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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. www.aud.ucla.edu

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. www.aaschool.ac.uk/aadrl

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)

  • The research carried out in this field, by schumacher and many others, has unquestionably touched on very interesting and potentially important areas of the contemporary city. It is important to understand the position of parametrics away from the glossy renders that invariably accompany these articles. As a diploma student at the AA, I recently attended the DRL juries at the AA- a studio that Mr Schumacher leads, and was heartened to see the incredibly diverse and rich methods and sensibilities that the students are pursuing, with incredibly exciting results. However, in spite of this richness, the work arrives at (as does much of the work done by the practicing avant garde) at these seductive white renders.

    This incredible paradox of, on the one hand, huge progress and enlightened research and on the other a complete lack of imagination in terms of the potentials of this work is very worrying to me. I feel this gap comes from an obvious, and very dangerous, discrepancy between the marginalized position of the architect and the multiple actors and agents that actually create our cities- business, tycoons, developers, NGOs, retail giants etc. It is only when we take a position of modesty in this sense that we can reassess our agency, as architects, within the production of the city (a move that would question the very concept of the 'avant garde'). In this context, the seductive, complex forms that parametricism currently produces (which, i believe, is but one of its potentials) only serve to make architects more peripheral and marginalized in the practice of designing and planning our cities.

    As such, I would encourage Mr Schumacher to expand, in the very spirit of 'research', his investigations to address the political and social context of this work. This also requires the academic community to take responsibility for the production of students with a 'toolbox' of scripts leaving to join practices with rather less rigour and creative capacity than there might be at Zaha Hadid Architects.

    Yours,

    John

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  • david walters

    In all this commentary I couldn't find any mention of the city or urban form and coherence for neighborhoods etc . . . The implications of this renewed object fetish are worrying for urbanism as nobody seems to care much about it, or the fundamental notion of public space. Do we really want to promote a city of curvy wavy forms (OK in moderation) with no spatial coherence between them -- a discourse solely about objects? Where is public space in all this debate? Architects have made this fundamental error once before . . . .

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  • Compare the Olympic Aquatics centre and the Velodrome:

    - both use parametric models to generate their form
    - both respond to the aesthetics of the sport contained within by creating a sculpted, double curved form

    However one uses 12m high trusses as opposed to the other, which only uses 25mm cables in tension in order to achieve its span. One is environmentally responsive whereas the other is gratuitous form making.

    How can ZHA justify designing solely on the basis of appearance when clearly there are more pressing issues at stake such as sustainability?

    Patrick - your firm specialises in making shapes. Whether or not they respond to the concerns of their users or the environment is secondary.
    As such they are associated with a host of other failed movements in architecture, such as postmodern historicism.

    This is where the style wars end.

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  • David, you have made a mistake. You have applied a motive to the fact that Patrick is not communicating effectively with you. I can’t find a reason for the intellectual leap, from not being able to understand, to believing Schumacher is deliberately attempting to make his writing not understandable.
    I think confusion is arising from the disconnect between ZHA’s built works, and the utopian ideal Schumacher seems to suggest.
    One in which every point in a building is placed in its optimal position in three dimensional space. This position determined by measured factors, either site specific climate data or functional criteria for example. This is an attempt to determine the platonic ‘ideal’ building for each site and use. Often, though not always, such a design methodology would produce curvilinear forms, as we can see from the shapes of plants for example, which through optimisation of 3d form determined by light, structural integrity etc, adopt sinuous shapes.
    ZHA’s existing built works are unfortunately just a vanguard of this design METHOD, (rather than style) as, as yet they have only the appearance of having been designed in such a way. (I say appearance as I see little evidence, that each curve or volume in any current ZHA building is determined by real world criteria. For example a fluid form roof to optimise air circulation or whatever else.
    This does not mean that this methodology has no value. However I see the greatest barrier to its adoption as the reality of the global 2012 construction industry, which is optimised and designed around, mainly rectilinear forms. Therefore, what may technically be an optimal building is likely to offset its benefits via greater construction and design costs (design costs until, one day a computer can analyse every measurable parameter of a site, and use, and so determine by itself an optimised 3d form). This is not the optimal architecture of today, but it may be that of the future.

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  • Dear Patrik Schumacher

    First pleas excuse my poor english.
    I really like your work, both theoreticly and in real life. I was wundering what your oppinion is on other arcitects like Santiago Calatrava, which don't use parametricism in there designs, but his buildings are in my eyes allsow very beautiful.
    The second Question:
    Do you see any danger in parametricism, if these principals are used by lets say not so good trained architects.

    Respectfully
    Luca Bacilieri

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