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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 (37)

  • and what will be the death of parametricism?:

    superlatives and absolutes

    oh, and materials scarcity.

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  • What is it about Germans always trying to start the war? Albeit, this time, relatively harmless, let the style just evolve by itself and the time will tell if parametricism has a long term future. You can't force construction industry into this just like that, it will take a long time. I personally think that it is a scary prospect of the industry being hijacked by a bunch of Rhino scripto-nerds who are probably can't draw simple water proofing detail.

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  • I was going to say that this was a pretty lucid defense of the pretty much indefensible, but the end of the article seemed to trail off a bit. Is it really sensible to say that only parametricism could have produced workable solutions to the Nordpark project?

    I think that there are a number of problems with the premise of this article. Patrik seems to be suggesting that Modernism was a style that we got bored of when in fact it was a style whose limitations began to be understood (cold bridging, leaky rooves, aesthetic poverty in the eyes of lay-people. Modernism was also not really a style; it was an attempt to get to grips with the technological and economic fall out from the industrial revolution. If Parametircsm is a 'proper' (epochal in Patrik's words) style rather than a transitional one (like PoMo or Decon) then it has to be borne of a similar urgent necessity to the one that gave rise to Modernism in my humble opinion. Now I'm no tree hugging eco-warrior, but global warming,as well as the
    scarcity of fuel and materials is the only 'thing' going in my opinion that compares, in terms of urgency and universality, to the industrial revolution which spawned Modernsim (which is neat because the Industrial Revolution and the Sustainability question are two sides of a very big coin). If we accept that this is indeed the case, then we have to look at the likes of BedZED, the works of people like Baumschlager Eberle, Konrad Frey, The Vales and other Sustainability pioneers as the real harbingers of an epochal style. Parametricsm then turns out to be just another style (and I really like the Nordpark scheme actually) best suited to the high end 'Formula 1' type of market. In fact I think that Zaha Hadid should design the next F1 racing venue if they haven't done so already because that seems to me to be a magnificent fit

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  • so, floors are still flat, doors are still rectangular w/knobs to open/close, walls still separate spaces, stairs/ramps/elevators/etc. still the ways you get around in "parametric" constructions, toilets/urinals/bidets/sinks are stilll...well, you get the idea.

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  • Will this have been possible without the number crunching power of computers and design software, which is the womb that nurtured this child. It does not respond to any of our pressing realities so therefore will never grow up to be any thing further than fashionable.

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  • The idea that the concept of "style" needs to be re-habilitated while conceding that it's the primary way the public understands architecture underlines the main problem within the profession. They could care less about the public.

    This article is the most conservative architectural treatis I've recently read in that all the modernist conventions are being upheld. The false dichotomy of either historicism or modernism blows right over the fact that modernism as a style (broadly speaking) is as historicist as any other.

    This guy's attempt to institutionalise whatever work his firm does as the go to style of today is as transparent as the false intellectualism of the early modernists. We are modern, eclectic people, and as such ought to to whatever we feel like. If only architects as professionals would get over their fear of being tradespeople, we might actually produce buildings people care about. It's no wonder European cities have been frozen in time, it's the public's way of acknowledging we can't do anything better. Look back at most architectural commentary of the last 300 years, and the evolution of whatever style was in vogue was always refered to as modern. To me, it's just another used car salesman pitch.

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  • Style is a relatively recent and historical term - it was not, for instance, something that was self-applied by practitioners of classical or baroque architecture as noted above.

    There's no point in claiming a style of today for any reason other than glory or megalomania.

    Architects should simply work in whatever manner is suitable for the project. Historians can worry about style.

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  • Take a chill pill mate.

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  • Parametricsm is a style that even describing it as the style offering diversity and complexity in fact lacks the DIVERSITY. All projects look the same, only architects between themselves could see slightly noticeable differences and appreciate the sexy flow of the curve, or if it was done with nurbs or subdiv. So what? It does not solve any current problems, but provides a dream for the current graduates of a giant 3D printer (that is actually already exists). And by the way Patrick as soon as it is considered a style - it becomes mainstream and you loose your avant-guard status. It is mainstream already who wants the world filled with Zaha Hadid Architects clones?
    And as soon as there was a mention of negative and positive principles seemed like a religious sect of Parametricsm. Scary!

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  • Thierry BIDET

    Dear Patrik Schumacher,

    "Let the style war begin" seems either offensive to the architects' community or like an impatient attempt to reach "mainstream hegemony" to use your own words.

    Twitter is being recognised as a universal tool of communication because everybody can use it after watching a one minute clip. I am not sure, at the time to write this article, that you gave the chance to every architects and designers to understand how they can design in the so-called parametric style.

    Zaha Hadid herself has been using a rich palette of architectural vocabularies all along her career, so why should we restrain ourselves to one style?

    As historians will notice, the Nordpark Cable Railway combines two very distinctive architectural families, between the aerial part and what happens on the ground. It is a transitional project in term of styles.

    Thierry Bidet

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