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The Instrumentality of Appearances in the Pursuit of a Legible Urban Order
Patrik Schumacher, London 2014
Published in: Yoshio Futugawa (Editor), Zaha Hadid, Exhibition Catalog for the exhibition ‘Zaha Hadid’, at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, published by GA (Global Architecture), Tokyo, Japan

Introduction: The fundamental question of architecture’s purpose

The most striking feature of the work of Zaha Hadid and Zaha Hadid Architects is its unusual, intense, memorable appearance, often referred to as “iconic”. Our work is certainly visually stimulating, inspires curiosity, and seems to radiate an enigmatic beauty. But is this all? Can this be its raison d'être? How can we justify the pursuit of beauty? Architecture and urban design surely should not be treated as a visual art delivering a mere visual feast or attention grabbing spectacle! Is this intense and costly investment in the spectacular visual appearance of the built environment not an unjustifiable indulgence? Is our work really this superficial? Where is the concern for function here? How does the intense appearance of our work relate to the fundamental social purposes the built environment is meant to serve?
It is the first general goal of this essay to explain why appearances and aesthetic values matter and how they function to facilitate the most profound societal purposes of the built environment. A second, more specific goal is to explain why our work looks the way it looks and how and why the visual, formal-aesthetic expression of our work  - our style -  evolved during the 30 years covered in this exhibition. This second goal will involve a discussion of the transition from Deconstructivism to Parametricism.

The Meaning of Beauty: The Hidden Efficacy of Aesthetic Values

The concept of beauty is shrouded in mystery. Architectural theory should not only lift the veil of mystery but explain why this sense of mystery exists. The first point to make here is the pervasiveness of aesthetic judgments  - intuitive judgement on the basis of appearance – in our daily lives. We navigate our physical and social environment largely on the basis of intuitive appeal and repulsion.
What is beautiful? Whatever appeals at first sight. Being impressed by beauty is a gut reaction. However, this immediate gut reaction operates according to an underlying rationality.  Aesthetic responses – including the aesthetic responses to cities and buildings – are a form of instant, intuitive evaluation. The recognition of beauty within a built environment is the recognition of the vitality of this environment, on the basis of its mere appearance, prior to a more in-depth experience and verification of its vitality or functionality. Aesthetic responses have specific advantages and disadvantages in comparison with evaluations based on careful examination and analysis. Aesthetic responses are less reliable but much faster than knowledge based responses. Aesthetic values, internalized as ‘tastes’, perform acts of discrimination or classification, without requiring explicit knowledge. They are totalizing rather than differentiating, i.e., they operate via global impressions rather than via the isolation of factors. Aesthetic judgements are rational inasmuch as they provide an intuitive appreciation of performativity, short-circuiting extended experience or analysis. Aesthetic judgement thus represents an economical substitute for judgement based on investigation.

Aesthetic valuation has a deeply rooted biological function. Organisms are attracted to what sustains life and repulsed by what threatens life. The biological function of aesthetic appeal is thus to orient the organism towards what performs well for it. Aesthetic responses are conditioned responses, based on the universal biological ‘learning’ mechanism of conditioning. The discrimination of the beautiful versus the ugly is thus a culturally over-determined instantiation of the fundamental biological mechanism of conditioned attraction versus repulsion. This basic function should still underlie the most artificial and culturally mediated forms of aesthetic evaluation. The correlation between the beautiful and the well performing is still obvious in the widespread aesthetic appreciation of young, healthy women or male athletic bodies. The biological basis of aesthetic values is thus a factor to be reckoned with. However, the fact that aesthetic values are socially over-determined and thus culturally and historically relative is equally indisputable.

There is no contradiction between these two facts, the fact of the biological function of aesthetic values and the fact of their cultural relativity. The capacity to respond aesthetically has been subjected to the adaptive rationality of the ongoing cultural evolution. The rationality of aesthetic values – the relationship of beauty to performativity – is in principle maintained, albeit continuously updated with regard to the evolving life processes of society. Aesthetic evaluations evolve historically but, at any stage, function quasi-instinctively.
To the extent to which the genealogy of a particular aesthetic value implies the sedimentation of an accumulated (individual or collective) experience that is still valid today, the aesthetic value does indeed deliver valid informational content. However, the informational content delivered this way is implicit. It is not delivered as information but as dogmatic evaluation. The acquisition of aesthetic preferences is an unconscious rather than consciously reflected form of learning. This mechanism operates on both the individual and the social level. Aesthetic values are culturally shared and transmitted via socialisation and imitation.

Aesthetic values encapsulate condensed, collective experiences within useful dogmas. However, as society evolves what was once vital might have become dysfunctional and new vital, functional societal processes might be unduly constrained by the established canons of beauty. The phenomena they bring forth appear ugly. Their aesthetic rejection becomes a fetter on further progress. A contradiction develops that can only be solved by an aesthetic revolution. Aesthetic sensibilities have to be adapted via aesthetic revolutions.

