Parametricism: Style of the 21st Century?

Patrik Schumacher, a partner in the office of Zaha Hadid, and Co-director of London’s A.A. Design Research Lab, has been steadily making a case that “Parametricism” is the most important theoretical position in architecture since modernism.   Espousing many of the same ideas that Thom Mayne talked to us about, Schumacher proposed a Parametricist Manifesto in 2008 that states:

“[Parametric design is] penetrating into all corners of the discipline. Systematic, adaptive variation, continuous differentiation (rather than mere variety), and dynamic, parametric figuration concerns all design tasks from urbanism to the level of tectonic detail, interior furnishings and the world of products… Architecture finds itself at the mid-point of an ongoing cycle of innovative adaptation – retooling the discipline and adapting the architectural and urban environment to the socio-economic era of post-fordism. The mass society that was characterized by a single, nearly universal consumption standard has evolved into the heterogenous society of the multitude.  The key issues that avant-garde architecture and urbanism should be addressing can be summarized in the slogan: organising and articulating the increased complexity of post-fordist society. The task is to develop an architectural and urban repertoire that is geared up to create complex, polycentric urban and architectural fields which are densely layered and continuously differentiated.”

This week, he continues his argument in The Architect’s Journal:

“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 recognized. A named style needs to be put forward in order to stake its claim to act in the name of architecture.”

Parametricism, he claims,  “finally offers a credible, sustainable answer to the drawn-out crisis of modernism that resulted in 25 years of stylistic searching.”

Do you agree?   Can we ignore parametricism?  What are legitimate alternatives to parametric design we ought to be working with?  Why?


12 Responses to “Parametricism: Style of the 21st Century?”

  1. 1 michaeljeffers
    2010/05/06 at 10:03 pm

    I think that we have only began to understand how parametric design can be applied, and frankly it seems very limited. Too often on flashy blogs and magazines (and even blog posts that mock the trend: http://nmillerarch.blogspot.com/2009/04/3d-voronoi-porn-in-grasshopper.html) we see the trend devolve into an aesthetic or surface treatment. And it is a real funny thing, because the nature of how most functions are applied in grasshopper and other programs is onto a surface, one that maybe manipulated in three dimensional space, but the effect of the parametric plug-in seems to be limited to these surface interventions. And as Lars Spuybroek said with the last project he showed during his lecture, the outer skin was simply that, a skin, and the programmatic boxes inside were clearly distinguished. The same with his theater http://os.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/nox.gif.
    The same is true, to an extent, for Thom Mayne when the same question popped up, but with recognition of the previous fact and a more intentional application. He said he viewed parametrics as a tool to quantitatively evaluate and redesign performative aspects of a given building. A quick example was the Phare tower where based on solar orientation and shape and position, the skin was parametrically manipulated to most effectively lower heating costs and cooling costs during various seasons. Things like this are probably what is most successful about parametric design. Given some large set of quantitative input (scientific data, collected on site, or from a database) plugged into a function or set of functions, guided by a set of parameters (LEED requirements, building codes, occupancy, other quantitative variables) will then produce an output: a size and shape and orientation of an endless number of louvers on the facade of a tower.
    There are other examples of how scripting, parametrics are applied with more or less success as these examples. But to go back to your questions, I see no alternative. Really any other alternative would just be computational design with out a computer. A question came up about Gaudi and computational design. From what I remember, it was assumed what Gaudi was doing was not computational. This is false. The chains he hung from his drawings on the ceiling were in essence computers simulating an evenly loaded arch. There was an input: the chain is of x length, anchored at points x1,y1 x2,y2, the chain has mass m, load is m*grav/x. Based on that loading, a shape was the output. This was the catenary curve. So, paramterics as we see it today is this same idea, applied to a given problem with an enormously fluctuating set of givens and parameters, and solves for each and every one of them. Electronic computers merely afford us the speed and ability to do numerous and increasingly complex calculations similar to ones Gaudi was solving by hand.
    So this, as I see it, is nothing new. Just something that has been taken to an extreme, but still has yet to realize its full potential.
    On a philosophical level, I appreciate the quotation you picked because it does show a progression of ideas. One that used to be one size fits all to this sudden mass customization. And the digital fabrication symposium began to tackle issues like this, where customers can set attractor points and actively engage in the surface manipulation of the table they are about to order. Imagine instead of the Modular Man there are [set]”adult_human”. This is more than a style, this way of thinking will permeate how society tackles all aspects of life, architecture, art, products, manufacturing, media, war and more.

