Author Archives: Paul Conover

Depth Mappin’

Turns out it is impossible to not design a swastika.

Parametricism: Fabricated Reality?

Parametricism, according to Patrik Schumacher, is the next great “style” of architectural design, being the victorious champion over the mighty Modernism and its Postmodern and Deconstructivist minions. To him this new style transcends all of its predecessors both formally and functionally in a way that no style has done before. Based not on the classic shapes (cube, sphere, cone, etc.) as previous styles were, but rather on an entirely new set of elements (spline, blob, fabric, etc), the nature of parametricism is fundamentally different. Where before architectural design was more or less strictly dictated by a designer who then “plunked” that design into a site, the role of the parametric architect is more of hand which guides the digitalization of a design which grows organically from the site. The idea, then, is that these forms become highly relevant and functional in many non-traditional ways. By definition, parametric designs are bound to the guidelines placed on them by the architect, but are otherwise free to be manipulated in seemingly any way imaginable.

Yet the strength of this new “style” is – for now – also its greatest weakness. There is a profound lack of established materiality within the idea of parametricism – in part because few existing materials and methods suit it. Simply, nobody has figured out a really great way to construct parametrically designed buildings. This is an interesting dilemma, because this is actually the first architectural “style” we see that is being pioneered by design technology rather than building technology. Whereas the Gothic style was made possible by the invention of the flying buttress and the Modern movement was precipitated by the mastery of steel and concrete, we are seeing Parametricism being born from virtuality. This poses a unique problem in that construction materials are almost an afterthought rather than a design point. We imagine the architect finishing his design, reveling in it momentarily, then muttering, “Now how the hell do we build this thing?” A simple Google Images search of ‘parametric design’ reveals this dilemma starkly by producing an endless catalog of blobby, off-white renderings – often without context and nearly never with details.

Even if you venture to the website of Zaha Hadid Architects – the firm at which Schumacher himself is a partner – you will find more of the same. And these are the people who are said to be pioneering the style! To be sure, Zaha Hadid Architects does a fantastic job with making their buildings actually look like the renderings they produce – and that’s what makes them such a good firm – but many firms do not do such a good job at bringing their conceptual designs to life. This is largely because they’re just so hard to build. In fact, we really only see parametric design being built by huge institutions and corporations because they’re the only ones who can pay for the materials and the highly skilled construction crews required to erect these buildings. In order to bring this architecture to the people, we will have to re-examine what we understand about building materials, or even invent a few new ones – a process which will take years.

Scale is another enemy of parametricism. Since most of the logic behind parametrically designed buildings revolves around site and environment – both of which are really huge dragons to slay – the scope of these projects gets blown to huge proportions. This is absolutely a step forward, because it addresses issues that have not been seriously addressed in any previous architectural “style”. Yet at times it seems that parametricism is ignoring the proverbial trees and focusing on the forest. Will we never again see the kind of details that Louis Sullivan gave us? Or even Mies’ stark, straightforward composition? Joinery is seemingly a thing of the past. On the other end of the spectrum, many of the ideas being proposed…

...such as the ones behind Kartal Pendik Masterplan (by none other than our friends over at Zaha Hadid)...

…are simply too enormous, by my estimation, to be fully appreciated. This is design that goes way beyond the human scale, and even though it may be the most functional shape possible, it will be easy for designers to overlook exactly how this becomes a livable and tactile place.

Speaking of functionality brings up another interesting thought which, unfortunately, many architects also look over. This is the lifespan of the building. Over the course of its lifetime, a building may have one single function, or it may have many. What was a theater one year might be a boathouse the next, or what was a hotdog joint might soon be a laundromat. There’s really no way to tell. So with buildings whose forms are so intimately tied to their function, down the road, we might find that the structures themselves are actually quite useless once the company goes out of business or the circus leaves town. And at this stage, how sustainable are we really being?

To be sure, parametricism as an idea is fascinating and holds immense promise as the future of architecture. However, I would call for several things to happen before we fully embrace it as the next architectural “style”. First, we need to figure out how to teach builders how to construct these buildings cheaply. Second, we need to develop a materiality (either natural or synthetic) that will keep these buildings from appearing as alien spaceships. Third, we need to address the issue of scale and learn how to make these projects appreciative of individual human space while simultaneously making the necessary connections to site and environment. Finally, we need to examine the longevity of these designs in order to assure that they will be equally as relevant in 50 or 100 years as they are right now. Nobody has the answers to these questions, but I believe that in order for parametricism to really take its place in architectural history – and not just fade as another “transitional” phase – they will have to be answered by somebody.