Both within society at large, as well as in architecture and design, the dogmatism of aesthetic values is the virtue as well as the limit of aesthetically condensed intelligence. Its virtue lies in the immediacy and sureness of the response. Its limitation lies in the risk that the implicit information is no longer valid and that the evaluation is misguided. For instance: the Vitruvian or Palladian regime of proportions represents a condensation of accumulated building experience, allowing for the ‘blind’ design of sound stone-structures. The Classical orders regulate the height-to-width ratios of columns, spans of beams in relation to their depth, minimum roof-angles for drainage etc. The Palladian rules concerning room proportions guarantee certain standards of day-lighting and air-volume. Any such rule-system embodies an economy of performance as well as an economy of design effort. Those regimes are a form of dogmatized wisdom. Over and above these technological principles the aesthetic rules concerning, for example, (Vitruvian) city-layout or the (Palladian) rules for the suburban villa enshrine and make easily reproducible specific social organizations. The condensation into aesthetic rules means that the respective social patterns become reproducible via the mechanical application of simple rules, and in turn are easily read off by the trained eye identifying the ‘right’ environment aesthetically. With the availability of new building technologies (reinforced concrete, steel etc.), as part and parcel of the development of modern industrial civilization, the Classical aesthetic regime lost its rationality and became a hindrance to the further development of the built environment. What once was an accumulated wisdom became an irrational prejudice that had to be battled on the ideological plane of aesthetic values. This necessary battle was waged and won by the heroes of Modernism. The technological and social revolutions called forth an aesthetic revolution, establishing and aestheticizing non-Classical proportions, new compositional (organizational) patterns and new tectonic features. From 1920 to 1970 modernism with its new formal regime, with its new stretched proportions, relentless grids, serial repetition and the separate articulation of distinct parts delivered the aesthetic expression of the new industrial mass society. Modernism’s aesthetic values aesthetisized the functionally optimized physiognomy of the built environment of modern industrial civilisation. During the 1970s and 1980s modernism went into crisis. The modernist canon of aesthetic values had itself become an untenable fetter that stood in the way of the new vital patterns of life and work. Society had evolved once more (beyond recognition) and a new aesthetic revolution in architecture had become necessary to exploit the latest technological opportunities and to translate the new societal, functional requirements of our current civilization: Postfordist Network Society. This latest aesthetic revolution is being delivered by Parametricism via the transitional episodes of Postmodernism and Deconstructivism. Postmodernism and Deconstructivism started to aesthetisize the new urban diversity, irregularity and chaotic, collage-like complexity of the spontaneous, market-driven urbanisation processes that had escaped the strictures of the modernist canon of urban planning and design. Parametricism aims is to go beyond this aesthetization of spontaneous maverick developments in its pursuit of radically new ordering principles and aesthetic values that are congenial to the workings of Postfordist Network Society, projecting once more a total make-over of the organisation and physiognomy (appearance) of the built environment of the 21st century, just like Modernism had delivered for the 20th century.

Beauty and the evolution of concepts of order

Above we established the functionality of beauty - whatever works well will eventually become validated as beautiful - and we established the historical relativity of aesthetic values, i.e. sensibilities need to be (periodically) brought in line with the morphological conditions of the historically most vital social life-processes. Beauty keeps changing its physiognomy. Aesthetic regimes are transitory.
But is the category of beauty really devoid of any features that persist across its different, concrete historical manifestations? If this were so we would not be able to see the beauty of earlier styles. However, contemporary society – inclusive of contemporary architects – is still touched by the beauty (filigree order) of the Gothic, by the beauty (simple elegance) of the Renaissance, by the beauty (intense plasticity) of the Baroque etc. Contemporary architects recognize the beauty of past eras (although they would not find it appropriate to use any of these older styles to frame contemporary institutions). Is it possible to identify an invariant characteristic, a universally applicable condition that must be met by all environments (and even by all phenomena) recognized as beautiful?

