Parametricism

A New Global Style for Architecture and Urban Design

Though parametricism has its roots in the digital animation techniques of the mid-1990s, it has only fully emerged in recent years with the development of advanced parametric design systems. Patrik Schumacher explains why parametricism has become the dominant, single style for avant-garde practice today and why it is particularly suited to large-scale urbanism as exemplified by a series of competition-winning masterplans by Zaha Hadid Architects.

Ebook Frei Otto ParametricEbook Frei Otto Parametric

Zaha Hadid Archiects, Kartal-Pendik Masterplan, Istanbul, Turkey, 2006

Fabric study. The urban fabric comprises both cross towers and perimeter blocks. The image shows the morphological range of the perimeter block type. Blocks are split into four quadrants allowing for a secondary, pedestrian path system. At certain network crossing points the block system is assimilated to the tower system: each block sponsors one of the quadrants to form a pseudo-tower around a network crossing point.

There is a global convergence in recent avant-garde architecture that justifies its designation as a new style: parametricism. It is a style rooted in digital animation techniques, its latest refinements based on advanced parametric design systems and scripting methods. Developed over the past 15 years and now claiming hegemony within avant-garde architecture practice, it succeeds Modernism as the next long wave of systematic innovation. Parametricism finally brings to an end the transitional phase of uncertainty engendered by the crisis of Modernism and marked by a series of relatively short-lived architectural episodes that included Postmodernism, Deconstructivism and Minimalism. So pervasive is the application of its techniques that parametricism is now evidenced at all scales from architecture to interior design to large urban design. Indeed, the larger the project, the more pronounced is parametricism's superior capacity to articulate programmatic complexity.

The urbanist potential of parametricism has been explored in a three-year research agenda at the AADRL titled 'Parametric Urbanism' and is demonstrated by a series of competition-winning masterplans by Zaha Hadid Architects.

Parametricism as Style

Avant-garde architecture and urbanism are going through a cycle of innovative adaptation - retooling and refashioning the discipline to meet the socioeconomic demands of the post-Fordism era. The mass society that was characterised by a universal consumption standard has evolved into the heterogeneous society of the multitude, marked by a proliferation of lifestyles and extensive work-path differentiation. It is the task of architecture and urbanism to organise and articulate the increased complexity of our post-Fordist society.

Contemporary avant-garde architecture and urbanism seek to address this societal demand via a rich panoply of parametric design techniques. However, what confronts us is a new style rather than merely a new set of techniques. The techniques in question - the employment of animation, simulation and form-finding tools, as well as parametric modelling and scripting - have inspired a new collective movement with radically new ambitions and values. In turn, this development has led to many new, systematically connected design problems that are being worked on competitively by a global network of design researchers.1 Over and above aesthetic recognisability, it is this pervasive, long-term consistency of shared design ambitions/problems that justifies the enunciation of a new style in the sense of an epochal phenomenon.2 Parametricism is a mature style. There has been talk of 'continuous differentiation',3 versioning, iteration and mass customisation among other things for quite some time now within architectural avant-garde discourse.

Not long ago we witnessed an accelerated, cumulative build-up of virtuosity, resolution and refinement facilitated by the simultaneous development of parametric design tools and scripts that allow the precise formulation and execution of intricate correlations between elements and subsystems. The shared concepts, computational techniques, formal repertoires and tectonic logics that characterise this work are crystallising into a solid new hegemonic paradigm for architecture.

Ebook Structure Parametric Architecture

Parametricism emerges from the creative exploitation of parametric design systems in the course of articulating increasingly complex social processes and institutions. That parametric design tools themselves do not account for this profound shift in style from Modernism to parametricism is evidenced by the fact that late Modernist architects are employing parametric tools in ways which result in the maintenance of a Modernist aesthetic, using parametric modelling inconspicuously to absorb complexity. The parametricist sensibility, however, pushes in the opposite direction, aiming for maximum emphasis on conspicuous differentiation and the visual amplification differentiating logics. Aesthetically, it is the elegance4 of ordered complexity and the sense of seamless fluidity, akin to natural systems that constitute the hallmark of parametricism.

therefore represent cycles of innovation, gathering design research efforts into a collective endeavour. Here, stable self-identity is as much a necessary precondition of evolution as it is in the case of organic life. To hold on to the new principles in the face of difficulties is crucial for the chance of eventual success, something that is incompatible with an understanding of styles as transient fashions. Basic principles and methodologies need to be preserved and defended with tenacity in the face of initial difficulties and setbacks: each style has its hard core of principles and a characteristic way of tackling design problems/tasks.

The programme/style consists of methodological rules: some tell us what paths of research to avoid (negative heuristics), and others what paths to pursue (positive heuristics). Negative heuristics formulates strictures that prevent relapse into old patterns that are not fully consistent with the core; positive heuristics offers guiding principles and preferred techniques that allow the work to fast-forward in a particular direction.

