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Patrik Schumacher on parametricism - 'Let the style wars begin'

In an exclusive text for the AJ, Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects argues that the unified style of architecture for the 21st century will be parametricism

In my Parametricist Manifesto of 2008, I first communicated that a new, profound style has been maturing within the avant-garde segment of architecture during the last 10 years. The term ‘parametricism’ has since been gathering momentum within architectural discourse and its critical questioning has strengthened it. So far, knowledge of the new style has remained largely confined within architecture, but I suspect news will spread quickly once it is picked up by the mass media. Outside architectural circles, ‘style’ is virtually the only category through which architecture is observed and recognised. A named style needs to be put forward in order to stake its claim to act in the name of architecture.

The concept of style deserves to be defended

The concept of style has for a long time beenlosing traction within architectural discourse. To let this concept wither away would onlyimpoverish the discourse, and a powerful asset for communicating architecture to societywould be lost. However, the resuscitation of this drained and battered concept requires conceptual reconstruction in terms that are intellectually credible today.

What stands in the way of this is thetendency to regard style as merely a matter of appearance, as well as the related tendency toconfuse styles with superficial, short-lived fashions. Although aesthetic appearancematters enormously in architecture and design, neither architecture nor its styles canbe reduced to mere matters of appearance. Neither must the phenomenon of styles beassimilated to the phenomenon of fashion.

The concept of style must therefore besharply distinguished and cleansed of these trivialising and distracting connotations.  It denotes the unity of the difference between the architectural epochs of gothic, renaissance, baroque, classicism, historicism and modernism.The historical self-consciousness of architecture demands the revitalisation of theconcept of style as a profound historical phenomenon that can be projected into thefuture. For this purpose I have proposed that architectural styles are best understood asdesign-research programmes, conceived in analogy to the way paradigms frame scientific research programmes.

A new style in architecture and design isakin to a new paradigm in science; it redefines the fundamental categories, purposes and methods of a coherent collective endeavour. Innovation in architecture proceeds via the progression of styles so understood. This implies the alternation between periods of cumulative advancement within a style, and revolutionary periods of transition between styles. Styles represent long, sustained cycles of innovation, gathering design-research efforts into a collective movement so that individual efforts are mutually relevant,spurning and enhancing. 

Parametricism offers a credible, sustainable answer to the crisis of modernism that resulted in 25 years of stylistic searching

From the inside, within architecture, the identification of parametricism demarcates and further galvanises a maturing avant-garde movement, and thus might serve to accelerate its progress and potential hegemony as acollective research and development effort. As a piece of retrospective description andinterpretation, the announcement of parametricism seems justified after 10 years of consistent, cumulative design research. Prospectively, the announcement of the style should further consolidate the attained achievements and prepare the transition from avant-garde to mainstream hegemony. Parametricism finally offers a credible, sustainable answer to the drawn-out crisis of modernism that resulted in 25 years of stylistic searching.

Parametricism is the great new style after modernism

Post-modernism and deconstructivism were mere transitional episodes, similar to art nouveau and expressionism as transitions from historicism to modernism. The distinction of epochal styles from transitional styles is important. In a period of transition there might emerge a rapid succession of styles, or even a plurality of simultaneous, competing styles. The crisis and demise of modernism lead to a deep and protracted transitional period, but there is no reason to believe that this pluralism cannot be overcome by the hegemony of a new unified style. The potential for such a unification is indeed what we are witnessing.

Beyond the modernistparadigm of separationand repetition

The modernist order of separation and repetition is being supplanted by the parametricist order of continuous differentiation and intensive correlation. Within the broad new paradigm of parametricism, many subsidiary styles might be expected to enrich and progress the coming epoch of parametricism.

Modernism’s crisis does not mean an end to unified styles

Modernism’s crisis and its architectural aftermath has led many critics to believe we can no longer be expected to forge a unified style. Did the profound developmental role of styles in the history of architecture, as evidenced in the gothic-renaissance baroquehistoricism- modernism sequence, come to an end? Did history come to an end? Or did it ragment into criss-crossing and contradictory trajectories? Are we to celebrate this fragmentation of efforts under the slogan of pluralism?