Yes, I believe there is an invariant aspect that guides all discriminations of beauty versus ugliness: the sensation of beauty is always bound to a sense of order as distinct from chaos. Order as the universal and invariant aspect of beauty has been alluded to by many classical definitions of beauty. For instance Leon Battista Alberti's famous definition reads as follows: ‘Beauty is that reasoned harmony of all the parts within a body, so that nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worse.’1 The positive principle of harmony/order is emphasized by reference to an ‘integral body’ and contrasted with a mere agglomeration: ‘The harmony is such that the building appears a single, integral, and well-composed body, rather than a collection of extraneous and unrelated parts.’2 The same point is further explicated by negating its opposite which might thus be taken as the implicit definition of the ugly: a composition should be ‘neither jumpy, nor confused, nor disorganized, nor disconnected, nor composed of incongruous elements, … nor too disjointed or distant from the rest of the body.’3 Alberti references order via the phrase ‘harmony of all the parts’. This can be accepted as a very general, abstract formula. However, his insistence on completeness, i.e., that nothing may be added, taken away or altered, is specific to Classical architecture and can no longer be considered a universal and invariant feature of beauty. Alberti's concept of an organic whole, with symmetry and strict rules of proportion, with a state of completeness or perfection that tolerates neither additions nor subtractions, describes a general ideal of beauty that remained in force from the Renaissance until the Historicism of the 19th century. The restrictions of symmetry, proportion and wholeness/completeness were abandoned within 20th-century Modernism. Instead, order was maintained via the order of the module, the grid and via the order of dynamic equilibrium. In addition features like simplicity and lightness were pursued, further specifying the Modernist sense of beauty. The formal heuristics of Parametricism call for order via lawful differentiation and correlation. These concepts are implemented via rule-based (algorithmic) design processes. A sense of order as distinct from chaos is maintained in all historical concretizations of the concept of beauty. Order vs chaos is thus the invariant criterion of beauty. However, the criterion of order vs chaos is insufficient to give an operational definition of beauty that could guide the concrete application of the distinction beautiful vs ugly. The order vs chaos criterion is still too abstract and leaves too many possibilities open. There can be many different forms of ordering, of relating non-arbitrarily. Order is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of beauty.4 Being attracted to order and repulsed by chaos might be a biologically hardwired response, i.e., the rationality of this response might be based on biological evolution rather than on cultural evolution. Chaos, the absence of any perceived order, is disorienting and thus threatening, especially if the whole environment lacks order. If the environment is partially ordered and partially configured randomly, then it makes sense that attention is drawn towards the ordered aspects, ignoring the less ordered or accidental configurations. Animal forms (and animal formations like flocks) are more organized than plant forms. Attention to animals is of higher evolutionary importance than attention to plants. Cultural evolution further confirmed the privileging of order over disorder. The more ordered appearance of the early city-based civilizations (Babylon, Maya Civilization etc), compared with village-based clan societies, correlates with the superiority of these civilizations. The effort to give order to the built environment has been a constant feature of the process of civilization.

The probability that a random configuration of entities constitutes an interrelated, functioning assemblage is very low. Where entities are configured into an order, the presumption is justified that these entities somehow add up to a unit of interaction. Ordered configurations are thus more likely to constitute a force than random configurations, a force that should be recognized and reckoned with. Complex order inspires curiosity and awe, random configurations – like a heap of garbage or the disarticulated agglomerations of suburbia – are usually taken no notice of, except negatively for their ugliness and thus absence of interest. All natural systems are ordered in some way. However, the complexity of many natural phenomena prevented the recognition of their order and beauty in earlier times.5 Le Corbusier’s first theoretical statement on Urbanism starts with a eulogy of the straight line and the right angle as means by which man conquers nature. The first two paragraphs of ‘The City of Tomorrow’ contrast man’s way with the pack-donkey’s way:  “Man walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows where he is going; he has made up his mind to reach some particular place and he goes straight to it. The pack-donkey meanders along, meditates a little in his scatter-brained and distracted fashion, he zig-zags in order to avoid larger stones, or to ease the climb, or to gain a little shade; he takes the line of least resistance.”6 Le Corbusier admires the urban order of the Romans and rejects our sentimental attachment to the picturesque irregularity of the medieval cities: “The curve is ruinous, difficult and dangerous; it is a paralyzing thing.”7 Le Corbusier insists that “the house, the street, the town … should be ordered; … if they are not ordered, they oppose themselves to us.”8  Le Corbusier’s limitation is his limited concept of order in terms of classical geometry. Complexity theory in general, and the research of Frei Otto in particular, have since taught us to recognize, measure and simulate the complexly ordered patterns that emerge from processes of self-organisation. (Frei Otto’s pioneering work on natural structures included work on settlement patterns.) Phenomena like the “donkey’s path” and urban patterns like traditional mountain villages resulting from settlement processes constrained by topography and by the rules imposed by traditional technological limits can now be analyzed and appreciated in terms of their underlying logic and rationality, i.e. in terms of their hidden regularity and related performance. Le Corbusier realized that although “nature presents itself to us as a chaos … the spirit which animates Nature is a spirit of order ”.9 However, his understanding of nature’s order was limited by the science of his day. Today we can reveal the complex order of those apparently chaotic patterns by means of simulating their lawful ‘material computation’. Our parametricist sensibility gives more credit to the “pack-donkey’s path” as a form of recursive material computation than to the simplicity of clear geometries that can be imposed in one sweeping move. Looking back at the results of earlier canon’s of beauty, their beauty and concept of order is readily recognized. However, looking forward, more complex forms of order are usually difficult to perceive and are initially experienced as ugly. This sense of ugliness can be overcome through conditioning in conjunction with the user’s gradual learning to decipher these more complex forms of order. These two moments have to be distinguished: The ability to identify a complex morphology as well ordered/beautiful (rather than disordered) on the one hand, and the ability to decipher and navigate this order. To be navigable at all the built environment needs to be rule-based, ordered.10 This is a crucial aspect of its functionality. A disordered, random agglomeration of buildings and spaces cannot be navigated. Thus, in the final analysis, the hypothesis that order vs chaos is a historically invariant criterion of beauty (at least with respect to built environments) is consistent with the general insight about the nature of aesthetic values, namely that they are means for the rapid, intuitive/perceptual recognition of functionality, and as such an indispensable aspect of our cognitive constitution.

