Introduction: Parametricism 2.0 - Gearing up to Impact the Global Built Environment
Published in: AD Parametricism 2.0 – Rethinking Architecture’s Agenda for the 21st Century
Editor: H. Castle, Guest-edited by Patrik Schumacher, AD Profile #240, March/April 2016
Since the author launched “parametricism”at the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale1 and published the eponymous article in AD2 the phrase has gained a wide and firmly established currency within architectural discourse. Its meaning is presupposed here and can be gleaned from the well written respective wikipedia entry. But what is the point and meaning of Parametricism 2.0?
Parametricism is internally evolving and externally embattled. Parametricism’s internal evolution needs to accelerate and address as well as confront its external critics. This issue of AD is trying to halt and reverse what the author perceives as the increasing marginalisation of parametricism. Evidence of this marginalisation is given by the fading influence of parametricism within schools of architecture. This turning away from parametricism is most conspicuous within the former hotbeds of the movement like the AA and Columbia University. Another indication is the general backlash against “icons” in architectural criticism and the recent proliferation of a frugal neo-rationalism. The anti icon polemic misunderstands that an architecture that is rigorously developed on the basis of radically new, innovative principles becomes conspicuous by default rather than by intention. Both the anti-icon camp and the neo-rationalist camp fail to understand that urban and architectural complexity are called for by the new societal complexity.
Within this increasingly hostile environment AD is not only parametricism’s most important communication platform but indeed its last high powered bastion where it maintains a strong (if not dominant) presence. For many years AD has been parametricism’s most crucial organ for theoretical debate and project exposition, with many dedicated issues every year. Two recent issues might be mentioned here as they are of particular pertinence to the new emphasis Parametricism 2.0 wants to promote within the movement: The emphasis on research-based best practice expertise that can deliver large, important buildings as demonstrated in AD 222 “Computation Works”3 and the new emphasis on social functionality as indicated in AD “Empathic Space: The Computation of Human-Centric Architecture”4. Both aspects are crucial for parametricism’s ambition to mature from an avant-garde and research focused movement to become the mainstream best practice and global style is deserves to become. If the current backlash against parametricism succeeds in halting its proliferation, preventing its transformative impact, then the discipline is failing in its raison d’etre to innovatively adapt and upgrade the built environment in response to the challenges and opportunities of contemporary civilisation. If retro-rationalism succeeds, then architecture ends up again where is was 80 years ago, without any contribution or impact whatsoever.
The embattled state of parametricism calls for a high stakes discourse with a heightened criticality in three dimensions:
This issue of AD is dedicated to task dimensions 2 and 3 while leaving the equally urgent polemical confrontation to better suited media. The reversal of parametricism’s marginalisation is an important task. In order to accomplish this parametricism has to be re-launched as parametricism 2.0. This implies the above mentioned self-critical re-direction which will be further elaborated below.
The Crisis of Parametricism and the Agenda of Parametricism 2.0
Parametricism is architecture’s answer to contemporary , computationally empowered civilization. Parametricism 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. So, once contemporary architects take those performance conditions seriously they are nearly inevitably led to parametricism and the geometric transcoding of parameter variations into differentiated geometries. This much pertains to parametricism’s obvious superiority in terms of the built environment’s technical functionality. What is perhaps less obvious but by no means less compelling is parametricism’s superiority with respect to the advancement of the built environment’s social functionality. Due to its versatile formal and spatio-organisational repertoire 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. Accordingly, parametricism is by now addressing all major urban building tasks, on all scales, including e.g. infrastructure projects like trainstations and airports.
However, these facts are only rarely appreciated. The functionality of parametricism – whether technical or social – is usually seen as suspect. Indeed the works of parametricism are not even presumed to aim at functionality, they are misunderstood as expressions of artistic or technophil exuberance, or as esoteric design process fetishism. This misunderstanding is unfortunate, but perhaps excusable, since on the one hand the functionality of many projects remains indeed suspect and on the other hand the discourse of parametric design movement has not placed enough emphasis on the discussion and explication of the practical advantages of parametricism, especially in the domain of social functionality. This is an aspect of the movement’s avant-garde character where artistic and technophil exuberance (as well as “esoteric” internal design process orientation) must play a part. But this aspect must recede now as the movement matures, goes mainstream and wants to be taken serious as contender for global best practice.
