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The Concept of Style and Parametricism as Epochal Style
Patrik Schumacher, London 2016
Published in: Cameronica #10, Editor/Direttore: Giacinto Cerviere

Key words:
epochal style, socio-economic epoch, functional explanation, societal task, parametricism, rule-based association.

Style seems to be an inevitable feature of all regular human artefacts. The term is used in architecture, design and in all the different arts: visual arts, music and literature. The term can be applied with different degrees or levels of aggregation: we might talk about the individual style of an individual architect, about national/regional styles, or finally about epochal styles. An epochal style is the dominant style of a particular civilization within a particular historical era. It is primarily in this last sense that my theory uses the concept of style. Under the condition of world architecture communicating within world society, national or regional styles have lost all significance.

The notion of style was first given historical significance, in terms of being related to historical eras, in Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s seminal ‘The History of Ancient Art among the Greeks’, published in 1764. However, throughout most of the 19th century when the concept of style evolved into its current shape, national and regional differences were as salient as historical differences. In 1851 the ‘Great Exhibition of Industry of all Nations’ in London brought the phenomenon of styles into the clearest and most concentrated view – albeit primarily in terms of national and regional styles. The physiognomies of the built environments of these regions are not only distinct and internally consistent, but have been stable for centuries. In each case – whether we talk about a given region or a given historical era – the respective style’s consistency and thus recognisability is based on a set of particular historical and/or geographical set of conditions that include performance demands in terms

of particular social institutions, construction materials/methods, as well as particular climatic conditions. Together, the specificity and regularity of these conditions and constraints lay the basis, in each case, for the peculiarly coherent physiognomy that can be observed across the totality of the building production of the respective period/region. It is this coherent physiognomy that observers identify as a particular style. This much was already understood by 19th-century art history and architectural theory.
However, the above mentioned conditions and constraints only produce a stable basis for the development of the style in question, but cannot in themselves offer a full account. Upon this basis play ‘cultural’ idiosyncrasies of ‘artistic’ production that are not functionally determined but that are genetically rooted in a cultural evolution which produces its own stability from its initial, semi-random beginnings. In 1869 the architect and architectural theorist Gottfried Semper defined style accordingly as “the conformity of an artistic phenomenon with its genealogy, with all the conditions and circumstances of its becoming”.

This genetic component of any style is based on processes of self-selective amplification, leading to otherwise unaccountable and ultimately ineradicable idiosyncrasies. Therefore the peculiar spatial creations and architectural forms that evolve within a given culture will  - just as the evolution of the endless forms of nature -  will forever remain unpredictable. However, while the creative aspect of stylistic development  - in analogy evolutionary mechanism of mutation -  can never be deduced from conditions and thus remains unpredictable, the always relative, comparative rationality of the selection process that operates on what is at any stage a set of competing options thrown up by the (unaccountable, random) creative process, can indeed become the basis both of the retrospective rational reconstruction of the historical progression of styles and of a rational prediction and normative stipulation about which of the currently competing contemporary styles is to succeed in the (not too distant) future. These retrospective explanations and prospective anticipations are variants of the type of functional explanation privileged in both biology and sociology, i.e. within sciences that try to theorize complex, functionally integrated evolving systems. Accordingly, the theoretical explanation and the (short term) prediction of stylistic developments relies on the analysis and appraisal of competing styles’ functional fit with respect to the overall societal development.  For this purpose the overall societal development is presupposed and introduced as (if an) exogenous datum (although this is a simplifying abstraction that would in the final analysis have to be elaborated into a dialectic of co-evolving subsystems whereby architecture’s creative transformative impact would be given its due). The simplifying (but probably reasonable) assumption that underpins my theory of the historical progression of styles is that the distinction of socio-economic epochs (feudalism, variants of capitalism, socialism) cuts history (overall societal evolution) at its joints. We can empirically assert and theoretically grasp that the human world - via the population of competing societies -  evolves towards higher levels of productivity (prosperity), while the specific technologies and socio-economic institutional forms that are created in the process remain (once more) unpredictable. Under this assumption of the economy’s explanatory primacy, architecture is theorized as an indispensable but (in terms of innovative thrust) subsidiary agency that can adapt to, hamper or accelerate but not initiate history - here understood as socio-economic transformations that deliver phase-changes or system shifts in the economic/societal system. The theory (at this point) thus posits the progression of styles in terms of an adaptive alignment with the progression of socio-economic epochs. Accordingly, the phrase ‘epochal style’ is reserved for the big stylistic watersheds like Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Historicism, Modernism that can be fitted or aligned with the socio-economic epochs that political economy distinguishes, in contradistinction to both ‘subsidiary styles’ within epochal styles (e.g. Rococo, Neo-grecian, Brutalism) and ‘transitional styles’ between epochal styles (e.g. Mannerism, Classicism, Art Nouveau).