Architecture and the Societal Efficacy of the Built Environment

Now we can start to appreciate that the appearance of the built environment means something and indicates something about its functional quality. While adherence to aesthetic criteria is no guarantee of functionality, it at least gives a first indication, sufficient to justify its further approach and exploration under the presumption (hypothesis) of its functionality.  In contrast, a building or urban field that fails to meet the specific aesthetic criteria (ordering principles) of its time is at least raising suspicions about its functionality. This applies to both technical and social functionality. However, architecture – in distinction to engineering – is primarily concerned with social functionality. This social functionality of the built environment is not only indicated and revealed by its appearance but crucially depends upon its legible appearance. This is so because appearances do not only work via beauty vs ugly (indicating functional vs dysfunctional), but the appearance might also relate (more or less)vital information about which specific function types and interaction scenarios might be encountered within an urban field and within the spaces and buildings that come into view. However, this is not a trivial matter that can be taken for granted.
‘Social functionality’ of the built environment here means its fitness for purpose, i.e. the efficient facilitation of social processes, the efficient hosting of satisfying and productive social interaction events. This requires more than efficient spatial organisation, i.e. room sizes and adjacency relations. The social functionality of the built environment requires first of all that the potential, relevant participants of all the different specific interaction events can find each other in specific locations and can self-sort into constellations conducive to the event pattern in question. In order for this to happen potential participants need to be able to orient themselves successfully and efficiently within the built environment. A key criterion for this is the visual articulation and legibility of the built environment. This insight leads us to reject the common place opposition between appearance and performance or representation and operation. Instead we arrive at the formula performance through appearance or operation through representation. This also motivates my thesis: all design is communication design.
The concept of social functionality - proposed here in distinction to technical functionality – leads us to reflect more generally about what the built environment does for society at large. The most important contribution of the built environment (and thus the essence of architecture’s task) is not physical shelter (as is often presumed) but its indispensable contribution to the build-up of social order, its contribution to the construction/evolution of sociality and society itself.
The built environment, with its complex matrix of territorial distinctions, is a giant, navigable, information-rich interface of communication. Society can only exist and evolve with the simultaneous ordering of space. There is no and never has been a human society without a built, artificial habitat, just as their does not exist a human society without language. Both are required to make social cooperation possible. The elaboration of a built environment (however haphazard, precarious, and initially based on accident rather than purpose and intention) seems to be a necessary condition for the build-up of any stable social order. The gradual build-up of larger, structured social groups must go hand in hand with the gradual build-up of an artificial spatial order; social order requires spatial order. The social process needs the built environment as a plane of inscription where it can leave traces that then serve to build-up and stabilize social structures, which in turn allow the further elaboration of more complex social processes. The evolution of society goes hand in hand with the evolution of its habitat – understood as an ordering frame. The spatial order of the human habitat is both an immediate physical organizing apparatus that separates and connects social actors and their activities, and a material substrate for the inscription of an external ”societal memory.” These ”inscriptions” might at first be an unintended side effect of the various activities. Spatial arrangements are functionally adapted and elaborated. They are then marked and underlined by ornaments, which make them more conspicuous. The result is the gradual build-up of a spatio-morphological system of signification. Thus, a semantically charged built environment emerges that provides a differentiated system of settings to help social actors orient themselves with respect to the different communicative situations constituting the social life-process of society. The system of social settings, as a system of distinctions and relations, uses both the positional identification of places (spatial position) and the morphological identification of places (ornamental marking) as props for the societal information process. Compelling demonstrations for this formative nexus between social and spatial structure can be found within social anthropology, attesting to the crucial importance of cross-generationally stable spatio-morphological settings for the initial emergence and stabilization of all societies. Only on this basis, with this new material substrate upon which the evolutionary mechanisms of mutation, selection, and reproduction could operate, was the evolution of mankind out of the animal kingdom, and all further cultural evolution, possible. Thus, the built environment, as the cross-generationally stable, material substrate of the cultural evolution, acts functionally equivalent to the DNA as the material substrate of the biological evolution.
The importance of the built environment for ordering and framing society remains undiminished. However, what, in former times, was left to the slow evolutionary process of trial and error has, since the Renaissance, become more and more the domain of competency and responsibility of the specialized discourse and profession of the discipline of architecture. During the Renaissance a consciously innovative theory-led design discipline equipped with a compelling system of drawings (including perspective) displaced the former tradition-bound building. I call this the big bang of architecture. I consider the Gothic era effecting the transition from tradition bound building to architecture proper. Since then an accelerating succession of architectural styles – Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassicism, Historicism, Ecclecticism, Art Noveau, Modernism, Postmodernism, Deconstructivism, Parametricism  - has taken charge of the innovation of the built environment in its adaptive coevolution with the historical transformations of European and then World society. In the most general abstract terms the evolutionary trajectory of world civilisation has been an increase in the overall level of societal differentiation or complexity. Each major historical (epochal) transformation implied adaptive transformations in the morphology of the built environment which in turn required aesthetic revolutions, the relearning of the aesthetic sensibilities and values of both designers and end-users.

