Classicism vs parametricism: It's no contest
A debate between the classicists and the parametricists failed to take off, says Felix Mara
Last month, the AJ published essays by classicist Robert Adam and parametricist Patrik Schumacher, a partner at Zaha Hadid Architects (AJ 06.05.10).
Last week, both architects headlined the ‘Modernity and the Future of Tradition’ debate at the University of Notre Dame, London, in a follow up to the AJ’s coverage. But they failed to lock horns. Why?
The event, organised by the Traditional Architecture Group (TAG), discouraged confrontation. There were 15-minute presentations by Schumacher and Adam, but only after an opener by Stephen Bayley and another later by Notre Dame professor Samir Younes. They seconded the cases for modernism and tradition.
Comments by Alan Powers, Richard Hayward and Ettore Mazzola followed. There was little time for the main protagonists to interact – perhaps because TAG didn’t want any unpleasantness. Nobody wanted aggro. Adam said he found many modern buildings beautiful and Schumacher discussed baroque architecture at length. He described Adam’s presentation as the perfect preface, but disagreed with his conclusions.
Adam’s position is analogous to that of a shadow cabinet minister; he has more experience of the tradition-versus-modernism debate than Schumacher, yet his cautious presentation, with no mention of architecture, emphasised tradition’s central role in society and culture. According to George Saumarez Smith, classicists have tired of this debate and their ‘years in the wilderness’ and prefer to focus on their work.
It’s difficult for adherents of different theories to communicate because they inhabit skew planes, with no common vocabulary or conceptual framework. Although the moderator, former RIBA president Sunand Prasad, observed that parametricism lays claim to continuity, which can be linked to tradition in its diachronic form, this continuity is tradition in a different register.
Perhaps the distinction is that for Schumacher this continuity is a trajectory advancing towards the future, whereas Adam seeks permanent, eternal principles. Both retain the core meaning of tradition as something that is handed on, but for Schumacher it is a baton, not a torch and history is ‘a resource’.
What this event lacked was the iconoclastic and nihilistic perspective of a Reyner Banham or a Martin Pawley. Some might see the tradition-versus-modernism debate as peripheral today; however, if Adam and Schumacher are evoking tradition we need to question what it entails and what we may be signing up for. Without the notion of tradition, architects wouldn’t have to look over their shoulders and would have more choice. We would also be rid of the reactionary and fatalistic ideology that everything has its place. History is a tax that we pay to the dead.
- Felix Mara is technical editor of the AJ and editor of AJ Specification