The alignment of western epochal styles with the socio-economic epochs of western civilization can be summarized in a table as follows:


Society/Socio-Economic epoch

tradition-bound building


medieval vernacular







feudalism + rising cities

architecture’s epochal styles



early captialism / city states




bourgeois capitalism, nations-states


fordism/international socialism


global, post-fordist network society

Fig. 1 Epochal alignments of styles


Parametricism as Epochal Style for the 21st Century

Parametricism is the only plausible contemporary candidate to become the global epochal style for the 21st century. Parametricism is architecture’s answer to the challenges and opportunities of the (post-fordist) information age, just as modernism was architecture’s answer to the (fordist) mechanical age. The challenges that postfordist network society poses to architecture issue from the new diversity and intense interconnectedness of all social processes. The opportunities that the information age offers are the new computationally supported information processing, design, engineering and fabrication methodologies that can be brought to bear on architecture’s new challenge of spatially networking and articulating the desired interconnectedness of social processes. Parametricism thus applies the new opportunities to the new challenges in order to make its genuine contribution to the advancement of world civilization.

Fig.1 Nicolai Kusmin, design for a residential complex for Soviet miners & Fig.2 Zaha Hadid Architects, Appur Masterplan competition.  Modernism and Parametricism align with Fordism and Post-fordism respectively. They contrast with respect to their mode of differentiation: modernism is based on the operations of separation, specialization and repetition; parametricism is based on the principles of interpenetration, gradient differentiation and subsystem correlatrion.

Parametricism is the contemporary style that is advancing its design agenda on the basis of parametric design techniques. As conceptual definition of parametricism one might offer the following formula: Parametricism implies that all architectural elements and compositions are subject to modulation via variables. This implies a fundamental (ontological) shift within the basic, constituent elements of architecture. Instead of the classical and modern reliance on ideal, inherently rigid geometrical figures  like straight lines, rectangles, cubes, cylinders, pyramids (roofs), and spheres (domes), the new primitives of parametricism are topo-logical rather than geo-metric, and thus inherently pliable: splines, nurbs, subdivs, particle-spring systems, agent based systems ect.  These new ‘elements’ become the fundamentally new building blocks for dynamical compositions that can be made to resonate with contexts and with each other via scripts. (On the more sophisticated end of the spectrum we find multi-objective optimization with evolutionary algorithms.) In principle every property of every element or complex is subject to parametric variation and topological deformation. The key technique for handling this variability is the scripting of rules that differentiate arrays or systems of elements  - often in relation to performance parameters or contextual parameters - and that establish correlations between the various differentiated arrays or subsystems.

Although the new style is to a large extent dependent upon these new design techniques, the style cannot be reduced to the mere introduction of new tools and techniques. A new style is a new paradigm. But is a specific type of new paradigm, namely a new paradigm for the design disciplines and thus it encompasses a new visuality (physiognomy, phenomenology) as well as a new methodology and conceptual framework. What characterizes the new style are new ambitions and values  - both in terms of form (aesthetic values) and in terms of function (performance values) -  that are to be pursued with the aid of the new tools and techniques. Parametricism pursues a new, complex spatial order via the principles of differentiation and correlation. The goal is to intensify the internal interdependencies within an architectural design as well as the external affiliations and continuities within complex, urban contexts. But why does this matter?


