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In Defense of Parametricism
Patrik Schumacher, London 2015
Published by Machine Books in 2016, as part of the series: “Styles: In Defense of …”, edited by Austin Williams
Parametricism as Epochal Style for the 21st Century
Parametricism is architecture’s answer to the challenges and opportunities of the (post-fordist) information age, just as modernism was architecture’s answer to the (fordist) mechanical age. The challenges that post-fordist information society poses to architecture issue from the new diversity and intense interconnectedness of all social processes. Architecture has to find ways to spatially network divers, interlocking social processes in legible, high density agglomerations. The opportunities that the information age offers are the new computationally supported information processing, design, engineering and fabrication methodologies that can be brought to bear on architecture’s new challenges. Parametricism is the only truly original contemporary style (with an ongoing innovative thrust fuelled by innovations in computation) that applies these vital new opportunities to the new urban challenges of world civilization. Parametricism is therefore the only plausible contemporary candidate to become the global epochal style for the 21st century.
Parametricism is the contemporary style that is advancing its design agenda on the basis of parametric design techniques. It continues to evolve rapidly due to its ongoing culture of research and experimentation. This evolution is channelled by a set of overarching original principles. As conceptual definition of parametricism one might offer the following formula: Parametricism implies that all architectural elements and compositions are subject to modulation via variables. This implies a fundamental (ontological) shift within the basic, constituent elements of architecture. Instead of the classical and modern reliance on ideal, inherently rigid geometrical figures like straight lines, rectangles, cubes, cylinders, pyramids (roofs), and spheres (domes), the new primitives of parametricism are topo-logical rather than geo-metric, and thus inherently pliable: splines, nurbs, subdivs, particle-spring systems, agent based systems ect. These new ‘elements’ become the fundamentally new building blocks for dynamical compositions that can be made to resonate with contexts and with each other via scripts. (On the more sophisticated end of the spectrum we find multi-objective optimization with evolutionary algorithms.) In principle every property of every element or complex is subject to parametric variation and topological deformation. The key technique for handling this variability is the scripting of rules that differentiate arrays or systems of elements - often in relation to performance parameters or contextual parameters - and that establish correlations between the various differentiated arrays or subsystems.
Although the new style is to a large extent dependent upon these new design techniques, the style cannot be reduced to the mere introduction of new tools and techniques. A new style is a new paradigm. But is a specific type of new paradigm, namely a new paradigm for the design disciplines and thus it encompasses a new visuality (physiognomy, phenomenology) as well as a new methodology and conceptual framework. What characterizes the new style are new ambitions and values - both in terms of form (aesthetic values) and in terms of function (performance values) - that are to be pursued with the aid of the new tools and techniques. Parametricism pursues a new, complex spatial order via the principles of differentiation and correlation. The goal is to intensify the internal interdependencies within an architectural design as well as the external affiliations and continuities within complex, urban contexts. But why does this matter?
