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Parametric Patterns
Patrik Schumacher, London 2009
Published in: AD Architectural Design – Patterns of Architecture, Vol 79, No 6, November/December 2009,
guest editor: Mark Garcia, general editor: Helen Castle


ZHA_Randers Museum Competition
Architecture as pattern of continuously transforming components.
Zaha Hadid Architects, Randers Art Museum Competition, London 2009

Patterns will be explored here in the narrow sense of designed patterns that spread across all sorts of surfaces, including architectural surfaces.1 Patterns have been covering architectural surfaces since times immemorial  -  in the same way as such patterns have been spread all over the domain of human artefacts. The human body was perhaps the first surface that received designed patterns. Architectural patterns thus have a broad and deep lineage. With such a widespread practice one should not expect a well-defined, unitary function. As practices evolve they acquire new functions and loose their prior functions, or new functions are superimposed upon older functions. Patterns might serve purposes of decorative enhancement, feature accentuation, camouflaging, totemic identification, semiotic differentiation, or any combination of those.

Papua facial ornamentation and Chinese Opera masks. Both the Papua facial treatments and the traditional Chinese opera masks
work with the accentuating enhancement of facial features. Both sets of enhancements serve as medium of distinction.
In the case of the Chinese opera masks there exists an elaborate system of typical characters.

There are two general terms, from traditional architectural theory, that cover the domain of practices referred to here: “ornament” and “decoration”. To oppose ornament/decoration to function would be a fallacy. In classical architectural theory decoration was the complimentary term of a fundamental distinction. Decoration was considered within an overall tripartite division of architecture’s teachings: Distribution, construction, and decoration, as the three fundamental tasks of architectural design. This division of architectural knowledge was established in French architectural theory by Augustin-Charles d’Aviler in his Cours d’architecture (1691 -93), a standard reference work during the whole of the 18th century. The triad of distribution, construction, and decoration is also found in Blondel’s opus magnum Cours d’architecture (1771-77). Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1802) refers to it in his (unfinished) architectural treatise. According to Schinkel “the purposefulness of any building can be considered from three principle perspectives: purposefulness of spatial distribution or of the plan, purposefulness of construction or the joining of materials appropriate to the plan, purposefulness of ornament or decoration.”2 Schinkel’s conception, once more, shows that the later (modern) opposition between decoration and function is false.
In place of the classic triad  -  distribution, construction, decoration -  I am proposing the distinction between organization and articulation as the two central dimensions of the task of architectural design. The aspect of construction has been largely outsourced to the disciplines of building engineering. Organisation is concerned with the spatialization of the social order via objective distances/proximities and via physical divisions/connections between domains. Articulation is concerned with the subjective comprehension of the spatialized social order. Articulation cannot be dispensed with. It involves the central core competency of architecture. Articulation contains the differentia specifica that demarcates architecture/design from all engineering disciplines. Articulation reckons with the fact that buildings function only via the user’s active “reading” of the buildings’ spatial organization. What things look like matters! At a certain level of social complexity adequate spatial organizations can only become effective if their ordering operations can enlist the user’s capacity to actively “read” the urban/architectural environment. Only on the basis of articulate organizations will users be enabled to navigate, and collectively utilize the built environment to its fullest potential. The reference problem for the task of articulation is orientation. Articulation should facilitate orientation by making the spatial organization, and the social order within it, legible. Orientation also implies the steering of expectations about the social scenarios that might unfold within a space and about the conduct that is appropriate within the space.
The distinction of articulation versus organization cannot be aligned with the distinction of form versus function. The two distinctions intersect each other. Both organization and articulation have functional as well as formal aspects. Both organisational diagrammes and strategies of articulationneed to be selected on the basis of their social functionality, and both are dependent upon the availability of a pertinent formal repertoire.
Architectural patterns are a potent device for architectural articulation. For instance in classical architecture ornamental patterns (mouldings) often emphasise the building’s ordering symmetry axes. Typical ornamental motifs are also used to distinguish typical functions. Traditionally the concepts of character and expression were deployed as mediating terms that explain how decoration is to be related to the building’s purpose. The ideas of character and expression, taken from the theatre, were first introduced into architectural theory by Germain Boffrand, in his Livre d’architecture from 1745: “Architecture … its component parts are so to speak brought to life by the different characters that it conveys to us. Through its composition a building expresses, as if in the theatre, that the scene is pastoral or tragic; that this is a temple or a palace, a public building destined for a particular purpose or a private house. By their planning, their structure and their decoration, all such buildings must proclaim their purpose to the beholder. If they fail to do so, they offend against expression and are not what they ought to be.”3  It is noteworthy here that all three terms of the classical tripartite division – planning (distribution), structure (construction), decoration – are together involved in expressing the character of the building. Boffrand goes on: “If you are setting out to build a music room, or a salon in which to receive company, it must be cheerful in its planning, in its lighting, and in its manner of decoration. If you want a mausoleum, the building must be suited to its use, and the architecture and decoration must be serious and sad; for Nature makes us susceptible to all these impressions, and a unified impulse never fails to touch our feelings.”4 The unified impulse that touches our feelings might be best translated into our contemporary language as the atmosphere of a space. Jacques-Francois Blondel referred to “imperceptible nuances” in connection with the concepts of character and expression: “It is by the assistance of these imperceptible nuances that we are able to make a real distinction in the design of two buildings of the same genre but which nevertheless should announce themselves differently: preferring in one a style sublime, noble and elevated; in the other a character naïve, simple and true. Distinct particular expressions … that need to be felt … contribute more than one ordinarily imagines in assigning to each building the character that is proper to it.”5 Ornamental patterns that convey atmospheric values are received semi-consciously. In fact, architectural articulation in general operates largely via patterns that are perceived in passing, in a mode of distraction6, rather than focused attention. The information processing that is relevant for the quick, intuitive orientation of users is largely unconscious. In this way articulated spaces achieve the behavioral priming appropriate for the respective social setting.