Parametricism and Progress

Many critics of parametric design and parametricism ask: What is the societal relevance of the complex geometries and intricate spatial compositions made possible by parametric design? Is this not an expensive, indulgent and self-serving narcissism on the part of designers that distracts from the social task of architecture? This question must be answered. In order to answer this question we need to clarify the societal function of architecture and urban design: the spatial ordering of social processes. The increasing density, diversity and interconnectedness of contemporary life processes requires complex spatial configurations that allow a diversity of event scenarios to unfold in close proximity and in awareness of each other. The required complex spatial organizations can only function if the participants that need to come together in the various event scenarios can successfully orient, navigate and identify the spaces they encounter. This requires architectural articulation. The general characteristics of parametricism like curvelinearity, gradients and correlative resonances are potentially more than any prior style effective in the legible articulation of the desired multitude of relations between the networked spaces. Without curves, smooth transitions and gradients the complex urban scene quickly degenerates into visual chaos. The urban subsystems that might be correlated via rule-based associative scripts might include the differentiated urban massing, topography, vehicular circulation, and pedestrian circulation. The establishment of systematic dependencies via rule-based design processes increases the information density of the built environment because every dependency chain can be traced back via inferences. The designer might choose and calibrate the adaptive correlations between the internally differentiated subsystems so that the different system do indeed become “representations” of each other in the sense that users navigating the urban environment can not only follow the gradients (vectors of transformation) in each of the subsystems, but can infer not yet visible and invisible systems from what is visible, e.g. the silhouette of the urban massing might “represent” the underlying topography and then allow the street- and path-network to be inferred. Similarly, within a mixed-use complex the differentially articulated structural system might represent or indicate the program distribution. The result could be an intricately ordered and thus information-rich environment as permanent broadcast and powerful social ordering apparatus that facilitates the intricate process of social cooperation. The whole built environment must become a 360 degree interface of multi-modal communication, as the ability to navigate dense and complex urban environments has become a crucial aspect of today’s overall productivity.

Fig.3 Zaha Hadid Architects, Soho Galaxy, Beijing & Fig.4 Zaha Hadid Architects, Dong Daemon Design Plaza, Seoul. Both projects show how parametricism can build up a complex three-dimensional layering and simultaneous richness of urban offerings while maintaining orientation, navigation and legibility in the face of this density in complex contexts via rule-based differentiation and the use of curvature.

A corollary of this design methodology would be the emergence of intricately beautiful city-scapes and unique urban identities instead of the current ugly and menacing visual chaos and disorienting, identity-less white noise sameness that is the result of the current “garbage spill urbanisation”.  The enhancement of the communicative capacity of the built environment via rule-based parametric design thus goes to the heart of architecture’s societal function of ordering the network of social interaction scenarios that make up contemporary society.

However, admittedly the parametric design community is still flexing its muscles rather than going to work with a clear social purpose. In many young design studios and schools of architecture the playful exploration of new parametric tools results in designs that cannot yet stand up to the critical scrutiny of the sceptics that demand to see the societal relevance and social performance of design efforts. The strategic societal utilization of parametric design becomes an urgent agenda that must be explicitly posed and addressed now with the parametric design movement. Self-criticism on the basis of the explicit formulation of the key task is crucial: the ordering of the complexity of social life processes via complex, legible, information-rich spatial orders. The continued credibility of parametricism is at stake. However, we must also protect the need for continued playfulness in the exploration of new tools, techniques and repertoires. Innovation requires the oscillation between open ended exploration, determinate testing and rigorous attempts at successful practical application.


Gottfried Semper, ̈Uber Baustile (1869), extracts reprinted in: Gottfried Semper, Wissenschaft, Industrie und Kunst, Neue Bauhausbücher, Florian Kupferberg Verlag (Mainz/Berlin), 1966,

Gottfried Semper, Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts; or, Practical Aesthetics, Getty Research Institute (Los Angeles), 2004,

Schumacher, Patrik, The Autopoiesis of Architecture - Volume 1 - A New Framework for Architecture, John Wiley and Sons. 2010

Schumacher, Patrik, The Autopoiesis of Architecture - Volume 2 - A New Agenda for Architecture, John Wiley and Sons. 2012


Dr. Patrik Schumacher is principal at Zaha Hadid Architects and the co-author of most key projects. He joined Zaha Hadid in 1988 and has been seminal in developing Zaha Hadid Architects to become a 400 strong global architecture and design brand. In 1996 he founded the "Design Research Laboratory" at the Architectural Association in London and continues to teach in what has become one of the world’s most prestigious architecture programs. He is lecturing worldwide and has been a guest professor in many prestigious schools of architecture, and recently held the John Portman Chair in Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Over the years he has contributed over 80 articles to architectural journals and anthologies. In 2008 he coined the phrase Parametricism and has since published a series of manifestos promoting Parametricism as the new epochal style for the 21st century. In 2010/2012 he published his two-volume theoretical opus magnum “The Autopoiesis of Architecture”. His writings are available on



The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Vol.1 A New Framework for Architecture,

Publisher: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., London 2010

The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Vol.2 A New Agenda for Architecture,
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., London 2012

Zaha Hadid Complete Works, editor, Thames and Hudson, London 2004

Digital Hadid - Landscapes in Motion, author, Publisher: Birkhaeuser, 2003

Latent Utopias  -  Experiments within Contemporary Architecture, co-editor, author, Springer Verlag, Wien, New York 2002

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