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On Systemic Architecture
Patrik Schumacher in conversation with Claudia Pasquero and Marco Poletto
Published in: Marco Poletto & Claudia Pasquero, Systemic Architecture - Operating Manual for the Self Organizing City, Routledge, London 2012

CP  = Claudia Pasquero
MP = Marco Poletto
PS = Patrik Schumacher

CP: Ecological processes always include a component of unpredictability; do you think architecture can be conceived as an experimental practice able to engage unpredictability as a generative/creative force?

PS: Yes! The use of non-linear, unpredictable processes delivers creativity. One might even define creativity in terms of unpredictability. Radical innovation depends on radical newness as one of its conditions. The task is to go beyond familiar forms of spatial organization, to expand the search space for viable solutions. However, rather than just harnessing pure randomness (subject to intuitive selection and post-rationalization) one might try to simulate processes of self-organization that embody a certain performative rationality, via constraints or even via (relative) optimization.
What I said so far pertains to the design process in advance of construction. A masterplan, by contrast, often evolves in parallel to phased construction. A “master-plan” today is no longer a master-plan but only viable as
temporary hypothesis. As a parametric system it might offer a range of solution possibilities on a number of dimensions. The market can choose. If the ranges offered are insufficient, the plan must be recalibrated or even radically expanded to adapt to developments that were not anticipated. The plan can evolve without losing its identity only if key principles and criteria have been stated that guide the plan’s adaptation. It is in this way that I would like to interpret your concept of the self-organizing city made up of “virtual plots”. Beyond this we can still rely on the heuristics of Parametricism to guarantee ongoing continuity within an evolving plan that continues to adapt to radical shifts in market conditions and shifts in political impositions. Thus although not predictable in its detailed form, the urban future can be expected to follow a certain paradigm
Within the paradigm of Parametricism local unpredictability can be creatively harnessed or absorbed while maintaining a global frame of principles. We should not think that we could invent an urban system that could automatically, on its own account, react to and resolve such unpredictable contingencies. This can only be the result of the reflective application of a historically pertinent heuristics, i.e. via creative work within a historically pertinent style or design research programme.

MP: The foundation of cities was often a response to opportunities found in the landscape and in the local ecological systems; do you think the notion of the contemporary metropolis should be re-evaluated in systemic terms by including all the relevant global systems that are codefining its actual state?

PS: You talk about the contemporary metropolis as eco-social landscape. That’s pertinent. However, the architect has certainly no control over all systems that co-define the actual state
of the contemporary metropolis. He cannot even evaluate these systems, far less re-evaluate them. Within functionally differentiated society all societal subsystems – the economy, the political system, the mass media, engineering/science, architecture etc. – evaluate and regulate themselves according to their own unique criteria of success. These systems coevolve. They observe and irritate each other, as demands and constraints, and then adapt to each other. They depend on each other and must serve each other without being able to control each other. I think you point to this when you define urban space as “the product of processes of co-evolution of multiple agents behaving as a coherent assemblage”. Architecture has the universal, exclusive competency and responsibility for the adaptive innovation of the built environment as ordering frame and
interface for social interactions of all kinds: economic, political, recreational, etc. The engineered infrastructures, traffic, land values, investment opportunities and other economic parameters are so many constraints and/or demands upon architecture’s adaptive, organizational and articulatory repertoire and intelligence. In this sense architecture must take account of all systems that co-define the actual state of the contemporary metropolis,
but it cannot re-evaluate or re-define these. That’s not within architecture’s competency.

MP: Do you think ecologic problem solving can define a contemporary architectural agenda?

PS: The ecological challenge is confronting all subsystems of global society, the economy, the political system, science/engineering and also architecture/design. So, ecological sustainability is on the agenda of architecture. Initially, the demand for environmental sustainability is just one more constraint that burdens architecture’s ability to deliver on its societal task: the framing of social interaction/communication.
However, Parametricism is able to take this constraint and turn it into an architectural opportunity by utilizing environmental parameters as occasions to differentiate envelopes accordingly, on the basis of sun exposure,
wind, rain, etc. Environmentally adaptive differentiation can become an orienting articulation. In this way an engineering constraint is transformed into an architectural pursuit.