  2. 2010/05/08 at 11:26 pm

    Well Jeffers, from my perspective parametricism is inclusive within the larger trend of mass-customization, not the other way around. It’s a design strategy and a tool, not a “style” per say, and I personally don’t see a style emerging from the trend any time soon, although a statement like that begs the larger question: “what is a style?” For better or worse, part of what it means to be an architect is to constantly call into question semantics. Language influences architecture, from abstract theory to the very real conversations we’ll have with clients, so much because half of what we do is convey information.

    The current lack of a dominant style is directly related to the larger social condition—although perhaps not in such a simple sense as was proposed by Giedion and other Modernist historians with their zeitgeist fanaticism. Part of what it means to live in the post-modern era, or the post-post-modern era, post-industrial society, or whatever you choose to call it, is that civilization has become too complex, too pluralistic, and too bound by relativism for the emergence of a singular, dominant theme, question, or problem set that can influence the development of an ascendant style. I think it unlikely that such a trend will emerge from a source like Schumacher, who is associated with the same avant-garde estate that has influenced the presiding issues in architecture since Modernist paradigms became dominant in the early 20th Century. I read a really provoking short letter/essay thing in the current issue of Domus last night that questioned the state of architecture and the language it speaks today, and was critical of how far we’ve really come with regard to those exhausted paradigms and the detritus of Modernism. To quote a bit of it:

    Moderism is today a golden cage from which many contemporary architects seek to escape. They fancy it as an already squeezed lemon, but, such perception notwithstanding, it still has enough juice in it to permeate all their creations. Imagine Modernism as a soft sponge, rectangular and prismatic in shape. They can twist it, bend it, squeeze it, compress it into a spherical volume, stretch it into a sharp pointed geometric figure, elongate it into an Eshcer figure biting its own tail, decompose it into its planar components, cover it with a titanium handkerchief, but it still remains good old Modernism.

    I think, as an increasingly global community, we’re far from again achieving something like a single defining style, and I don’t really think that’s a bad thing. If such a style were to emerge in the future, it seems more likely that it will be a product of the emerging forces that define society today—a synthesis of Eastern and Western cultures—and will be influenced by mass-customization and other relevant trends in society (the Green Movement). A style that grew out of parametricism, in my opinion, would be more easily distinguished to a public, largely unfamiliar with the concept as a process, by its formal characteristics. And style for me doesn’t have very much to do with form; it’s a conceptual scheme for addressing the given problem sets of a particular period. In other words, as Viollet-le-Duc said, it’s about the expression of ideas.

  3. 2010/05/09 at 8:20 pm

    Okay Zach. Here’s a START of a response.

    You bring up a good point. Style is dead. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to believe that a style will ever emerge from the cacophony of contemporary culture. Today, anything goes and so nothing goes – Preston Scott Cohen writes that there are no longer normative systems from which we can understand the mutations of one style to another: “Flush with the excitement of the latest technological advancements or material fetishes, and seduced by the boundless possibilities of the present, [architects today] pursue an architecture that might best be described as postproblematic—an architecture in which few forms are considered inacceptable or unreachable.” Style no longer exists through a relationship with time and place.

    But I don’t think ANYONE is calling parametricism a style. Theoretical position / design process / approach, yes. But not a style. It’s simply a way of doing things. We could quote hundreds of nineteenth century (+/-) theorists in their definitions of style, but it doesn’t really matter. We’ve moved beyond style, and can no longer use it as a classificatory term. Style is an archaic notion of cultural norms.