Parametricism and Progress
Many critics of parametric design and parametricism ask: What is the societal relevance of the complex geometries and intricate spatial compositions made possible by parametric design? Is this not an expensive, indulgent and self-serving narcissism on the part of designers that distracts from the social task of architecture? This question must be answered. In order to answer this question we need to clarify the societal function of architecture and urban design: the spatial ordering of social processes. The increasing density, diversity and interconnectedness of contemporary life processes requires complex spatial configurations that allow a diversity of event scenarios to unfold in close proximity and awareness of each other. The required complex spatial organizations can only function if the participants that need to come together in the various event scenarios can successfully orient and navigate the spaces they encounter. This requires architectural articulation. The general characteristics of parametricism like curvelinearity, gradients and correlative resonances are potentially more effective in the legible articulation of the desired multitude of relations between the networked spaces. Without curves, smooth transitions and gradients the complex urban scene quickly degenerates into visual chaos. The urban subsystems that might be correlated via rule-based associative scripts might include the differentiated urban massing, topography, vehicular circulation, and pedestrian circulation. The establishment of systematic dependencies via rule based design processes increases the information density of the built environment because every dependency chain can be traced back via inferences. The designer might choose and calibrate the adaptive correlations between the internally differentiated subsystems so that the different system do indeed become “representations” of each other in the sense that users navigating the urban environment can not only follow the gradients (vectors of transformation) in each of the subsystems, but can infer not yet visible and invisible systems that from what is visible, e.g. the silhouette of the urban massing might “represent” the underlying topography and then allow the street- and path-network to be inferred. Similarly, within a mixed-use complex the differentially articulated structural system might represent or indicate the program distribution. The result could be an intricately ordered and thus information-rich environment as permanent broadcast and powerful social ordering apparatus that facilitates the intricate process of social cooperation. My dream is a built environment that is so rigorously differentiated and correlated like a natural environment where e.g. the river’s path can be inferred from the topography, where the river together with topography and sun orientation differentiate the flora and where the fauna can be inferred from the flora and thus allows animals to navigate and home in on their vital resources via their cognitive information processing. The most primitive example is perhaps the bacteria’s path 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 the skilful and careful application of the principles of parametricism. We should be able to navigate cities and home in on the vital social resources distributed within it 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. The whole built environment must become a 360 degree interface of multi-modal communication, as the ability to navigate dense and complex urban environments has become a crucial aspect of today’s overall productivity.
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 enhancement of the communicative capacity of the built environment via rule-based parametric design thus goes to the heart of architecture’s societal function of ordering the network of social interaction scenarios that make up contemporary society.
However, admittedly the parametric design community is still flexing its muscles rather than going to work with a clear social purpose. In many young design studios and schools of architecture the playful exploration of new parametric tools results in designs that cannot yet stand up to the critical scrutiny of the sceptics that demand to see the societal relevance and social performance of design efforts. The strategic societal utilization of parametric design becomes an urgent agenda that must be explicitly posed and addressed now with the parametric design movement. Self-criticism on the basis of the explicit formulation of the key task is crucial: the ordering of the complexity of social life processes via complex, legible, information-rich spatial orders. The continued credibility of parametricism is at stake. However, we must also protect the need for continued playfulness in the exploration of new tools, techniques and repertoires. Innovation requires the oscillation between open ended exploration, determinate testing and rigorous attempts at successful practical application.
Parametricism against Pluralism
Parametricism is by now manifestly superior to all other styles that are still pandered and pursued. This implies that parametricism should sweep the market and put an end to a pluralism of styles (that resulted from modernism’s crisis and) that has been going on for far too long due to ideological inertia. Perhaps the most obvious argument for the superiority of parametricism is the fact that it is the only style that can take full advantage of the computational revolution that drives contemporary civilization. More specifically it is the only style congenial to recent advances in structural and environmental engineering capacities based on computational analytics and optimization techniques. All other styles are incapable of working with the efficiencies of the adaptive structural and tectonic differentiations that issue from the new engineering intelligence, i.e. they force its adherents to waste this opportunity and thus to waste resources.
More importantly, aside from being the only contemporary style that can efficiently utilize the new technologies of the information age, parametricism is the only contemporary style that can adequately address the new societal tasks posed to architecture by the new social dynamics engendered by the information age.
The plurality of styles must make way for a sweeping parametricism to allow architecture to finally make once more a vital, decisive, transformative impact on the built environment, the way modernism had done in the 20th century. My arguments about parametricism’s superiority and best practice potentials as well as my attendant hope and call for a further convergence of research and design efforts towards the establishment of a unified, hegemonic style that could become the mainstream epochal style of the 21st century have been decried as megalomania and authoritarian imposition threatening to stifle creativity. In contrast to this prejudice, parametricism’s is inherently open ended and has opened up a whole new huge, inexhaustible universe of possibilities for fresh creative explorations, while closing down only the worn out and comparatively miniscule realms of classicism and modernism as well as the already self-retired realms of POMO and DECON. I certainly neither can, nor wish to impose anything. I communicate in the hope of finding potential collaborators in a venture that can only take off as a collective process where best practice principles emerge from the bottom up and then (hopefully) constrain and direct a cumulative research and innovation process.