Parametricism – Candidate Epochal Style for the 21st Century                           

Many have come to believe that the pluralism of styles and perspectives that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s  - Postmodernism, High-Tech modernism, Deconstructivism, Neo-historicism, Minimalism - is an inherent and inevitable characteristic of our epoch, and that a globally shared architectural agenda analogous to the modern movement is no longer possible. Against this stands the fact that a global convergence of design research efforts has gathered sufficient momentum within the architectural avant-garde over the last 15 years to make the emergence of a new unified paradigm and agenda in analogy to modernism plausible today. Six years ago I proposed a name for this movement  - parametricism -  and started my attempts to summarize its novel features, methodologies, and values. As a committed participant I also tried to explicate its rationality, advantages, and preliminary achievements in the light of the current ‘historical’ condition: the globalized, knowledge- and network society. Due to the 2008 financial crisis and its economic aftermath – the great recession -  the proliferation of parametricism has been much slower than one might have expected six years ago. However, further progress has been made in the movement’s evolution from an (ongoing) avant-garde design research agenda to a movement with the strategic agenda of global implementation across all scales and programme categories. At least this is the author’s ambition. Its viability is demonstrated by the dramatic expansion of Zaha Hadid Architects in scale, scope and global reach.11
Is this ambition and claim towards the global implementation of the new paradigm not contradicted by the diversity of climatic, socio-economic, and cultural conditions? My answer to this often posed question is that differentiation and local adaptation is the very essence of parametricism. The abstractness and thus open-endedness of its general principles guarantee the adaptive versatility of its solution space. While the world is more diverse and differentiated – across countries and continents as well as within its mega-cities – it also is more interconnected and integrated than ever, so that talk of a single world society becomes ever more justified. Thus no region, culture or subculture can remain secluded from the most advanced, global best practice architectural paradigm.
The key historical category that motivates and calls for parametricism’s take over from modernism is ‘post-fordist network society’ as distinct from the prior era of fordist mass society. In ‘The Autopoiesis of Architecture’ the author has elaborated a theory of styles within which the concept of epochal styles implies a historical alignment with societal (socio-economic) epochs. As indicated above, architecture emerged from tradition bound building as differentiated, consciously innovative, theory-led discipline in the Renaissance and advanced via the progression of epochal styles, in co-evolution with the other societal subsystems like science, the economy, politics etc. that started to be differentiated at the same time. The epochal location of parametricism can be succinctly characterized by the following table. (Postmodernism and Deconstructivism are not featured because they are transitional rather than epochal styles, transitional episodes between Modernism and Parametricism, like Art Nouveau and Expressionism were transitional styles on the way to Modernism.)12


Society/Socio-Economic epoch

tradition-bound building


medieval vernacular







feudalism + rising cities

architectural history: epochal styles



early captialism / city states




bourgeois capitalism, nations-states


fordism/international socialism


global, post-fordist network society

Fig. 1 Epochal alignments of styles

Fig.2 Medieval town, vernacular 
Fig.3 Palma Nova, Renaissance
Fig.4 Chateau de Versailles, Baroque

Fig.5 Modernism: Le Corbusier, Ville Radieuse, 1924       
Fig.6  Parametricism: ZHA, Istanbul Masterplan, 2007

Parametricism is the contemporary style that is most vigorously advancing its design agenda on the basis of computationally augmented, parametric design techniques. It is a wide-spread paradigm and global movement within contemporary architecture that emerged and gathered momentum during the last 15 years. The author is an active participant in the advancement of this movement via teaching arenas like the AA Design Research Lab and via the designs and buildings of Zaha Hadid Architects. The movement  - the only truly innovative direction within contemporary architecture – has by now sufficiently demonstrated its capacity to credibly aspire to become the universally recognized best practice approach to architectural and urban design globally. Parametricism is ready to make an impact: to transform the physiognomy of the global built environment and the totality of the world of designed artefacts, just like modernism did in the 20th century.
As conceptual definition of parametricism one might offer the following formula: Parametricism implies that all architectural elements and compositions are parametrically malleable.  This implies a fundamental ontological shift within the basic, constituent elements of architecture. Instead of the classical and modern reliance on ideal geometrical figures  - straight lines, rectangles, as well as cubes, cylinders, pyramids, and (semi-)spheres -  the new primitives of parametricism are animate (dynamic, adaptive, interactive) geometrical entities   - splines, nurbs, subdivs, particle-spring systems, agent based systems ect.  -  as fundamental ‘geometrical’ building blocks for dynamical compositions that can be made to resonate with each other (and with contextual conditions) via scripts.
In principle every property of every element or complex is subject to parametric variation. The key technique for handling this variability is the scripting of functions that establish associations between the properties of the various elements. However, 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. What characterizes the new style are new ambitions and new values  - both in terms of form and in terms of function -  that are to be pursued with the aid of the new tools and techniques. Parametricism pursues the very general aim to organize and articulate the increasing diversity and complexity of social institutions and life processes within post-fordist network society. For this task parametricism aims to establish a complex variegated spatial order. It uses scripting to lawfully differentiate and correlate all elements and subsystems of a design. The goal is to intensify the internal interdependencies within an architectural design as well as the external affiliations and continuities within complex, urban contexts. Parametricism offers a new, complex order via the principles of differentiation and correlation.
This general verbal and motivational definition of parametricism can and must be complemented by an operational definition. It is necessary to operationalise the intuitive values of a style in order to make its hypotheses testable, to make its dissemination systematic so that it can be exposed to constructive criticism, including self-critique.
The operational definition of a style must formulate general instructions that guide the creative process in line with the general ambitions and expected qualities of the style. A style is not only concerned with the elaboration and evaluation of architectural form. Each style poses a specific way of understanding and handling functions. Accordingly, the operational definition of parametricism comprises both a formal heuristics (aesthetic values)  -  establishing rules and principles that guide the elaboration and evaluation of the design’s formal development and resolution – as well as a functional heuristics (performance values) - establishing rules and principles that guide the elaboration and evaluation of the design’s social functionality.
For each of these two dimensions the operational definition formulates the values (heuristics) of the design process in terms of operational taboos and dogmas specifying what to avoid and what to pursue. At the same time these heuristic design guidelines provide criteria of self-critique and continuous design enhancement.