    Regarding all comments that recognize parametrics as being only skin deep, I think that we need to reconsider what exactly ‘skin’ is in architecture, and why it has such a bad rep. Ruskin was perfectly fine with accepting architecture as the ornament, the adornment of structure. But is skin ornament? Or is skin something more? Semper (how can I resist?) might see the skin as wall – but then the wall is so important to architecture because it defines space and gives meaning to the structure behind and beyond. Skin is not necessarily just facade. Skin is surface, and is what we interact with most, as users of a building. It might need some bones to hold it up, but that doesn’t make it any less essential. Skin is, arguably, what architects have the most control over, especially when structural engineers and other professionals are needed to define elements of structure. Craig Rosman’s thesis project did an exceptional job of using parametrics to mediate structure and skin, showing that the two are not necessarily easily separated.

    Mike brings up a good point – parametrics are nothing new. They are making waves today because we know it is used, even if we don’t entirely understand the process. Most people didn’t (to my knowledge anyway) stand around and ask Gaudi to explain his process of developing catenary arches.

    So, I don’t know where I’m going with this. I guess I think that parametrics will continue to develop as a part of the design process, and that we definitely have not seen the extents of what we can do within the confines of a computer. I don’t think parametrics will ever develop into a style because, short of an apocalypse, I don’t think we’ll ever have a sense of a unified style. All we have today are extracultural motives that influence our design through obligation (i.e. sustainability) and an excessive pluralism of ideals.

  4. 2010/05/09 at 8:21 pm

    Oh, but saying that parametrics are “a credible, sustainable answer to the drawn-out crisis of modernism that resulted in 25 years of stylistic searching”?

    That’s just a little much for my taste.

  5. 5 Kai Gutschow
    2010/05/09 at 9:25 pm

    I believe Schumacher DOES mean precisely the word “style.” See his article “Parametricism as Style – Parametricist Manifesto” linked in my original post, and first presented and discussed at the Dark Side Club, 11th Architecture Biennale, Venice 2008.
    We should not be afraid of “style.” Style is a long-standing term in the history of art that was sullied and given a bad reputation by modernists, who attempted (but failed, as Banham told us) to move “beyond style.” It is an inevitable part of all art, and cannot be willed away. It is at the root of everything humans make (see Semper). It has a rich history in architectural theory in Winkelmann, Hegel, Semper, Riegl, Wolfflin, Schapiro, Gombrich, Ackermann, Alpers, etc. A good introduction to the difficult yet rich philosophical issue of “style” can be found in the article on “Style” in the “Oxford Art Online” database (avail., through CMU Library homepage, under databases).

  6. 2010/05/10 at 10:21 am

    Serves me right for skimming.

    Here is part two of my response.

    Parametricism is not a style. I think we (Mike, Zach, and I) are all basically in agreement of that for different reasons. Personally, I’m not all that interested in this argument. I think Schumacher is trying to be polemic to make his point. It is a manifesto, after all, and, as we learned from the modernists, manifestos tend not to be followed with precise exactitude. They stand for grand ideas, but, as Banham told us, the design does not always reflect that.

    Schumacher has either read Semper or just fundamentally agrees with him by accident. He writes “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.” So there’s Semper’s idea – there is a crazy chaos where we don’t know what we’re doing, and then we reevaluate and reorganize the world a bit and then we have a style and then it gets developed and then it overdevelops and then we get chaos again.

    We are so clearly in a transitional period that we can only say style is dead. Semper acknowledges this with two metaphors: the phoenix, and stars. He implies that style is dead, that it seems a new style will never emerge. But also that style must be reborn, anew. That it will be something different, founded on a different set of variables, but the same constants.

    Parametricism is not the new style. But style is a form of parametrics.