The pluralist a priori that all styles are equally valid is nothing but a comforting and false dogma. The fallacy of celebrating a pluralism of styles is an analogue of the fallacy of multiculturalism and a misconceived child of the same intellectual milieu, an intellectual milieu blunted by a PC politeness that prefers to gloss over realities with euphemisms rather than to confront them. The difficulty of analysing an increasingly complex world and the difficulty of consistently arguing about the merits and demerits of (irreconcilable) styles leads to the pretence that all styles are equally “valid”, a pathetic abdication of intellectual ambition and responsibility, pervasive among today’s ‘thinking people’. Pluralism makes only sense temporarily in periods of searching transition as competition between contestants on the way to find and establish a new superior style and best practice that deserves to become pervasive. This was the period of POMO and DECON after the bankruptcy modernism. Set permanent as an end and value in itself pluralism spells stagnation. Pluralists (like multi-culturalists) are too tolerant for too long in the sense of giving blanket intellectual cover to all manner of dysfunctional retro styles and intellectually bankrupt values. Tolerance towards backwardness helps nobody, not even the laggards; and this includes all those architectural tribes, architects and would be architects who lock themselves out of the advances of our new computationally augmented civilization due to prejudice, lack of insight, and effort, and not least due to the pervasive, lazy and paralyzing ideology of (multi-culti) pluralism that has outlived its temporary usefulness already for two decades and has thus become a fetter on our further progress.
Styles are not neutral with respect to societal progress, i.e. with respect to advancing productivity, prosperity and freedom. While the real productivity of the competing styles will be tested in terms of the comparative market success of architects (and ultimately of their clients), the prospective productivity of competing styles can be theoretically analysed. This possibility must be granted before we can even start debating the direction forward. I am giving hints towards this here and have been trying to do this in detail in my books.
Gearing up to make an impact
A permanent pluralism of styles spells architectural stagnation and urban disarticulation. The discipline’s discourse should aim at arriving at a result that can steer us forward in a coherent direction rather than allowing the myriad architectural interventions that make up the city to contravene each other’s agendas. The idea of a methodological hegemony or a pervasive global best practice ethos is nothing scary. In unleashes rather than stifles truly innovative and impactful creativity. Parametricism implies the enhancement of both order and freedom in comparison with all prior styles. The universe of possibilities and new creative opportunities it opens up are exhilarating. The apt analogy here is 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 in analogy to the evolution of a complex ecosystem. This has very little in common with marching in unison – this was modernism’s version of hegemony - but much more with an ecology of different co-evolving species and life-forms. 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. 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 an ecology of a thousand flowers bloom, but prevent the current pluralist garbage spill pollution that is choking us everywhere.
Karl Bötticher, The Principle of Hellenic and Germanic Ways of Building, German original from 1846: Das Prinzip der Hellenischen und Germanischen Bauweise hinsichtlich der ̈Ubertragung in die Bauweise unserer Tage.
Heinrich Hübsch, In What Style Should We Build?, German original from 1828: In welchem Style sollen wir bauen?
Eduard Metzger, ‘Beitrag zur Zeitfrage: In welchem Stil man bauen soll!’, in: Allgemeine Bauzeitung, Vol 10, 1845.
Gottfried Semper, ̈Uber Baustile (1869), extracts reprinted in: Gottfried Semper, Wissenschaft, Industrie und Kunst, Neue Bauhausbücher, Florian Kupferberg Verlag (Mainz/Berlin), 1966,
Gottfried Semper, Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts; or, Practical Aesthetics, Getty Research Institute (Los Angeles), 2004,
Schumacher, Patrik, The Autopoiesis of Architecture - Volume 1 - A New Framework for Architecture, John Wiley and Sons. 2010
Schumacher, Patrik, The Autopoiesis of Architecture - Volume 2 - A New Agenda for Architecture, John Wiley and Sons. 2012
Rudolf Wiegmann, Thoughts on the Development of a Contemporary National Architectural Style for the Present, German original from 1841: Gedanken über die Entwicklung eines ̈zeitgenossischen nazionalen Baustyls.
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