CP: Simulating the city is the new mantra of urban design; is it an illusion or is it actually possible to simulate the behaviour of a city? What can we understand from urban behavioural simulations?
Can urban forecasting influence or even stimulate a new form of emergent, real-time urban design model?

PS: I think our capacity to develop sophisticated models that are able to take on and simulate more and more aspects and factors of the urban process is increasing by the day. However, there is indeed an inherent dilemma and limitation in all modelling and forecasting. The very fact that the model/forecast is available and communicated becomes a new, potentially important factor that immediately changes the situation. The forecast thus defeats itself as relevant actors adapt their expectations and behaviours in response to the forecast. But this defeats the forecast only as forecast. If we understand it as platform of constructing emergent collectives it can work. Then it’s not about prediction but about construction. One of our teams at DRL constructed such a scenario of real-time on-line participatory planning/developing/selling with regards to a residential community.You also talk about “ecologic feedback, participation and social self-organization”. You note that “urban self-organization requires the definition of an operational medium that generates responses out of urban stimuli”. Perhaps it is the new social networking media that can be harnessed here somehow.

MP: Should architecture reconsider its traditional Vitruvian canons to redefine its materiality in relationship to the flows of information, matter and energy crossing its boundaries?

PS: Architecture has already shifted its canons a number of times since Vitruvius. The last great shift was the shift from Historicism/Eclecticism to Modernism, and now we are finally moving beyond Modernism after 25 years of experimental explorations plus 10 years of cumulative design research under the auspices of the new paradigm of Parametricism. The flows of information, matter and energy are more complex and dynamic. What is more important though is the increasing density, complexity and intensity of social communication and interaction. This is what ultimately drives and justifies the new paradigm, whether this is always fully understood or not.

MP: Our society is obsessed with control; can architecture mature a critical role by deploying novel design techniques and computational sensibilities to challenge this contemporary obsession of our society?

PS: Yes, there seems to be an obsession with control. However, this does not lead to an increase in control. Rather I see this obsession as a rear-guard reaction to self-organizing societal dynamics which are impossible to control. As Luhmann has noted contemporary society is a world society with no control centre. It is a society of global, co-evolving subsystems.
The computational techniques of contemporary architecture – generative and genetic algorithms, agent based modelling, etc. – are congenial to a world that can no longer be controlled or predicted. This world invites
everybody to co-evolve within the evolution of society. Architecture joins this dynamic co-evolution.

CP: The style of Parametricism vs. the non-figurative architecture of Andrea Branzi, Cedric Price, John Frazer, etc. Are these two discourses, as it appears, mutually exclusive or should reconciliation between the stylistic and the machinic/systemic be an ambition for the future?

PS: Yes, I think that Parametricism will have to absorb the innovations proposed by the strand of the avant-garde you allude to. I would also count Bernard Tschumi and Rem Koolhaas in this group. They are all concerned with charting and advancing the programmatic/software side of the built environment. Formal and programmatic research needs to converge and be synthesized within a new, comprehensive paradigm. Parametricism as it currently presents itself empirically has not yet risen to this challenge. However, both my general theory of architecture’s autopoiesis and my special theory of Parametricism accommodate this requirement as my theory moves from the descriptive into the normative mode. My normative reconstruction of the concept of style and of Parametricism demands and formulates both a formal and a functional heuristics as definitory requirements of a mature style/Parametricism. So, what you call the machinic/systemic, as well as the programmatic/functional, as well as the formal/aesthetic is included in my enhanced concept of style. The
concept of style deserves to be reinstated on this comprehensive, ambitious level because it has a history of giving the defining stamp on an epoch. It’s not only about appearances, it’s much deeper than that. However, we should also be aware that the appearance of the built environment matters enormously. The built environment functions through its appearance, via its legibility and its capacity to frame and prime communication. The built environment is not just channelling bodies. It is orienting sentient, socialized beings who must comprehend and navigate ever more complex urban scenes.

