempt to push the simulation of crowd circulation to a generalized life process modelling that must take on the semiologically encoded situational differentiation of social space. At the same time this methodology of agent-based parametric semiology can be used to realistically speculate about new configurations, morphologies and systems of signification that can push the information-richness and the agents’ information potential, inter-awareness, and cooperation to new, unprecedented heights. The designer is able to represent and work on the meaning and final purpose of his design project within his design model, potentially monitoring and enhancing the relevant criteria of success that should ultimately guide his design efforts: the social functionality as expressed in criteria such as space utilisation, dwell times, relevant encounter frequencies, encounter diversity, social group formation, communicative depth etc., depending on the project’s specific program and social agenda. This methodology promises to allow architects to get a grip on and work through the complexity of contemporary social institutions with their variable event scenarios involving various and variously perceptive and socialized status groups in various proportions, each with their respective (frame-dependent) behavioural rules. These contemporary complexities lie well outside the reach of intuitive methods. What we are working towards is thus a new best practice methodology with an appropriate representation of functional parameters and with a congenial formal repertoire and form generating process. The thesis can thus be advanced that in the near future a drawing or model without crowds can no longer count as architectural model, because without parametric life process modelling architecture’s task can no longer be adequately addressed. Similarly, we will have to reject any architectural design process that does not take advantage of the computational resources (that allow us to generate rule-based, intricate architectural orders) as outmoded and substandard. We must grasp that it is of course the life processes that we expect to flourish in our built environments that spell our works’ final purpose. The fluid totality we dream of can finally become a real object of our design efforts.


Patrik Schumacher is partner at Zaha Hadid Architects and the founding director of the AA Design Research Lab. He has been teaching the Zaha Hadid Master-class with Zaha Hadid since its inception 15 years ago.  He joined Zaha Hadid in 1988 and has since been the co-author of many key projects, a.o. MAXXI – the National Italian Museum for Art and Architecture of the 21st century in Rome, Seoul’s Dong Daemon Design Centre, and the bid-winning design for Tokyo’s Olympic stadium for 2020. Patrik Schumacher is a member of the Akademie der Kuenste, Berlin.

Patrik Schumacher studied philosophy, mathematics, and architecture in Bonn, London and Stuttgart, where he received his Diploma in architecture in 1990. In 1999 he completed his PHD at the Institute for Cultural Science, Klagenfurt University.  In 1996 he founded the "Design Research Laboratory" with Brett Steele, at the Architectural Association in London, and continues to teach in the program. From 2004 to 2013 Patrik Schumacher was University Professor at the Institute for Experimental Architecture, Leopold-Franzens-University in Innsbruck. From 2000 to 2015 was also guest lecturer at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. In 2013 he was appointed as the first John Portman Chair in Architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.  In 2010 and 2012 he published the two Volumes of his theoretical opus magnum ‘The Autopoiesis of Architecture’. In 2002 Patrik Schumacher curated ‘Latent Utopias - Experiments within Contemporary Architecture’ and he is currently planning the exhibition ‘Parametricism – The New International Style’.
In his much debated article Parametricism  -  A New Global Style for Architecture and Urban Design (2009) Patrik Schumacher argued that the global convergence in recent avant-garde architecture justifies the enunciation of a new style: Parametricism. The style is rooted in digital design techniques and takes full advantage of the computational revolution that drives contemporary civilization. Its latest refinements are based on advanced parametric design systems and scripting techniques. This style is poised to succeed modernism as a new epochal style for the 21st century. It thus closes the transitional period of uncertainty that was engendered by the crisis of modernism and that was marked by a series of short lived episodes including Postmodernism, Deconstructivism, and Minimalism. Patrik Schumacher thus argues that Parametricism is architecture’s answer to the momentous technological and socio-economic transformation of world society brought about by the information age. His lectures and essays in architectural theory are available at

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