However, the 2008 economic crisis and subsequent great recession has slowed down parametricism’s expansion into the mainstream. Moreover, the misleading assessment of parametricism turned into outright hostility during the last few years of economic stagnation when the investment into spatial and formal complexity was regarded to be an indefensible self-indulgence in the face of general austerity. Parametricism - associated with the profligance of the boom years – experiences a crisis of legitimacy.
In order to survive and succeed Parametricism has to shift its focus from foregrounding formal principles and design processes to the foregrounding of functional principles and societal purposes (while taking the new formal options and design processes of parametricism for granted). Design research continues but becomes more strategic, applied and performance oriented. This is a necessary aspect of growing up and becoming serious about making an impact in the world. In short: Parametricism has to be re-launched as Parametricism 2.0.
Towards a Constructive Division of Labour within Parametricism 2.0
The issue gathers some of the key protagonists of parametricism and presents important, computationally informed design research in architecture, urbanism and product design, as well as closely related experimental research in structural engineering, fabrication and the application of robotics within the domain of the built environment. As Philippe Block puts it in his contribution to this issue: “Parametricism needs real structural and engineering innovations to be different from a mere image-driven architecture, and to realize the full potential of complex curved geometry.” His design research makes the efficiencies of shell structures available to the full versatility of “free-form” shapes. It thus considerably expands the problem solving capacity and organisational solution space of this super efficient structural system. The result is – in Philippe Block’s words – that “expressive and structurally efficient are no longer oxymoronic, but can be synonymous”.
All the work presented shows that parametricism has matured and can now take on serious, relevant, high performance work. The days of adolescent muscle flexing are over, the real work has begun, both in terms of serious research and in terms of realized projects that excel in technical as well as social functionality.
The issue begins with reflections on the historical precursors and the recent history of parametricism as backdrop for its current achievements and as a guide map for its tasks and future trajectory.
John Frazer’s “Parametric Computation: History and Future” describes the history of computation within architecture/design. The contribution emphasizes the farsighted vision of the pioneers from the 60s and 70s which was lost with the commercial uptake of CAD as mechanical drafting in the 80s and was then rediscovered with generative systems in the late 90s. Parametricism is now espousing the values that inspired and motivated the pioneers.
Mario Carpo’s short history of parametricism - entitled “Parametric Notations: the birth of the non-standard and the digital” - makes the point that it was the exuberant formalists like Gehry, Eisenman, Hadid and Prix that were the first to make computation impactful within architecture in the early 90s, while the more serious cybernetic experiments of the 60s and 70s – the pioneers Frazer celebrates - in Carpo’s words “did not change architecture in the least”. Carpo emphasises that architects have been at the forefront of technological innovation and expressed the logic and opportunities of digital tools better than most other professions. However, a generalizable real world impact can only be expected when the playfully discovered opportunities are systematically applied by yet another cast of characters: the protagonists/authors of this issue.
The current protagonists of parametricism have been deeply impressed and influenced by the profoundly innovative work of Antoni Gaudí and Frei Otto who must be recognized as the pre-digital precursors of parametricism. According to Mark Burry the parametric work of Gaudí and Otto is countering any claim that parametricism is merely a contemporary digital condition. (This point is further supported by John Frazer’s reminder about Luigi Moretti’s ‘Architettura Parametrica’, as well as by Mario Carpo’s suggestion that the procedural geometrical rules of gothic building can be understood as parametric algorithms). The recognition of these precursors is coherent with the author’s insistance on the independence and distinction of parametricism as paradigm, methodology and style from the use of digital tools per se. However, computational empowerment and coding has become increasingly important for the current and future ambitions of Parametricism 2.0. The latest strand of design research based on advanced computing and machine intelligence is pushed forward at the AADRL and documented here in the contributions of Theo Spyropolous, Shajay Bhooshan and Robert Stuart-Smith.
