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Interview: Patrik Schumacher,
Questions presented by Feng Xu,
Published in: WA (World Architecture), Parametric Design issue, Beijing 2009
Modernism is based on standardization and repetition while Parametricism produces continuous variation. Modernism and Parametricism differ with respect to the basic elements or “primitives” that underlie the design: Modernism, like classicism, works with simple geometric figures like rectangles, squares, triangles, and circles. These figures are both rigid and hermetic, incapable of adaptation. In contrast, the primitives of Parametricism are inherently malleable and adaptive: blobs, nurb-surfaces and parametric components. The best way to clarify the essential characteristics of Parametricism is to define it in terms of its heuristic principles. This definition clarifies the difference between Modernism and Parametricism. I distinguish negative heuristic principles (taboos) from positive heuristic principles (dogmas).
• Negative heuristics (taboos): avoid rigid geometric primitives such as squares, triangles and circles; avoid simple repetition of elements, avoid juxtaposition of unrelated elements or systems.
• Positive heuristics (dogmas): consider all forms to be parametrically malleable; differentiate gradually (at varying rates), inflect and correlate systematically.
The key point is that Parametricism demands that any element or subsystem that enters the evolving composition is engaging in intensive, adaptive relations with what is there already. Nothing remains pure. Everything is responsive. The density of visible internal and external relations is a key criterion of a successful Parametricist composition.
The raison d’etre for these differences lies in the transformation of advanced societies from societies of fordist mass production to post-fordist network societies.
2.As both teacher and professional architect, how do you see Parametricism in research and practise? There’s a ZHA Computational Design Research Group, how does ZHA combine research and practice in a real project?
It has become evident that the next wave of innovations and refinements can only be achieved via scripted parametric systems. That is, by specifically programming design tools to deal with a number of design parameters to create a design that is sensitive to formal, functional and environmental parameters. To pursue this we formed a dedicated research group called CODE (Computational Design). This group is a genuine research group rather than a specialist service group. Our initial design research started with general scripts for surface tessellations, and for populating modulated surfaces with differentiated component arrays. The ambition is to enhance the overall sense of organic integration through intricate correlations that favour deviation amplification that make the different conditions conspicuous rather than aiming for inconspicuous compensation of different conditions. For instance, when generative components populate a surface with a subtle curvature modulation the lawful component correlation should accentuate and amplify the initial differentiation. This might include the deliberate setting of accentuating thresholds or singularities. Thus a far richer articulation can be achieved and thus more orienting visual information can be made available.
CODE is doing research independent of specific projects - sourcing computational ideas from the scientific literature - and develops scripts that are then distributed and applied to various design projects. The feedback from the design application then poses new problems for further research.
3.There’s always a “rationalizing” process to solve the complex geometry problems in most of avant-garde architecture offices. Do you think it’s inevitably being part of the parametric design processes? Or is there any way to think the design parametrically from the very beginning?
Both ways of working are possible. At the current relatively early stage of parametric design it is more fertile to start sketching in maya or rhino – including mel-script, rhino-script and grasshopper – to explore the radical design ambitions of Parametricism. This way of working requires a later remodeling/rationalization in more precise parametric design systems - like Digital Projects - that are better capable to take fabrication constraints into account. However, I am convinced that with the maturation of the style, as we further clarify our preferential design repertoire, the more immediate establishment of precise, pre-constrained parametric set ups will become the preferred way of working for many.
4.The advantages of the parametric design are quite apparent, but what’s the limitation of Parametricism currently, and what’s the future?
The formal possibilities to establish continuous differentiation via scripted correlations are without inherent limit: in principle any parameter of any contextual object, or of any object within the composition, might drive any parameter of any other element or system within the composition, in any way imaginable. In this respect, beyond the receding limitations of the given computational capacity, our imagination remains the prime limitation.
However, concerning the full-blown real-world implementation of the far-reaching ambitions of Parametricism, we have to distinguish two specific limitations:
On the one hand we need to move from the formal exploration of the possibilities of scripted correlations to the careful consideration of its programmatic and performative application. I have no doubt that the principles of Parametricism are appropriate and in fact the only viable path to high performance design within the contemporary world. However, this general intuition needs to be made concrete and specific in each design project, from parametric urbanism to the design of convincing interiors. What is required here is that the formal imagination is stimulating a parallel social imagination and vice versa.
On the other hand there is the issue of the construction industry. A lot of progress has been made here with many small specialist companies mediating between design consultants and contractors, helping to translate the ambitions of Parametricism for final construction. I hope that the current crisis does not halt this progress.