CP: The more urbanized our society becomes, the more technologically mediated it will need to be; technology is the necessary instrument in developing a more effective and sustainable relationship with the biosphere. However a very small effort is devoted to the spatial and material integration of such innovations within the fabric of our cities and landscapes. Should architecture claim a new role in the evolution of this urban machine? Should architects participate in the development of new technologies by evolving their spatial, temporal and material framework?

PS: Yes, architects are in charge of the overall organization of the built environment, in as much as it is interfacing with social communication. What is underground or under the hood is engineering business. But as Piano and Rogers have demonstrated with their Centre Pompidou, architects might bring the technological systems into view and let them become part of the task of articulation. Tom Wiscombe has picked this idea up within the style Parametricism. I think this is a fascinating proposition. To reveal the technological systems and networks can play an orienting role that enhances the legibility of our built environment. If you want to find the big auditorium, just follow the biggest ductwork. The same attitude that allows architects to opportunize on the differentiated structural systems for the differentiated articulation of space can be applied to the mechanical systems as well as to the passive environmental systems. Close collaboration with engineers allows architects to harness the articulatory potential of material technical systems. That’s what has always been called tectonics. This could also be scaled up into an urban tectonics. In this way the city fabrics you envision to include a lot of environmental technology can become an architectural project.

MP: Machines have been always part of the history of architecture; however recently the “machinic” in architecture has acquired a new meaning, expanding the mechanical significance it has acquired during the industrial
revolution. What relevance do you think the notion of the machine can acquire in redefining architecture and its relationship with technology?

PS: There are a number of avenues to consider here. “Machinic” sometimes means nothing other than avoiding preconceived ideas by harnessing blind material or computational processes. This is certainly a powerful heuristic. I also like your insistence on a new conception of materiality where the matter of architecture is freed from the essentialist conception that considers it as a formless entity regulated by transcendental geometric rules, and it becomes an active, generative force instead. I also would subscribe to your concept of the eco-Machine. Concerning machines proper: on the side of production/fabrication a new era is dawning that requires design research. Here the AADRL a.o. has taken the lead with the attempt to seed design projects with the invention of fabrication machines and processes that allow for the fabrication of complex geometries without
the aid of moulds. The idea here is to harness the self-computing, form-finding capacity of material systems. This paradigm was pioneered by Frei Otto and lies beyond the mechanical paradigm. It’s part of a new paradigm of material self-organization. The second great arena of post-mechanical technology within architecture is the investigation of electorically augmented, responsive environments that respond to both environmental variables as well as to social occupation and event parameters. Again the AADRL a.o. has moved into this arena with its three-year agenda Responsive Environments.

CP: Is the communication of architecture evolving from a figurative narrative to a more direct immersive and interactive language of smart materials and embedded electronics?

PS: I think the potential of embedded electronics (responsive environments) is exciting. However, it provides augmentation rather than substitution. That’s the way we treated it at the AADRL. Complex spatial configurations and complex geometries were the premise of our responsive environments. (This made the introduction of kinetic capabilities much more difficult.) The variable, transformative parts of the built environment will always be the smaller part. The fixed figurations remain decisive. What we were interested in was to achieve strong reconfigurations – Gestaltcatastrophes – with a minimal amount of kinetic investment. Thus we had to build in perceptual ambiguity/latency. I termed this ambition “parametric figuration”. For me this is one of the more exciting research agendas within the overarching paradigm of Parametricism.
It introduces observer parameters in addition to object parameters into the parametric set up.





Patrik Schumacher is partner at Zaha Hadid Architects and founding director at the AA Design Research Laboratory.
Schumacher studied philosophy 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. He joined Zaha Hadid in 1988.

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