Shajay Bhooshan’s “CODE -Upgrading Computational Design” is depicting the dense network of cummulative, inter-disciplinary research and design collaboation, involving both academic institutions as well as professional firms and their specialist groups. It should be noted that such a cummulative design research across disciplines and authors/designers presupposes a well established paradigm as shared basis of all the complementary efforts. This paradigm is parametricism. It delivers a robust platform for advanced professional work and also sets the scene and gives a credible grounding for radically future oriented design research projects. It is in this context that the computationally advanced, speculative work of the AADRL must be viewed. Theo Spyropolous’ “Behavioural Complexity: Constructing Frameworks for Human Machine Ecologies” conceives architecture as an ecology of interacting systems and investigates the behavioural agency of autonomous self-aware and self-assembled systems that use responsiveness and machine learning for the agenda of continuous spatial transformation. Architecture senses, learns, and stimulates. Robert Stuart-Smith’s “Behavioural Production: A Swarm Constructed Architecture” presents robotic construction processes that are orchestrated through real-time autonomous and semi-autonomous behavioural rules that govern event-driven robotic building actions. This research program envisages that design and production processes are fused within a single algorithm and so recasts construction as a creative and qualitative design act in its own right. The experiments realized with drones demonstrate that the technologies required for this ambitious program are in place.
Between university based academic research and professional work exists another channel (and funding mechanism) for ambitious design research: the art world. For Marc Fornes, as indeed for most of the protagonists presented in this issue, the art world serves as a way station from avant-garde speculation to mainstream realisation. (That’s indeed a large part of the art world’s societal function.) In his contribution “Redefining ‘Ouvrage d’Art’: the Art of the Prototypical” Marc Fornes demonstrates parametricism’s capacity of managing a new, previously unimaginable level of geometric variation and complexity. This impressive ability is harnessed for intricate spatial, structural and aesthetic effects, with a surprising economy of means. All morphologies result from explicit and encoded protocols involving large numbers of very small, relatively simple, similar but variable (mostly lazer cut) parts. His computational techniques allow him to incorporate structural optimisation as well as fabrication constraints. Although the result is the sum of deterministic steps, and the author wrote every line of code, it is impossible for him to anticipate the result exactly, due to the number of lines, steps and “if then” statements. Objective determinacy is thus coupled with subjective indeterminacy that spurns explorative series working. Marc Fornes calls this “generative assembly” and “protocol form finding”. It is only a matter of time that this work migrates from art back to architecture, a process that is well under way.
The work of Achim Menges is charting a very similar trajectory from experimental installations and pavilions into architecture proper, with a similar focus on structural optimisations and fabrication logics. Menges’ “Materiality and Materialisation as Integrative Design Parameters” conceives of material no longer as a passive receptor of predetermined form, but rather as an active driver in architectural design. According to Menges “both machinic processes operating in the digital domain of the computer, as well as material processes operating in the physical realm can be considered computational”. His contribution presents design research on the integration of these two modes of computation, i.e. the computational convergence of the processes of form generation and materialisation.
The computational grasp of parameter dependent processes of emergence and transformation is also a winning proposition in the domain of urban planning and design. In their contribution “Relational Urban Models: Parameters, Values and Tacit Forms of Algorithms” Eduardo Rico & Enriqueta Llabrés present an urban design methodology based on the use of Relational Urban Models (RUM). These web based, participatory models involve the simultaneous visualization of design variables, 3d massing and landform dynamics which allows for the discussion of how urban form is influenced by and influences various infrastructural, economic and environmental parameters. These models might be crafted to extract knowledge about preferences and simulate the results of setting the incentive parameters of the various stakeholders involved. The longer term potential of these models is to enhance the quality and precision of the debates and negotiations that shape policies and thus ultimately our cities.
Parametricism with its core value of adaptivity includes adaptation to regional specificies. This implies that parametricism’s global reach does not – as international modernism did – spell global homogenization. In fact, parametricism opens the promise of a re-specification of regional identities.
In his article “Parametric Regionalism” Philip Yuan explains that “regionalism here does not only imply sensitivity to local craftsmanship, but also integrates information about local climate and environmental performance with local culture and human behavior.” He demostrates this approach with his work in China, creatively synthesizing local materials and craft traditions with advanced computational design techniques to deliver technological and social innovations without violating cultural expectations.
As a matter of principle and just as was the case with modernism, parametricism’s scope as epochal style encompasses all the design disciplines, including industrial product design. However, a principle takes on reality only via historical actors. These are still sparse when it comes to realising parametricism’s claim to universal and exclusive competency with respect to the world of artifacts. All the more important are the partisan comittment and exemplary spearheading efforts of Ross Lovegrove’s genius, in his words “against the grain of the stubborn conservatism of the industrial design sector”. In his contribution “Super-natural: Parametricism in Product Design” Ross Lovegrove explains how his diverse bio-morphic designs, encompassing categories like vehicle design, furniture and fashion, are unified by being governed by “genesis principles that combine structure, material and minimal mass” aiming for an “organic essentialism” that is inspired by “natures economic sincerity”. Lovegrove’s compelling products are bound to convince the world of parametricism’s superiority more than any theoretical treatise ever can.