    In his footnotes, Schumacher states openly, “This interpretation of styles is valid only with respect to the avant-garde phase of any style.” In other words, what he calls style can only be a style when there is no style. This is a bit contradictory, to say the least. I think what he (maybe) means is that parametricism is a way to organize, perhaps without really understanding what it means to be of a certain epoch, and interpret contemporary conditions. That does not make it a style – again, parametricism is relegated to an approach. More on that later. In the other article, he writes, “In a period of transition there might emerge a rapid succession os styles, or even a plurality of simultaneous, competing styles.” Again, I think he’s limiting himself to a chronology of styles. He forgets place – easy to do today, but not so easy less than two centuries ago.

    Moving on.

    Yes, the modernists failed to move beyond style. But we don’t try to move beyond style today – style just has a completely different meaning, in my mind anyway. Globalization, capitalization, etc. has basically destroyed what style used to mean. So yea, I think modernism DID destroy the meaning of style, to some extent. It ceased to become connected to a time and place. Or maybe it still was at this point. Maybe the international style wasn’t really all that universal – there were, after all, ‘vernaculars’ of the international style. But I guess I’m trying to look at the bigger picture. The very fact that they were trying to move beyond style means the style that developed was still grounded on notions of what a style was, while trying to escape them. …rambling.

    Schumacher wants to “cleanse” the meaning of style. Well, alright. Let’s just pick a word that doesn’t mean what we want it to mean and say it actually means something different. That’s just great. But when we do that, we have to keep in mind that it is impossible to dump the cultural baggage on the side of the road and continue as if style means whatever we want it to. Context does change the meaning of words, but it doesn’t change them so completely.

    Schumacher’s “proposal” for a redefinition of style is likened to “a scientific paradigm”. This implies comparison. It is not a “progression” of styles linearly, but, as he acknowledges one line down, “cycles of innovation”. This goes back to Semper, again. And that’s not to say that our world goes through one style at a time. Again, style is associated with the time and place that define a culture. Back to the paradigm. Paradigm eventually came to mean how a way of doing things defines a particular period of time. Schumacher’s redefinition, then, seems pretty right on. Parametricism is, we’ve agreed, a way of doing things, and that particular period of time is, obviously, now.

    But what is now? I think we do not, cannot, understand this as a period, as an era, as even a superficial division of time. We have gotten so bad at drawing lines that we don’t know how to divide things anymore. We don’t know where or when we are because we so lovingly look at the big picture that we refuse to differentiate details.

    It isn’t a matter of being capable of “conceptual reconstruction in terms that are intellectually credible today” – reconstruction is not possible without a certain understanding. I think the rate at which our technology, our culture even, changes, makes architecture (even with the aid of computers) impossible to keep up. I think it is important for architect to acknowledge changes that occur through the development of style (a style, styles) but I think this necessitates the slowness of reflection.

    I think it is also important to note that the styles Schumacher offers were, to some extent, not defined as styles until after the fact. I’m tempted to quote Kahn on monumentality in our consideration of style: “Monumentality is enigmatic. It cannot be intentionally created.” I think that Semper makes a case for something similar. Style is not something that the individual can do or even initiate.

    An aside: When Schumacher says “Parametricism finally offers a credible, sustainable answer to the drawn-out crisis of modernism that resulted in 25 years of stylistic searching.” – he doesn’t mean sustainable as in green. He means it is sustained. As in kept alive. Just thought I should point that out to people who may have misread that.

    The reason that I have difficulty with the underlying sentiment that runs through his text, that “pluralism [can] be overcome by a hegemony of a new unified style,” is a) that he seems to project an immediacy with his message and that b) I think he sees parametrics under too narrow a light. We need more time – this needs to develop outside of architecture before it can be brought in with enough force to establish Der stil. Secondly, his treatment of parametrics as a style is too limiting. As an approach, a way of making (the suggested links to Semper are unintentional – this is an intellectual way of making, not necessarily physical handcraft), it has the potential to infest many styles to come, not AS a style, but as a process.

    Ever more to come…

  7. 7 Richman
    2010/05/11 at 2:36 pm

    Since we’re all pretty much on board with one another, I might as well chime in and offer how I see it.