The concept of decoration does not carry the full intent and emphasis of what the agenda of articulation involves today. Today architectural projects are often confronted with unique briefs and institutional arrangements that require solutions of unprecedented novelty. Reliance on a handful of given character-types can no longer exhaust the task of articulation. Articulatory strategies have to be devised that order the visual field and guide the eye to recognize abstract configurations and the focal moments or key distinctions within them. But the traditional concept of decoration did go beyond its current connotations of superficial and arbitrary beautification. As demonstrated above, decoration, in classical architectural theory, was linked to the twin concepts of character and expression. Decoration was seen as a necessary ingredient of architecture, as it was a necessary ingredient of all artefacts. A building without decoration was unfinished, unable to enter the social world, just as it impossible to join society naked, or without sufficient behavioural decorum. Decoration, expressing the appropriate character of a space, was linked to propriety within a sophisticated system of social distinctions. Today spaces seem more neutral, encounters are less ritualized and decorum seems less conspicuous. But have these registers of social coding disappeared altogether?

The final endgame of decorative exuberance and refinement coincides
with the programmatic announcement that form follows function:
Louis Sullivan, Carson Pirie Scott Building, Chicago 1899, (Courtesy Tim Samuelson)

The decorative patterning of surfaces was still taken for granted all the way through the 19th century, until  - suddenly -  modernism opted for the clean, white wall – in the footsteps of the clean, white shirt. The first examples of unadorned, naked architecture were causing public scandals, most notoriously Adolph Loos’ Haus am Michaeler Platz in Vienna. But Adolph Loos soon won the argument. The re-evaluation of values was extreme: Ornament signified backwardness. According to Loos the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament. Loos’s famous polemic compared ornamentation with the tattoos of criminals. His reasoning goes as follows: “Primitive men had to differentiate themselves by various colours; modern man needs his clothes as a mask. His individuality is so strong that it can no longer be expressed in terms of items of clothing.”7 Loos’ allusion to modern individuality is pertinent here. However, the demise of traditional ornament does not imply the demise of articulation. The accelerating and intensifying fashion system bears witness against Loos’ account. The end of ornamentation is not synonymous with the end of design’s expressive function, neither does it spell the end of the phenomenon of style as Loos presumed, nor the final demise of surface patterning.
The modern denigration of overt ornament cannot be accounted for by the mere fact that industrialisation overtook handicraft production. It was only after nearly 100 years of industrialisation, after the social revolutions that followed in the aftermath of the First World War that the pure “Sachlichkeit” of white modernism succeeded. To be sure, this radical rejection of what had been taken for granted for thousands of years was a heroic act of iconoclasm fully consistent with the revolution and with the general emancipation of creative potentials that the modern movement delivered. The traditional orders and regimes of ornamentation stood in the way of unfettered design research. They had to go. Thus, if we now call for a vigorous return to the deployment of patterns in architecture and design, this does not imply that unadorned, modernist architecture was a mistake. Equally, the fact that modernism as a whole went into crisis, does not imply that it was a mistake - modernism delivered a huge material step forward  -  but it implies that it would be a mistake to continue the modernist paradigm and to prolong its strictures against ornament/decoration. On the back of modernism’s achievements a new, more complex and versatile societal formation has evolved, which poses new challenges for the task of architectural organisation and articulation. Today’s white minimalism is indeed a historical mistake.