The author’s own two contributoins “Social Functionality via Agent Based Parametric Semiology” and “Parametricism and the Prospect of a Free Market Urban Order” take parametricism’s potential for unmatched technological superiority for granted to focus on and demonstrate its potential for superior performance with respect to social functionality. (Actual functionality must of course be demonstrated project by project). The concept of ‘social functionality’ is pinpointing the purpose and thus primary criterion of design projects in terms of society’s requirements (as mediated via clients). It refers to the social processes that are meant to be congenially accomodated and organized. Architecture’s communicative capacity is crucial here, and indeed should be regarded as architecture’s core competency. The elaboration of spatial complexes as systems-of-signification is promoted as a key to upgrading architecture’s core competency. The meaning of the designed architectural code becomes manifest via agent-based crowd modelling. The modulation of the agent’s behavioural rules is made dependent on the configurational and morphological features of the environment designed in accordance with a semiological code. Programmed agents respond to environmental clues. Thus these new tools allow for the re-foundation of architectural semiology as agent-based parametric semiology.
How does the work of protagonists like Burry, Booshan, Spyropolous, Stuart-Smith, Fornes, Menges, Yuan and Lovegrove relate to this semiological project? As the author had argued in a previous issue of AD5 the results of these protagonists’ design research efforts in the domain of technical functionality furnish the crucial, congenial repertoire for semiological articulation within the context of a much more differentiated contempoary society. The substantive, material motivation of morphological differentiations gives a special credibility to the semiological code that we could not expect from an unmotivated, wholly arbitrary symbolic language. Structure does not lie, nor do all the other technical performance constrains that serve to drive the parametric morphogenesis. Identifiable, information-rich morphologies are inherent in parametricism’s methodology. The themes of identifiability and information-richness are also prevalent in the author’s second paper, where the question is posed: How can the vital desire for urban order, identity and legibility be reconciled with the seemingly uncontrollable, market driven processes of contemporary urbanisation? The historical urban results (since the 1970s) so far are negative: disorder abounds and urban identities are more and more eroded. How can the ambitions of parametric urbanism – as espoused by the author and by protagonists like Eduardo Rico and Enriqueta Llabrés – find a foothold in reality in a context of receding planning authority?
The author’s answer: Freedom and order beyond the bounds of planning can emerge via the discursive convergence of the design disciplines towards a new epochal style: Parametricism.
To continuously update and upgrade its societal relevance and its ability to self-steer its practice, parametricism must engage with contemporary social theory. The issue therefore closes with a contemporary approach to the study of society and its social processes that is congenial to the theoretical underpinnings and methodology of parametricism. Manuel DeLanda’s contribution “Parametrisizing the Social ” posits that between the micro-scale of individuals and the macro-scale of society as a whole, there operates an important meso-scale of intermediately sized social entities: communities, organizations, cities, urban regions. These are theorized as decomposable yet irreducable assemblages with emergent properties on multiple, recursive levels of emergence. DeLanda is thus steering clear of both holism and reductionism. Assemblages are “always concretely embodied and spatially situated”, i.e. they usually include boundaries, buildings and other physico-spatial infrastructures. Significantly, DeLanda propses two dimensions within which social assenblages are parametrisized: the degree of territorialization or deterritorialization and the degree of coding or decoding. Both involve architecture, in the author’s theory of architectural autopoiesis6, these dimensions feature under the labels of organisation and (semiological) articulation respectively. Only parametricism can adequately organise and articulate the contemporay social assenblages on the level of complexity called for today.
1 Patrik Schumacher, Parametricism as Style - Parametricist Manifesto, Presented and discussed at the Dark Side Club1 , 11th Architecture Biennale, Venice 2008
2 Patrik Schumacher, Parametricism - A New Global Style for Architecture and Urban Design, AD -Digital Cities, Vol 79, No 4, July/August 2009
3 AD Computation Works: The Building of Algorithmic Thought, Guest EditorsBrady Peters, Xavier de Kesteller, March/April 2013
4 AD Empathic Space: The Computation of Human-Centric Architecture, Guest Editors: Christian Derix, Åsmund Izaki, October 2014
6 Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Volume 2, A New Agenda for Architecture, John Wiley & Sons, March 2012