Architecture today is world architecture

Every architectural project is immediately exposed and assessed in comparison to all other projects. Global convergences are possible. This does not mean homogenisation and monotony. It merely implies a consistency of principles,ambitions and values to build upon so that different efforts add up, are relevant to each other and compete constructively with each other, to establish the conditions for progress rather than pursuing contradictory efforts that battle over fundamentals. This is the idea of a unified style; initially as a unified avant-garde design-research programme, and eventually as a unified system of principles, ambitions and values that constitute global best practice.

The new generation

The consistency of the style as a collective design-research programme depends upon the unfailing adherence to the strictures and impositions of parametricism. The good news is that a whole generation of young architects is already adhering to this.

Many theorists – like Charles Jencks, for example – presume that the demise of modernism ushered in an era of stylistic pluralism. Accordingly, the search for a new, unified style is seen as an anachronism. Any style today – so it seems – can only be one among many other simultaneously operatingstyles, thus adding one more voice to the prevailing cacophony of voices. The idea of a pluralism of styles is just one symptom of the more general trivialisation and denigration of the concept of style. I repudiate the complacent acceptance (and even celebration) of the apparent pluralism of styles as a supposed sign of our times. A unified style has many advantages over a condition of stylistic fragmentation. Parametricism aims for hegemony and combats all other styles.

Parametricism’s crucial ability to set up continuities and correspondences across diverse and distant elements relies on its principles holding uninterrupted sway. The admixture of a post-modernist, deconstructivist or minimalist design can only disrupt the penetrating and far-reaching parametricist continuity. The reverse does not hold, because there is no equivalent degree of continuity in post-modernist, deconstructivist or minimalist urbanism.In fact, parametricism can take up vernacular, classical, modernist, post-modernist, deconstructivist and minimalist urban conditions, and forge a new network of affiliations and continuities between and beyond any number of urban fragments and conditions.

Preparing for the style war

What are the current styles that must be combated by parametricism? Is there really still some kind of stylistic pluralism, as posited by Jencks? In fact, post-modernism has disappeared, and the contributions and advances of deconstructivism have been incorporated within parametricism. The mainstream has, in fact, returned to a form of pragmatic modernism with a slightly enriched palette; a form of eclecticism mixing and matching elements from all modernism’s subsidiary styles. The inability of post-modernism and deconstructivism to formulate a new viable paradigm led to the return of modernism in the guise of minimalism as the only consistent, ideologically stringent style that confronts parametricism today. The primary confrontation in the struggle for stylistic hegemony is thus between parametricism and minimalism.

Parametricism claims universal validity.

It cannot be dismissed as eccentric signature work that only fits high-brow cultural icons. Parametricism is able to deliver all the components for a high-performance contemporary life process. All moments of contemporary life become uniquely individuated within a continuous, ordered texture.

The latest built works from Zaha Hadid Architects are much more than experimental manifesto projects; they succeed as highperformance projects in the real world. The Nordpark Cable Railway stations in Innsbruck are a good example. No other style could have achieved this coincidence of adaptive variation to the different site conditions with genotypical coherence across those phenotypical variants. Parametricism is ready to go mainstream. The style war has begun.

Patrik Schumacher is a partner at Zaha Hadid Architects

What is parametricism?

Parametricism implies that all architectural elements and complexes are parametrically malleable. This implies a fundamental ontological shift within the basic, constituent elements of architecture. Instead of classical and modern reliance on rigid geometrical figures – rectangles, cubes, cylinders, pyramids and spheres – the new primitives of parametricism are animate geometrical entities – splines, nurbs and subdivs. These are fundamental geometrical building blocks for dynamical systems like ‘hair’, ‘cloth’, ‘blobs’ and ‘metaballs’ that react to ‘attractors’ and can be made to resonate with each other via scripts.

Parametricism aims to organise and articulate the increasing diversity and complexity of social institutions and life processes within the most advanced centre of post-Fordist network society. It aims to establish a complex variegated spatial order, using scripting to 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.

The avoidance of parametricist taboos and adherence to the dogmas delivers complex order for complex social institutions.

Negative principles (taboos)

  • Avoid rigid forms (lack of malleability)
  • Avoid simple repetition (lack of variety)
  • Avoid collage of isolated, unrelated elements (lack of order)
  • Avoid rigid functional stereotypes
  • Avoid segregative functional zoning

Positive principles (dogmas)

  • All forms must be soft
  • All systems must be differentiated (gradients) and interdependent (correlations)
  • All functions are parametric activity scenarios
  • All activities communicate with each other

The parametricist vanguard: educational institutes across the globe

UCLA, Los Angeles, California, USA

UCLA’s department of architecture and urban design is the US headquarters of parametricist Greg Lynn. The inventor of ‘blob architecture’ claims to have developed a new architectural aesthetic via a fresh design sensibility, formed by rhythmic patterns created by the possibilities of infinitesimal geometric calculations.