Operational definition of Parametricism:

Formal/aesthetic values:

Negative principles (taboos):       

avoid rigid forms (lack of malleability)
avoid simple repetition (lack of variety)
avoid collage of isolated, unrelated elements (lack of order)

Positive principles (dogmas):       

all forms must be variable and adaptive (deformation = information)
all systems must be differentiated (gradients)
all systems must be interdependent (correlations)

Functional/performance values:

Negative principles (taboos):        avoid rigid functional stereotypes
                                                       avoid segregative functional zoning
Positive principles (dogmas):        all functions are parametric activity/event scenarios
                                                       all activities/events communicate with each other

The avoidance of the taboos and the adherence to the dogmas delivers complex, variegated order for complex social institutions. These principles outline pathways for the continuous critique and improvement of the design. The designer can always increase the coherence and intricacy of his/her design by inventing further variables and degrees of freedom for the compositions’ primitive components. There is always scope for the further differentiation of the arrays or subsystems that are made up by the elemental primitives. This differentiation can be increased with respect to the number of variables at play, with respect to the range of differences it encompasses and with respect to the fineness and differential rhythm of its gradients. There is always further scope for the correlation of the various subsystems at play in the multi-system set up. Both differentiation and correlation should be strictly rule-based and – more importantly – the scripted differentiations and correlations must become perceptually palpable and cognitively traceable. Only a visible and legible spatial order qualifies as architectural order. Articulation and visual-aesthetic control remains critical.
Ultimately every subsystem will be in a relation of mutual dependency with every other subsystem, directly or indirectly. The number of aspects or properties of each subsystem that are involved in the network of correlation might be increased with each design step. Further there is always the possibility (and often the necessity) to add further subsystems or layers to the (ever more complex and intricate) composition. Also: it is always possible to identify further aspects or features of the (principally unlimited) urban context that might become an occasion for the design to register and respond to. Thus the context sensitivity of the design can be increased with every design step. Thus the heuristics of parametricism direct a trajectory of design intensification that is in principle an infinite task and trajectory. There is always a further possibility pushing up the intensity, coherence, intricacy (and beauty) of the design. As the network of relations tightens, each further step becomes more elaborate, more involved as all the prior subsystems and their trajectories of differentiation should be taken into account. Arbitrary additions show up conspicuously as alien disruption of the intricate order elaborated so far. Each additional element or subsystem that enters the composition at a late, highly evolved stage challenges the ingenuity of the designer, and more so the more the design advances. The complex, highly evolved design assumes more and more the awe-inspiring air of a quasi-natural necessity. However, the design remains open ended. There can be no closure. The classical concepts of completeness and perfection do not apply to parametricism. Parametricism’s complex variegated order does not rely on the completion of a figure. It remains an inherently open composition and design trajectory.


From Visual Chaos to Urban Order as Interface of Communication

Since 1980 we live in the era of a market-led post-fordist socio-economic restructuring. The re-admission of international market forces and entrepreneurship combusted with the versatile productive potentials of the micro-electronic revolution to unleash a new socio-economic dynamic: the emergence of post-fordist network society. Life-style diversification and the new diversity in products and services made economically viable by the new design and production systems engaged in mutual amplification. The diversity of new enterprises coupled with accelerating cylcles of innovation (made viable by the new technologies and expanded markets) engendered a much differentiated and intensified societal communication. The planned decentralization via mute, monotonous, zoned satellite settlements separating sleeping silos from industrial estates was no longer a viable recipe for societal advancement. In terms of urban development this implied the return to the historic centres with individual incisions as well as a deregulated, laissez faire sprawling beyond the bounds of emerging mega-cities.Both tendencies can be described as forms of collage, the anti-thesis of planned or designed development. The result is what I have called garbage spill urbanisation. Deconstructivism was the attempt to sublimate and aesthetisize this new vital urban phenomenon.