Styles as Design Research Programmes

Avant-garde styles can be interpreted and evaluated analogously to new scientific paradigms, affording a new conceptual framework and formulating new aims, methods and values. Thus a new direction for concerted research work is established.5 Thus styles are design research programmes.6 Innovation in architecture proceeds via the progression of styles so understood: as the alternation between periods of cumulative advancement within a style and of periods of revolutionary transition between styles. Styles

Defining Heuristics and Pertinent Agendas

The defining heuristics of parametricism is fully reflected in the taboos and dogmas of contemporary avant-garde design culture:

• Negative heuristics (taboos): avoid rigid geometric primitives such as squares, triangles and circles; avoid simple repetition of elements, avoid juxtaposition of unrelated elements or systems.

• Positive heuristics (dogmas): consider all forms to be parametrically malleable; differentiate gradually (at varying rates), inflect and correlate systematically.

The current stage of development within parametricism is as much to do with the continuous advancement of the attendant computational design processes as it is due to the designer's grasp of the unique formal and organisational opportunities afforded by these processes. Parametricism can only exist via the continuous advancement and sophisticated appropriation of computational geometry. Finally, computationally advanced design techniques such as scripting (in Mel-script or Rhino-script) and parametric modelling (with tools such as GC or DP) are becoming a pervasive reality such that it is no longer possible to compete within the contemporary avant-garde architecture scene without mastering and refining them. However, the advancement of techniques should go hand in hand with the formulation of yet more ambitions and goals. The following five agendas seek to inject new aspects into the parametric paradigm and to further extend the new style's reach:

4 Parametric responsiveness

Urban and architectural environments possess an inbuilt kinetic capacity that allows those environments to reconfigure and adapt in response to prevalent occupation patterns. The real-time registration of use patterns drives the real-time kinetic adaptation. The built environment thus acquires responsive agency at different timescales.

5 Parametric urbanism10 - deep relationality

The assumption is that the urban massing describes a swarm formation of many buildings whereby the urban variables of mass, spacing and directionality are choreographed by scripted functions. In addition, the systematic modulation of architectural morphologies produces powerful urban effects and facilitates field orientation. The goal is deep relationality, the total integration of the evolving built environment, from urban distribution to architectural morphology, detailed tectonic articulation and interior organisation. Thus parametric urbanism might apply parametric accentuation, parametric figuration and parametric responsiveness as tools to achieve deep relationality.

1 Parametric interarticulation of subsystems

The goal is to move from single system differentiation (for example, a swarm of facade components) to the scripted association of multiple subsystems -envelope, structure, internal subdivision, navigation void. The differentiation in any one system is correlated with differentiations in the other systems.7

2 Parametric accentuation

Here the goal is to enhance the overall sense of organic integration by means of correlations that favour deviation amplification rather than compensatory adaptation. The associated system should accentuate the initial differentiation such that a far richer articulation is achieved and more orienting visual information made available.

3 Parametric figuration8

Complex configurations in which multiple readings are latent can be constructed as a parametric model with extremely figuration-sensitive variables. Parametric variations trigger 'gestalt-catastrophes', that is, the quantitative modification of these parameters triggers qualitative shifts in the perceived configuration. Beyond object parameters, ambient parameters and observer parameters have to be integrated into the parametric system.

Parametricist vs Modernist Urbanism

Le Corbusier's first theoretical statement on urbanism begins with a eulogy to the straight line and the right angle as means whereby man conquers nature. Famously, the first two paragraphs of The City of Tomorrow contrast man's way with that of the pack donkey:

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.11

Ebook Frei Otto Parametric

Zaha Hadid Architects, One-North Masterplan, Singapore, 2003

opposite and above: Fabric and network. This masterplan for a new mixed-used urban business district in Singapore was the first of a series of radical masterplans that led to the concept of parametric urbanism and then to the general concept of parametricism.

Zaha Hadid Architects, One-North Masterplan, Singapore, 2003

opposite and above: Fabric and network. This masterplan for a new mixed-used urban business district in Singapore was the first of a series of radical masterplans that led to the concept of parametric urbanism and then to the general concept of parametricism.

Le Corbusier admires the urban order of the Romans and rejects our sentimental modern-day attachment to the picturesque irregularity of the medieval city: 'The curve is ruinous, difficult and dangerous; it is a paralyzing thing;'12 instead, he insists that 'the house, the street, the town ... should be ordered; ... if they are not ordered, they oppose themselves to us.'13 Le Corbusier's limitation is not his insistence upon order but rather his limited conception of order in terms of classical geometry. Complexity theory in general, and the research of Frei Otto in particular,14 have since taught us to recognise, measure and simulate the complex patterns that emerge from processes of self-organisation. Phenomena such as the 'pack-donkey's path' and urban patterns resulting from unplanned settlement processes can now be analysed and appreciated in terms of their underlying logic and rationality, that is, in terms of their hidden regularity and associated performative power.

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