    Talia’s comments on globalization are felt strongest of all by me and my fellow tech geeks. Civilization’s timeline is telescoping, we all know that; Moore’s infamous law says that computer technology doubles in power every 18 months or so, and the rest of the world can be similarly described. The world is culturally syncing itself up from one corner to another more and more completely with each passing year.

    In the ever-changing present, many elements evolve quickly, but some evolve slowly. I would argue that the most constant elements of our culture address our basic human needs (the 5-6ft human scale, water, food, heat, logic, etc.), and that the most transient elements of our culture address less fundamental things, such as artistic decisions and “style”.

    Parametricism can work in the “slow-evolving” realm I just described. It can codify, optimize, and occasionally reinvent the arrangement of, our basic human needs. For that reason, I think it has longevity as a concept and will turn out to be a fruitful field once explored. It isn’t a “style”, but I think it will produce some styles which will come and go, as transient elements of culture should. Blobitecture is a style produced by parametricism, methinks.

  8. 8 gbt
    2010/05/16 at 3:29 am

    The discussion proposed by Schumacher is not his own understanding of parametrics as ‘style’ but of society’s objective view of architecture. His statement preemptively alludes to present day architectural construction. Dubai and China can be seen as architectural statements of parametric prowess, but both negate the fundamentally heuristic sociopolitical agenda of modernism.

    I contend Schumacher’s ideas of current day architecture and propose digital fascination has temporarily derailed architectural process. True modern ideologies would be manifested in rigid and reductive geometric systems not concerned with architectural scenography.

    Rather, parametrics in architecture should use regional inputs in its derivation of an architecture which is neither autonomous nor anonymous with its contextual landscape (because not everyone is 5’6”).

  9. 2011/03/03 at 7:31 pm


    A universal direction sets out a general prerogative , Clearly understanding what demarcates an elegant contribution to 21st century Architecture, A clear idea of what that is should always be in thought for the sake of the clients needs and wishes. I fully support the ideas and values encompassed within most of his writings however maybe the name “parametricism” is wrong.
    And the work he does is important, However my own universal values which i am currently writing helps to establish my own approach to projects. You can see my notes on my website these have not matured into a full blown essay as yet.

    Fluid diverse freedom and Diversism, provides a much needed reconnection to achieving clients needs more profoundly through efficiency. Providing a universal set of values, That are deep values that connect society and provide a diverse built environment for all, avoidance of segregation chaos, and segregated ghetos. Respectful of demographic core values of the locality. avoidance of individualism in terms of where The city becomes a collection of objects which demarcate their own taste or their identity not in the means of wholeness, But at the same time in support of individualism where individuals can contribute their own identity and contribution but to a deeper core set of universal values which contribute to the universal ecology of cities as a whole with interwoven relationships.

    I cant stress enough the importance of exploring and thinking about the possible future core universal realistic ambition values and design approach for the next 89 years. It is about real change for a better starting point for the next generation of architects.

    Patrick Schumacher can only be praised, and politely constructively criticized for his ideas to my mind.



  10. 2011/03/03 at 7:32 pm

    In terms of these blobism forms alot of people i think need to remember the world of natures blobby forms. Schumachers architectural ideas, maybe blobism for no particular reason more about iconic or fashion promotion maybe,

    But if this guy can eventually get us to a point where Fluid diversism is accepted in society then the real diverse forms that really do work like nature can flourish in our cities.
    I have a sneaking suspicion that many architects know they are not doing the right thing in the 21st century when they construct there square and rectangle buildings, I think this is because they are fully aware that buildings need to be thought of as living species for efficiency, biomimicry and biological architecture which is integral can only flourish through fluid form diversity found in nature.

    The evidence is becoming clear Biological Architecture works best when it takes on the form of nature paramteric tools are integral to achieving these forms which create these energy efficient buildings. We know we have to master this and the values in parametricism are useful, however i think the universal integral direction is Diversism.

  11. 2013/05/24 at 12:47 am

    It’s an awesome post for all the web viewers; they will get benefit from it I am sure.

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