Architectural Association (AA), London

The AA’s Design Research Laboratory (DRL) was founded in 1998 by AA director Brett Steele and Patrik Schumacher (AJ 21.02.08). The DRL is ‘dedicated to exploring the possibilities of today’s highly distributed digital design networks and tools’. It’s also known as ‘Zaha boot camp’ because of its connection with the founder of parametric urbanism, Zaha Hadid, who often recruits from the DRL.

Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-ARC), USA

SCI-Arc is a centre of innovation established to transform technological and cultural paradigms into the practice of architecture. A selection of SCI-Arc research projects were shown earlier this year at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, during an exhibition called ‘Contemplating the Void: Interventions in the Guggenheim Museum’. Artists, architects and designers were invited to imagine the interventions they would make in Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiralling rotunda. www.sciarc.eduSerena Valietti

Readers' comments (35)

  • Hegemony of a new unified style, hegemony of a new unified style?-- We don't need no stinkin' hegemony of a new unified style...
    In our fragmented, all opinions heard society-- Why or how will a new dominant style prevail?...
    Non-sense or wishful thinking for some...

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  • Cheeky boogers, the photos just looks like my first year post grad work at the Bartlett, circa 1996. I was really taking the mickey when I did it. have you not read Marcos Novak, sir you are way behind the times.
    Paramtrics is that not a description for computer modelling. it is not actually a style. geeez

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  • We worked on one of Patrik’s ‘blobs’ a few years ago. The problem was they spent the whole time tweaking isocurves and trying to work out how this weird shape actually functioned as a proper building. It was a humbling moment when the lead architect held up his hands and admitted that after 6 months they still hadn’t worked out how to get into it!
    For more comments on Patrik's article see our eng-gram blog

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  • Meanwhile, out in the real world, none of my clients could afford the time, energy or cost of a parametric blob tacked on to the side of their house, or stuck in a suburban street... and the planners would probably not like it either.

    But seriously, there are more important things than architectural 'style'. For example, saving the earth by designing buildings which use minimal energy in construction and use. This will eventually lead to a 'style' which will achieve hegemony.