Fig. 7 Urban disarticulation, Tokyo                            
Fig.8 differences collapse into sameness  

Fig.9 & 10 Deconstructivist sublimation of urban collage, Zaha Hadid paitings, 1983, 1986

This free-wheeling , chaotic mode of development is certainly better adapted to the new socio-economic dynamics than the bankrupt, simplistic order of modernist planning and urbanism. However, it produces a disorienting visual chaos that compromises the vital communicative capacity of the built environment. While the new diversity and open-endedness of post-fordist social phenomena is being accommodated, the unregulated agglomeration of differences produced the global effect of white noise sameness everywhere without allowing for the emergence of distinct urban identities within a legible urban order. While laissez faire development can deliver a socially (market) validated program mix and program distribution, it seems bound to produce visual chaos in the urban dimension. This visual disorder is not only ugly and distracting, it is disorienting and thus compromises the social functionality of the built environment.
The phenomenological disarticulation of the emergent organisational complexity hampers the full potential for complex social organisation and communication. The articulation of a legible spatial order – the architect’s core competency - is itself a vital aspect not only of the city’s liveability but also of its economic productivity.  Social functionality depends as much on subjective visual accessibility as it depends on objective physical availability. Architects should recognize this instrumentality of visual appearances as a key moment of their core competency and task. Social cooperation requires that specifically relevant actors find each other and configure within specific communicative situations. This insight motivates architectural attempts to articulate a complex variegated urban order that allows for the intuitive navigation and orientation within an information-rich built environment that makes its rich offerings visually accessible. That is the design agenda of parametricism and parametric urbanism. There is no doubt that the new computational ordering devices like gradients, vector fields, and the methods of associative modelling and geometric data-field transcoding allow designers to generate intricately ordered urban morphologies with distinct identities that could in principle make a much larger amount of programmatic information perceptually tractable.
While Deconstructivism was celebrating, sublimating and aestheticizing urban chaos, Parametricism is attempting to once more transform the morphology and aesthetics of the built environment, not by trying to arrest, mute or deny the complexity of postfordist network society – as minimalism tries – but by trying to organize and articulate societal complexity via its new computationally empowered formal ordering capacities.The failure to grasp the instrumentality of the built environment’s appearance has for too long hampered the architecture’s proactive pursuit of formal articulation as a key competency of the discipline. The crucial work on formal/aesthetic problems which in practice takes up the larger part of the architect’s design work is being denigrated or denied in the discipline’s self-descriptions. Architecture is responsible for the built environments social (rather than technical engineering) functionality. Social functionality of the built environment largely depends upon its communicative capacity, which in turn is a matter of visual communication.

Within contemporary network society (information society, knowledge economy), total social productivity increases with the density of communication. Contemporary network society demands that we continuously browse and scan as much of the social world as possible to remain continuously connected and informed. We cannot afford to withdraw and beaver away in isolation when innovation accelerates all around. We must continuously recalibrate what we are doing in line with what everybody else is doing. We must remain networked all the time to continuously ascertain the relevancy of our own efforts. Rapid and effective face-to-face communication remains a crucial component of our daily productivity. Tele-communication cannot replace face to face and group communication or the browsing of a dense urban environment. The importance of the built environment further increases as mobile tele-communication unchains us from our desks and releases us into the space of the city. The whole built environment becomes an interface of multi-modal communication, and the ability to navigate dense and complex urban environments is an important aspect of our overall productivity today. Our increasing ability to scan an ever-increasing simultaneity of events, and to move through a rapid succession of communicative encounters, constitutes the essential, contemporary form of cultural advancement. The further advancement of this vital capacity requires a new built environment with an unprecedented level of complexity, a complexity that is organized and articulated into a complex, variegated order of the kind we admire in natural, self-organized systems. The city is a complex, densely layered text and a permanent broadcast. Our ambition as architects and urban designers must be to spatially unfold more simultaneous choices of communicative situations in dense, perceptually palpable, and legible arrangements. The visual field must be rich in interaction opportunities and information about what lies behind the immediate field of vision.

Fig.11 & 12 Zaha Hadid Architects, Gallaxy for Soho China, Beijing 2012

The simultaneous enhancement of freedom and order: inversion of architecture’s entropy law

My thesis is that the built environment should be conceived and designed as a three-dimensional, 360 degree, layered interface of communication. It can communicate the more the more becomes simultaneously visible. But that is not enough. Its communicative capacity depends on the coherency of its internal order so that what is visible allows for inferences about what is invisible or not yet visible. This depends on the consistency of its form-function correlations, so that a positional or morphological distinction or difference makes a predictable difference in terms of expected social interaction pattern or social function.
Parametricism delivers the simultaneous enhancement of freedom and order. We might speak of the inversion of architecture and urbanism’s ongoing entropy, i.e. the inversion of architecture’s 300 year trajectory of the degeneration of its ordering capacity.