The modernist strictures against ornament/decoration were first challenged in Postmodernism. Although historical motifs were brought back in a mode of playful eclecticism there was no engagement with systematic articulatory patterning. Notwithstanding minimalisms historical fallacy, it was from within minimalism that the return to patterns, and the attendant new embrace of ornament, was initiated during the 1990s. The seminal project in this respect was Herzog & de Meuron’s 1993 Ricola Storage Building in Mulhouse-Brunstatt, France. The introduction of different surface effects, like different material textures, had already happened within the later phases of modernism. Now artificial, quasi-graphic techniques of surface treatment and surface patterning were deployed. These moves signal the enrichment of the formal repertoire of architecture, without falling back on traditional regimes of adornment and their meanings. Instead, new atmospheres with new associations and nuances could be projected and elaborated. However, from the vantage point of today minimalist pattern deployment had obvious limitations: the underlying spatial organization of minimalist compositions was exceedingly simple and the surfaces that received the patterning were simple, flat planes. Patterns were repetitive and were applied like wall paper.

In the meantime, the avant-garde that had followed on from deconstructivism under the heading of “folding in architecture”8 was at first focusing on (complex) geometry only: the initially faceted surfaces soon evolved into smooth nurb surfaces. Towards the end of the 1990s new possibilities of patterning were discovered by applying the technique of texture mapping onto the warped nurb surfaces. Built projects achieved these effects by projecting video images onto curvelinear surfaces, or by embedding digital display systems within the surfaces. In 1998 AD published a whole programmatic issue dedicated to these new possibilities: Hypersurface Architecture9. Architectural patterning had arrived within the avant-garde movement that we now  -  both in retrospect and in anticipation of more exciting explorations to come -  promote as the style of parametricism10. The technique of texture mapping has since been replaced by scripting and mapping only survives as an initial short-cut to test or illustrate effects that are then to be implemented by scripts. Early examples of nurb surface articulations that were not just arbitrary mappings or projections emerged with the introduction of CNC milling. Bernard Cache and Greg Lynn both experimented with effects like heightened contour-lines and tool-paths, producing a contemporary translation of the idea of “faktura”. At the same time the question how nurb surfaces could be tessellated became an issue. The necessity of tessellation became an opportunity for articulation. The difficulty to device both feasible and elegant tessellations for double-curved surfaces was the occasion that brought parametric modeling and scripting to the fore. The problem of fitting panels onto a complex surface has also been driving the development of Bentley’s Generative Components with its central idea of populating a complex host surface with computationally self-adapting elements. The classical GC set up involves the design of an inherently variable component that is defined across a range of surface parameters. To insure perfect fit each instantiation is parametrically adapted to its unique position on the host-surface. The result might be called a parametric pattern. However, in this classical set up the curvature variation of the surface provides the data-set that drives the parametric adaptation of the component with the aim of keeping the pattern as even and homogenous as possible. The aim is to maintain component identity by compensating for the underlying surface differentiation.

