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Parametricism with Social Parameters
Patrik Schumacher, London 2015
Published in: exhibition book ‘The Human (Parameter)’ Parametric Approach in Israeli Architecture’, curated/edited by Ionathan Lazovski  & Yuval Kahlon for ZEZEZE Architecture Gallery, Tel-Aviv


That parametricism “goes social” is not a concession to the prevailing winds of political correctness (that divert and dissolve the innovative thrust of architectural discourse). Rather, it is a sign of parametricism’s maturity, confidence and readiness to take on the full societal tasks of architecture, i.e. it implies the inauguration of Parametricism 2.0. Parametricism 1.0 was foregrounding computational design techniques, new formal repertoires and digital fabrication technologies. After 15 years of muscle flexing it is high time to put these innovations to more serious work. Parametricism 2.0 can take the evolved techniques, repertoires and technologies for granted and foreground the newly challenging societal tasks of architecture, and finally gear up to make a real impact.

The exhibition and book ‘The Human Parameter’ is a very welcome occasion for me to emphasize what I consider to be the unifying and distinctive purpose of all design disciplines in distinction to engineering efforts: the spatial framing and ordering of social communication processes.
Design is thus concerned with the social (rather than technical) functionality of artefacts (including the build environment). This does not mean that technical requirements are irrelevant to architecture. Rather, they are (mere) constraints (rather than ultimate aims) that need to be taken into consideration via the ongoing dialogue with engineers. (The dialog has to intensify in periods of rapid technological innovation.) Social functionality presupposes technical functionality and adds the interdependent concerns of organisation1, articulation and signification as dimensions of architecture’s crucial social ordering capacity.
In accordance with my general theory of architecture – elaborated within the framework of Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory – I prefer to refer to “social” rather than “human” parameters as the decisive parameters that are relevant to contemporary architecture’s advancement. To upgrade architecture’s human/social functionality the historically specific character of contemporary social systems are more relevant than general human parameters, i.e. it is the requirements of advanced contemporary social systems and life processes that provide the relevant data for architectural innovation. This does not imply that invariant human parameters (like physiological parameters) are not relevant to architecture. (However, the effects and thus architectural implications of the invariant human parameters change with social and urban development.) One set of those invariant parameters that assume a unique relevance within contemporary conditions is the set of human perceptual capacities that has been investigated by Gestalt psychology. Under conditions of contemporary social complexity these constraints – the limits of human cognitive capacities - posit an unprecedented level of architectural concern for the task of phenomenological articulation. The perceptual tractability of complex forms/scenes is a necessary condition of architecture’s contemporary communicative capacity. However, in this short paper I am rather focussing on the semiological conditions of architecture’s communicative capacity2. In particular, I am trying to outline an architectural design methodology that allows architects to sketch, develop and refine their (semiological) designs in tandem with the design’s meaning, i.e. in tandem with the agent based simulation of the social life processes which the design is meant to frame and facilitate.

All my recent writings – including all what follows here – start from the premise that the unifying and distinctive societal function of architecture (and all the other design disciplines) is the communicative framing and ordering of social-communicative interaction. This way of positing architecture’s primary purpose builds on the insight that all social life processes can be conceptualized as communication processes. The relevant analysis of life focusses on communications embedded within systems of communication. The key concept of communication is by no means restricted to verbal communications.3 It includes all signs, signifying artefacts, gestures and intentional behaviours. Accordingly both a designed space and the act of entering the space are communications. The door,  the constellation of furniture (together with carpet and chandelier) communicate an invitation to enter and participate within a particular social situation or communicative interaction scenario. The designed space frames the ensuing social scenario as a communicated premise that defines the situation and is presupposed in all further communicative acts by all participants. When we enter a space, we usually know or quickly recognize where we are and what is to be expected within the space and what is accordingly expected of us upon entry. To enter the space is thus to accept the spatial communication and to communicate one’s preparedness to participate within the framed/defined situation.

The author has argued for (and experimented with) a new compelling design methodology and design agenda that should be able to tackle the societal function of architecture head on: agent based parametric semiology.4 This new methodology generalizes the technique of crowd modelling – so far mostly restricted to problems of circulation -  to simulate all forms and patterns of user behaviour across all the variously designated spaces that comprise contemporary urban institutions. The simulation of the framed interaction scenarios can be integrated into the design process from the abstract beginnings using particles configuring within bubble diagrams, all the way to the nuanced modulation of agent interactions in response to semiologically encoded architectural thresholds and territorial articulations. This methodology unmistakeably re-focusses the design effort onto what design should be all about: the facilitation of the societal life process. At the level of density, complexity and interaction intensity desired within post-fordist network society, this is no longer a trivial matter.

The dynamic coordination of myriad specific, simultaneous communication situations requires that the relevant participants can navigate a dense, information rich, legible environment to find each other, moment by moment, in specifically structured constellations with compatible expectations. The agent based methodology tries to generate the desired event patters bottom up, from individual behaviours and interactions according to environmentally encode rules. Society is a complex web of social institutions. Institutions are the rules or scripts that coordinate interactions to allow for the emergence of the productive cooperative processes that reproduce and advance society. The orchestration of society’s panoply of social interactions is the (always precarious) achievement of our semiologically charged built environment. As the spatio-morphological ordering substrate that orients and coordinates all desired life processes, the city (and each building within it) is a matrix of embodied interaction protocols or scripts. It is at the same time a permanent broadcast presenting itself as this matrix. Each space within it is a stage and invitation to join the specific interaction scenario offered within its territory. Each territory embodies an institution and we city dwellers each carry a subset of societies scripts within ourselves, ready for retrieval according to the environmental clues we encounter. This is how the built environment makes its indispensable, specific contribution to society’s functioning. This can be modelled via agent modelling whereby the encounter of an environmental clue or the crossing of a significant threshold selects and modulates the correlated behavioural scripts of the scripted agents. All behaviour is environmentally dependent. However, these dependencies are mostly learned – due to an environmentally encoded and learned language – rather than due to invariant human instincts. This opens up the task to design the built environment as (an increasingly complex and  information rich) system of signification that can be operationalized, explored, tested and calibrated via a generalized, agent-based crowd modelling.

The explicit re-focusing of the design effort along those lines comes with new relevant values like communicative capacity (involving information density and perceptual tractability) and with new ultimate criteria of design success like encounter frequency, interaction diversity, communicative depth etc. that measure the success of the framed life process as the ultimate purpose of all design efforts.



1 Organisation is specific to urban and architectural design in distinction to product and fashion design.

2 Semiology deals with social system parameters rather than with human parameters.

3 According to Luhmann’s theoretical sociology social systems are made up of communications rather than human beings.

4 Patrik Schumacher, Parametric Semiology – The Design of Information Rich Environments, in: Architecture In Formation, edited by Pablo Lorenzo-Eiroa and Aaron Sprecher, Routledge, New York, 2013;  Parametric Order – Architectural Order via an Agent Based Parametric Semiology, in: Adaptive Ecologies – Correlated Systems of Living by Theodore Spyropoulos, AA Publications, London 2013;  Architecture’s Next Ontological Innovation, in: Not Nature, tarp – Architectural Manual, Pratt Institute, New York, spring 2012; see also: Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Volume 2, A New Agenda for Architecture, John Wiley & Sons, 2012, Section: 6.10 The Semiological Project and the General Project of Architectural Order.


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