Fig.13 The simultaneous enhancement of freedom and order: inversion of architecture’s entropy law

Deconstructivism can be looked at as the aesthetic ideology of this urban process of “garbage spill” collage. Like the move from classical architecture to modernism, the move from modernism to deconstructivism and collage delivered an expansion of degrees of freedom and versatility (to accommodate a more complex society) that was paid for by a relaxation or rejection of rules of composition, i.e. of means of ordering, and thus a resultant degeneration of the visual order. Parametricism is the first style that delivers further degrees of freedom and versatility in conjunction with a simultaneous increase in its ordering capacity via new compositional rules like affiliations, gradients and associative logics. In principle all design moves are now rule based and thus with the potential to enhance the visual order and thus legibility of the built environment in the face of an increased complexity.

Fig.14 Modernism: Gropius 1929    
Fig.15 Postodernism: OMA, 1976     
Fig.16 Deconstructivism: Zaha Hadid 1985

Fig.17, 18, 19, 20 Parametricism: ZHA Masterplans for Istanbul, Bilbao, Appur; Energy Research Campus, Ryad

If we look at the historical progression of styles we find that the last 300 years established architecture’s entropy law: all gains in terms of design freedom and versatility have been achieved at the expense of urban and architectural order, i.e. increases in versatility had to be bought by a progressive degeneration of architecture’s ordering capacity. The increase of degrees of freedom established via the enrichment of architecture’s formal-compositional repertoire was the paramount criterion of progress in architecture’s pursuit of matching the requisite variety of societal complexity.  Order was progressively eroded. This long trend of a negative correlation of freedom and order can be reversed under the auspices of parametricism. Parametricism offers the simultaneous increase in freedom and order and thus inaugurates a new phase of architectural neg-entropy. Parametricism’s radical ontological and methodological innovation translates into a massive leap in both dimensions of architectural progress considered here, i.e. it entails an unprecedented expansion of architecture’s compositional freedom and versatility and an unprecedented leap in architecture’s ordering capacity through the deployment of algorithms and associative logics. This reversal of architecture’s entropy law, this new ordering capacity or architectural neg-entropy is the critical factor in architecture’s potential to halt the ongoing urban disarticulation of the world’s built environments. However, this factor can only come into play if parametricism achieves hegemony as the unified, epochal style of the 21st century.

Neither a hegemonic Postmodernism, nor a hegemonic Deconstructivism could overcome the visual chaos that allows the proliferation of differences to collapse into global sameness (white noise). Both Postmodernism and Deconstructivism operate via collage, i.e. via the unconstrained agglomeration of differences. Only Parametricism has the capacity to combine an increase in complexity with a simultaneous increase in order, via the principles of lawful differentiation and multi-system correlation. Parametricism can overcome the visual chaos and white noise sameness that laissez faire urbanisation produces everywhere. Parametricism holds out the possibility of a new urbanism that produces an emergent order and local identity in a bottom up process, i.e. without relying on political or bureaucratic power. The values and methodological principles of parametricism are prone to produce path-dependent, self-amplifying local identities. Its ethos of contextual affiliation and ambition to establish or reinforce continuities allows for the development of unique urban identities on the basis of local contexts, topography, climate etc. Parametricist order does not rely on the uniform repetition of patterns as Modernist urbanism does.

In contrast to Baroque or Beaux Arts master-plans, Parametricist compositions are inherently open ended (incomplete) compositions. Their order is relational rather than geometric.
They establish order and orientation via the lawful differentiation of fields, via vectors of transformation, as well as via contextual affiliations and subsystem correlations. This neither requires the completion of a figure, nor - in contrast to Modernist master-plans - the uniform repetition of a pattern. There are always many (in principle infinitely many) creative ways to transform, to affiliate, to correlate. Parametricism thus holds out the prospect of a post-fordist urban order.



1 Leon Battista Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, translated by Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach & Robert Tavernor, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA/London), 1988, p 156.

2 Ibid, p 24.

3 Ibid, p 163.

4 There might be an exception to this rule: in periods of crisis or transition when old norms have become anachronistic and can no longer identify the most vital as the most beautiful, or where the established code of beauty promotes the dysfunctional, the absence of any order might be preferred over the wrong order. An example is the Deconstructivist aesthetic of the early Frank Gehry, and the early Coop Himmelb(l)au.

5 The beauty of natural landscapes was appreciated only after the chaotic urban developments of early industrial capitalism revealed their relative order.

6 Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow and its Planning, Dover Publications, New York 1987, translated from French original Urbanisme, Paris 1925, p.5

7 Ibid, p.8

8 Ibid, p.15

9 Ibid, p.18

10 For patterns to be recognized and deciphered, patterns need to exist. 

11 Zaha Hadid started in 1980. After 20 years, in 2000,  Zaha Hadid Architects had only completed 3 small buildings and was employing 20 people. Currently ZHA is employing 450 people, working on about 80 projects world-wide, across all programme categories, including many large scale projects over 100,000 sqm and several above 300,000.

12 For a more elaborate theory of styles see: Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Volume 1, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., London 2010. For a more elaborate account of Parametricism as Epochal Style for the 21st Century see: Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Volume 2, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., London 2012



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