Amplification vs. Compensation of Differentiation, Foster, The Great Court, British Museum, London.
Csemy/Kfrincic/Laska, Interiority Project -  Masterclass Zaha Hadid, tutored by Guest Professors Patrik Schumacher & Ali Rahim
University of Applied Arts, Vienna 2009

Parametricism transforms this technique of parametric pattern design into a new and powerful register of articulation. The crucial move that inaugurates parametricist patterning is the move from adaptive compensation to the amplification of differences. The underlying surface variability is utilized as a data-set that can drive a much more radical pattern differentiation. The underlying surface differentiation is thus amplified and made much more conspicuous. A strong emphasis on conspicuous differentiation is one of the hallmarks of parametricism. Differentiation might also be introduced willfully, by “painting” the surface with any pattern or image that then becomes the data-set to drive component differentiation. In the current phase of technique exploration and formal experimentation this arbitrary play with differentiation might be tolerated. Ultimately however, this arbitrary injection of differentiation should be rejected. It is “ornamental” in a rather questionable sense. The differentiation of the surface should serve as medium of articulation. It can do this only if it is correlated with the geometric or functional aspects of the space the surface constructs. A strong emphasis on correlation is a second hallmark of parametricism. The articulation by means of correlative surface differentiation is free to take on any relevant data-set of the overall spatial construct within which the respective surface is situated. Significant correlates might include the underlying primary structure. The surface articulation might correspond to structural flow-lines or stress distribution.

The patterning participates within a cascade of sub-system correlation: The façade pattern articulation correlates with the structural
system which in turn correlates with both exterior shape and the shape dependent interior voiding. The result is a deep relationality
that serves orientation. Huang Yung-Chieh, Hang Jin & Wen-Kai Li, Parametric Urbanism, AADRL, tutored by Patrik Schumacher and Christos Passas


Correlates might further include the apertures that are set into the surface. Patterns might accentuate apertures. A surface might be made to correlate with the furnishings within a space. The expected pattern of occupation might also be utilized as data-set driving a corresponding surface differentiation. A sophisticated set up should be able to cater for multiple data-sets simultaneously. Another powerful opportunity is the adaptive differentiation of facades with respect to environmental parameters that strongly vary with the orientation of the surface. Here functional and formal variation go hand in hand. The gradual variation of sunlight intensity on a curved surface translates here into a gradient transformation of the component formation. Within parametricism such functional exigencies are heightened into an artistic concept.

Zaha Hadid Architects, Civil Courts – Madrid, 2007, Accentuating Environmentally Adaptive Façade


It is important to note that parametricism   -  as a style -  constitutes an artistic agenda that embodies a will to form. Appearances matter, but they matter as part of performance. The ethos of this artistic agenda is an ethos of articulation that stands against a mere formalism. Appearances are revealing an otherwise invisible performativity, or accentuate and make conspicuous what might otherwise get lost in an unarticulated visual chaos.

This head, hand-carved by a Maori craftsman, depicts traditional facial tattoos. Zaha Hadid Architects – Azerbaijan Cultural Centre, Baku: The utilization
of seaming as accentuating device is comparable to the feature accentuating Maori facial tattoos.


Zaha Hadid Architects – Competition entry – Paris Philharmonie, close-ups of model

Variable light/shadow effects. Parametric Figuration Project, Elias Hermann & Milly Niku, Masterclass Zaha Hadid,
tutored by Patrik Schumacher, University of Applied Arts, Vienna 2007

Parametric Figuration Project. Accentuating deployment of façade relief. It is important to note that - in all instances presented
above and below -  the pattern correlates and enhances the three-dimensional shape rather than constituting an arbitrary application.
The relief exploits light/shadow effects. Peter Schamberger (left) Klasing/Krcha/Froeschl/Hofmann (right), Parametric Figuration Project,
Masterclass Zaha Hadid, tutored by Patrik Schumacher, University of Applied Arts, Vienna 2007

Zaha Hadid Architects – Louis Vuitton hand bag, Zaha Hadid Architects - Luis Vuitton store, Macau

The following specific registers of surface articulation might be distinguished: relief, seaming, material, texture, colour, reflectivity, translucency. Potentially all of these registers should be not only utilized but choreographed via correlating scripts. Surface relief is of particular interest because it makes the surface sensitive to both changing light conditions and changing view angles.

