P2C_Andrew Campbell

Is Computational Adaptation and Parametric Urbanism Appropriate at the Human Scale?

Performance driven analysis and computational adaptation technologies have given today’s designers a completely new set of tools to work with.  With the application of products like Grasshopper, Maya and Ecotect, architects can consider and react to external environmental and social forces and then utilize them to control building form like never before.  The use of parametric modeling has been effectively applied to small-scale designs in the form of functional installations or as a building’s skin, responding to forces like sound, heat or light retention.  Large-scale adaptive projects are much more complicated and respond to more than a few variables.  This begs the question:  is parametric urbanism appropriate at the human scale or are parametrically designed sites arbitrarily conceived?

Adaptive Urban Fabric by Andrew Kudless  <http://pinterest.com/pin/67342956899285234/>

Parametric urbanism has recently found itself under the spotlight of architects.  Spearheaded by designers like Zaha Hadid and Patrick Schumacher, this relatively new line of thinking attempts to incorporate demographics, cultural and human variables in one comprehensive and adaptive computational design.  Parametric design encompasses a simplified conditioning process that contrasts the complicated urban circumstances in the real world.  So should parametric adaptation determine an entire design or should project specifics be considered individually?

How important is human creativity in design?  And at what point should we get involved?  To simplify this idea we can think of getting involved in a parametric design at two separate points, at the start or at the end.  We can either start by designing a humanized form to then be enveloped by a parametric skin, or the form can be parametrically derived first and then humanized later.  Not many large projects today do a great job combining these principals in a way that is seamless, as if both humanism and parametric evolution were simultaneously considered.

Sketch by Andrew Campbell

My personal belief is that parametric urbanism is arbitrary at the human scale and can instead be better used to optimize smaller-scale aspects of human scaled designs.  For instance, the solar retention of a building’s skin is directly related to its environment, this includes surrounding buildings as well as geographical location.  A city with a roman grid layout is subject to a well-defined and conditioned environment, depending only on surrounding buildings and not orientation, but a parametrically arbitrated layout has the possibility to optimize solar retention for each individual building site without compromising its individuality.  However, designing from the top down might endanger the overall circulatory, transportation, electrical, or plumbing system.  These factors can be brought to consideration in the design process, but will they advance the design’s overall productivity or will they interfere with an otherwise unconsidered variable?  And can we possibly understand and optimize all variables associated with urbanism without them compromising each other?

As a species we’ve been building cities from the ground up for thousands of years, and it’s taken us this long to develop a city’s layout for optimum urban development.  Parametric urbanism challenges what we’ve learned through history in terms of what makes a productive city, which I believe is a good thing.  Not only can we use these challenges to better understand why we build the way we do, but we can also use them to optimize what we know already works, and improve on everything else.

For more information see:

Tang, Ming.  “Information Urbanism.”  April 24, 2011.  <http://ming3d.com/upload/paper/ARCC2011-37.pdf>



  1. Andrew, I think this is a great question to be asking. Designers and planners often become too excited at the prospect of quick development, attractive renderings, yet the questions they are asking through parametrics are progressive. As long as the city-scale is not objectified in images, I believe we can remain at the human scale.

  2. Andrew Campbell

    Thanks for your comment, Luke.

    I can agree that an optimized parametric system will always favor the building from the human scale. Unfortunately parametric modeling tools are still very young and undeveloped, as are how we use and think about them. It’s akin to Mies’s Seagrams building in that we had started to use these new materials (the I-beam) but were either uncertain how to use it properly or afraid it would be seen as unsafe/showy. Regardless, I’m seriously looking forward to the future of parametrics.

  3. Timothy Perkins

    I am interested in the design tools used for the parametric approach as well. In order to inject the human touch into the process, can we change out tools to be more hands-on and intuitive? e.g. Grasshopper uses tools that represent scripts instead of just requiring designers to right the scripts directly. Can we end up designing parametrically with a tablet and stylus instead of a mouse and keyboard?

  4. You discuss the evolution of designing as being either parametric to humanized or vice versa. Do you believe that quality design must have elements of both digital and human characteristics? Or, in your opinion, can a design that strictly adheres to one side of the spectrum be as fulfilling as a design that combines both elements?

  5. Andrew Campbell

    Tim I think that’s a really powerful idea. Imagine a parametric tool on a tablet to be used by hand. Bringing human gestures back into computational design methods.

  6. Andrew Campbell

    Joe, ideally I think a good parametrically derived design will combine these two ideas seamlessly, but today’s parametrics are so theoretical that most are heavy handed on either side.

    As far as design in general goes, I favor the human touch, but progress in computational analysis has changed what that means. So for better or worse, we’re stuck with it.

  7. Firstly I love your sketch! it represents your idea crystal clear.I agree with your concern. Indeed, Parametric design is young and risky. In my opinion, the best way to prove if the parametric design work for urban city, is to test it. It is just alike an experiment or a product(see if customer likes it).