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  • nice to see that my statements elicited some comments ... some of them deserve a response. I start with Maurice Clarke: the capacity to design a suburban extension for a small budget is not the test-case to decide on the power and pertinence of a contemporary style. A more interesting test case: a large mixed-use complex within a complex urban site, or a new urban sub-centre. In fact the larger and the more complex the design task the more evident and compelling is parametricism’s superiority in comparison with modernism/minimalism or classicism. Thats why we are winning these kinds of projects.
    Your point about minimal energy has a point. In fact parametricism is conceptually geared to take up the ecological agenda. Both in terms of techniques and in terms of sensibility parametricist architecture is eager and able to elaborate adaptive, differentiated responses to the divers environmental parameters, e.g. the building skin is being modulated according to environmental data, i.e. these data are being used as direct input into a script differentiating sunshading elements. (ZHA has been able make this kind of argument effectively and won two competitions for energy research centres.) This answers also Peter Chandler’s point about meeting pressing realities. This is also Michael Badu’s point. I agree with him that to make the claim that an epochal style is in the making requires me to define the challenge that compares, in terms of urgency and universality, to the industrial revolution which spawned Modernsim. However, energy preservation - and the ecological challenge in general - is only one of many factors. It cannot define the new era. What justifies and demands a new style is the socio-economic restructuring that has been going on for the last 35 years. The stable, homogenized society of fordist mass production has given way to the dynamic, multi-cultual network society of today. (Contributing factors: globalisation, micro-electronic revolution a.o). The organisational and communicative capacity of the promoted style and its design repertoire is key. (Environmentally motivated envelope differentiation will also serve to orient users within a lawfully differentiated environment.)
    Thiery Bidet’s point about Zaha’s rich palette of architectural vocabularies is appreciated. However, parametricism continues the historical trajectory of repertoire expansion. Modernism’s repertoire and thus its versatility of formulating pertinent responses to the expanded array of design tasks was hugely increased in comparison with classicism. Parametricism increases this versatility once more. At the same time the new ability to set up associations implies that order and legibility can be maintained and enhanced. That the mastery of the new tools and techniques must be as easy as using twitter should not be expected.
    Its important to be clear that the whole point of positing parametricism as style is to emphasise that the mere acquisition of new tools to play with is no longer the point. The style offers a new approach to architecture on the basis of advanced computational design tools and techniques. However, as a style parametricism involves much more than the mere employment of certain tools and techniques. As a style parametricism is marked by its aims, ambitions, methodological principles, and evaluative criteria, as well as by its characteristic formal repertoire.
    Its true that the concept of style (the way we understand it now) emerged only in the 19th century. But it convinced by making sense of the earlier styles of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque. And the concept soon led to the inevitable question formulated in the middle of the 19th century: In which style should we build? This question set up the quest to develop a modern architectural style. This question is still (once more) relevant. The attitude “We are modern, eclectic people, and as such ought to do whatever we feel like” is just pure self-indulgence. Any serious professional has to give a principled account of his/her values and methods. Somebody said: “Architects should simply work in whatever manner is suitable for the project. Historians can worry about style.” This kind pragmatic attitude is quite common. It might be okey for mainstream architects, to the extent to which they can rely on the availability of viable best practice recipes. This task of architecture as discipline is to innovate this best practice repertoire in line with general historical challenges. Ad hoc pragmatism is not enough to achieve this. For this an avant-garde is required that elaborates new principles via the combination of experimentation and theoretical reflection. Here the point is to formulate a new approach, new viable concepts, values, methods, criteria etc. When modernism went into crisis what was until then considered “suitable for the project” was bankrupt. The first reaction was to seek relief in prior architectural history. ... The search for new principles started. I think only recently – in the last 10 years – a new set of principles (concepts, values, methods, criteria etc.) have matured to the point of being able to convince more and more architects and clients.
    Somebody said: “as soon as it is considered a style - it becomes mainstream and you loose your avant-garde status”. That’s great. To win over the mainstream is the ambition of every serious avant-garde movement. Without a broad following the avant-garde turns out not to be an avant-garde at all. Rarefied exclusivity is not at all what we want. We want the company of lots of collaborators and competitors. This is happening: Most young architects I meet want to participate in this collective adventure that is bound to change the urban physiognomy of this planet in the 21st century just as modernism did in the last century.

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  • It won't last long, we are now in age of frugality, hair shirts and chastity belts.

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  • How does avoiding segregative functional zoning work with the double loaded corridor at Evelyn Grace Academy? Especially when the architect has segregated one building into three seperate schools each with their own entrance.

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  • Wow, this guy's seriously out of touch. Reminds me of the medieval priest hood that prefered to keep the "masses" ignorant while speaking latin simply to keep the "authority" in their hands. When you ask simple question you get declarative sentences like

    "This task of architecture as discipline is to innovate this best practice repertoire in line with general historical challenges."

    I think Zahahadid's work is interesting, but this pontificating and telling other's their's is the only legitimate perspective while dodging questions... Good luck in you're quest of telling everyone else how to think but I think your "methodological principles, evaluative criteria, and characteristic formal repertoire" are all wrong.

    "Rarefied exclusivity is not at all what we want"
    You want more???

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  • Well, thanks Daniel that you consider our work intetresting. If I thought another perspective was more pertinent and promising I would shift perspective. How about you? Do you have convictions about what constitutes a meaningful for contemporary architecture? Or are you unsure? (Do whatever we feel like??? What then? Or what people want??? What do they want?) Do you have the opportunity to work according to your own convictions - if you have convictions? Are you able and willing to state the principles that underly your work? Could these just be valid for you? Who is Daniel Morales to have principles all for himself? Which client should by into Daniel Morales' personal perspective???

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  • You still can't or won't answer any of my substantive points. First, you hide behind a wall of archispeak, next you devolve into a bunch of psychobable. It's amazing a simpleton like me could so easily get under your skin, so much for your convictions. While I think you're work is interesting (not another brain dead glass box), I think it's ugly, and no amount of words will change that. You should check out Gaudi, now that guy knew his curves. By the way, it's just an opinion, not personal. As long as someone is buying what you're selling, onward and forward!

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