A quasi-animated surface is achieved by combining surface relief, scripted, deep colouration and reflectivity.
Christoph Zimmel & Nicola Beck, Interiority Project -  Masterclass Zaha Hadid, tutored by Guest Professors
Patrik Schumacher & Ali Rahim, University of Applied Arts, Vienna 2009

In order to take these conditions into account parametric design must extend its attention beyond the consideration of object parameters to include ambient parameters and observer parameters. The systematic work with variable ambient and observer parameters enhances the sense of animation that can be achieved with respect to the articulation of architectural surfaces. The manipulation of lighting conditions, and shifts in the observer position might trigger dramatic shifts in the appearance  and understanding of a surface or space. Patterns might be set up in such a way that key parameters become Gestalt-sensitive so that a small variation in a critical parameter – object, ambient or observer parameter – triggers a surprising Gestalt-switch. This design agenda has been referred to as parametric figuration11. For architectural surface patterns to participate in this agenda a certain degree of surface depth is required. Parametric figuration is perhaps the most ambitious form of architectural articulation. To become really effective it would have to go beyond merely visual effects. The Gestalt-switches would have to be correlated with the changing events scenarios that would benefit from a shift in understanding and orientation. At that stage we would be able to talk about dynamic, high performance ornaments.

Interior as pattern of continuously transforming components.
Dimitri Tsiakas & Philipp Hornung, Interiority Project – Masterclass Zaha Hadid,
tutored by Guest Professors Patrik Schumacher & Ali Rahim, University of Applied Arts, Vienna 2009


1 Patterns in the more profound application of patterns of spatial organisation that structure urban and architectural space have been treated in my article “Parametricism: A New Global Style for Architecture and Urban Design”, in: AD Digital Cities
2 Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Das Architektonische Lehrbuch, Deutscher Kunstverlag, Munich/Berlin, 2001, p.22, the text from 1805 remained an unpublished fragment during Schinkel’s time.

3 Germain Boffrand, Book of Architecture Containing the General Principles of the Art, Ashgate Publishing, Aldershot 2003, pp.21-22, French original Livre d’architecture, 1745, excerpt in:Harry Francis Malgrave (Ed.), Architectural Theory, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford 2006, p.193

4 Germain Boffrand, Book of Architecture Containing the General Principles of the Art, Ashgate Publishing, Aldershot 2003, pp.21-22, French original Livre d’architecture, 1745, excerpt in:Harry Francis Malgrave (Ed.), Architectural Theory, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford 2006, p.193

5 Jacques-Francois Blondel, Course of Architecture, 1771, excerpt in:Harry Francis Malgrave (Ed.), Architectural Theory, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford 2006, p.198, Blondel goes on to utilze the distinction of male versus female as an analogical character distinction applicable to buildings. The male character entails massiveness, firmniss, grandeur, should be sparse in the detail of its ornament, show simplicity in the general composition and feature projecting bodies that throw large shadows.

6 Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in: Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Schocken Books, New York 1969

7 Adolf Loos, Sämtliche Schriften 1897-1930, Herold Druck- und Verlagsgesellschaft, Wien 1962

8 AD Folding in Architecture, 1993

9 AD Hypersurface Architecture, 1998

10 Patrik Schumacher, Parametricism: A New Global Style for Architecture and Urban Design, in: AD Digital Cities

11 The author has been experimenting with the agenda of parametric figuration in various teaching arenas: Innsbruck University, AADRL, Yale University, and Vienna University of Applied Arts.

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