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Hegemonic Parametricism delivers a Market-based Urban Order
Patrik Schumacher
Published in: AD Parametricism 2.0  -  Rethinking Architecture’s Agenda for the 21st Century, Editor: H. Castle, Guest-edited by Patrik Schumacher, AD Profile #240, March/April 2016

Parametricism 2.0 makes urbanism and urban order compatible with the neo-liberal re-emergence of market processes after the demise of Modernism – the golden era of urbanism. Large-scale city planning receded since the late 1970s, and since then urbanism as a discourse, discipline and profession has all but disappeared. This coincided with the crisis of Modernism, starting in the 1970s and becomoing manifest in the 1980s. This crisis can be interpreted as the way in which the demise of the Fordist planned economy manifested itself within architecture. The bankruptcy of Modernist urban planning gave way everywhere to the same visual chaos of laissez-faire urban expansion under the auspices of stylistic pluralism and the anti-method of collage. However, in the last 15 years, innovative urbanism re-emerged under the banner of ‘Parametric Urbanism’1, developing the conceptual, formal and computational resources for forging a complex, variegated urban order on the basis of parametric logics that allow it to adapt to dynamic market forces. The global convergence and maturation of Parametricist design research implies that this style of urbanism is ready to go mainstream and impact the global built environment by re-establishing strong urban identities on the basis of its adaptive and evolutionary heuristics.

The Historical Task of Urban Intensification

Since the 1980s we are witnessing a sustained drive towards urban concentration in global hub cities. Within contemporary network society, the productivity of everybody depends on being plugged into urban professional and cultural networks that exist only in the big cities. What each of us is doing needs to be continuously recalibrated with what everybody else is doing. All further productivity gains depend on this, and it requires a new level of communicative density that is only available in the metropolis. This underlies what economists measure as ‘agglomeration economies’. In the provinces, entrepreneurs and workers are cut off and thus relatively unproductive. Since the neat division into work and leisure has disappeared and we feel the vital urge to remain connected to the network 24/7, it is as important for us to live in the city as it is inevitable for us to work in it. Everything piles into the centre, the more the better. This spells a new desire for an unprecedented degree of urban intensification.

London with its relentless growth (and yet endemic undersupply of accomodation) is a paradigmatic exemplar of the urban concentration process in global hub cities. This new urban dynamic is not only a fascinating challenge and task for architects but first of all requires new degrees of freedom for urban entrepreneurs (and their architects) who need this freedom to experiment, discover and create the best ways to weave the new urban texture and to garner the potential synergies through new intricate programmatic juxtapositions. Only an unhampered market process can be such a discovery process and has the information processing capacity and agility to weave a viable complex urban order for this new dynamic societal context2. That’s why positive, physical modernist urban planning  had to vanish. Planning was hence-force confined to operate negatively, by means of restricting private actors. The result is a nearly unregulated form of urbanisation. This mode of development is certainly better adapted to the new socio-economic dynamics than the bankrupt, simplistic order of modernist planning and urbanism. However, it produces an urban scene that is perceptually hard to digest, a paradoxical and menacing phenomenological sameness despite the rich diversity of its contents.

1 City of London: Communication density becomes physically manifest.
London is paradigmatic exemplar of the urban concentration process in global hub cities. As more and more large iconic structures pile into the financial district the urban scape becomes more and more chaotic, an uninentional bricolage.
The planning process is evidently failing to stem the visual chaos and unable to establish any semblance of urban order.

Garbage Spill Urbanisation

While the new diversity and open-endedness of post-fordist social phenomena is being accommodated, the unregulated agglomeration of differences produced the global effect of white noise sameness everywhere without allowing for the emergence of distinct urban identities. The result is a disorienting visual chaos that might best be termed garabage spill urbanisation. Like in a garbage spill the urban agglomeration’s diversity of ingredients is no longer perceptually decipherable. Tokyo is perhaps the most notorious (and often celebrated) example of visual urban chaos that spells both vitality and menacing disorientation. There is indeed an underlying, market driven programmatic order, due to the market participants’ persistant hunt for synergies. However, due to an over-abundance of material construction possibilities and attendant stylistic choices, this order is rendered obscure.  This phenomenological disarticulation of the city’s organisational complexity hampers the full potential for complex social ordering because it compromises the vital communicative capacity of the built environment. Social functionality depends as much on subjective visual accessibility as it depends on objective physical availability. Social cooperation requires that specifically relevant actors find each other and configure within specific communicative situations. The failure to grasp this instrumentality of the built environment’s appearance has for too long hampered architecture’s proactive pursuit of formal articulation as a key competency of the discipline. 3

This insight motivates the attempt to articulate a complex variegated urban order that allows for the intuitive navigation and orientation within an information-rich built environment that makes its rich offerings visually accessible. That is the design agenda of parametricism and parametric urbanism. There is no doubt that the new computational ordering devices like gradients, vector fields, and the methods of associative modelling and geometric data-field transcoding allow designers to generate intricately ordered urban morphologies with distinct identities that could in principle make a much larger amount of programmatic information perceptually tractable. However, the question arises how this desired increase in urban order can be implemented in the face of a receding state planning apparatus?

2 Tokyo – Celebrated Paradigm of Urban Chaos
Free market urbanisation produces a disorienting urban disarticulation. The random agglomeration of  architectural forms produces a white noise sameness and prevents the emergence of a legible urban order and identity.
Without rules of correlation there can be no inferences from what is seen to what is not yet seen

3 Garbage Spill - All differences collapse into sameness.
Garbage looks the same everywhere around the world, despite all the local differences in ingregients. A perfect analogue that explains why all urabnisation processes since the collapse of modernism have resulted in “ugly” environments without identity.

4 London’s shapeless expansion
Like all urban agglomerations, London expands without bounds and without shape. The only features that give otherwise amorphous mega-cities  a recogniseable shape are natural landscape features like rivers, hills and valleys etc.

5 River delta: Nature’s Complex Variegated Order
Given that the various subsystems and features in a natural environment are correlated through their co-dependent laws of morphogenesis they potentially become representations of each other, allowing one to be inferred from the other, a legible order and perfect analogue for what our built environments should deliver.

6 Mumbai Expansion, Ursula Frick & Thomas Grabner, Tutor: P. Schumacher, Innsbruck University
The rule-based generation of urban morphologies on the basis of scripts that differentiate, modulate and correlate the different subsystems like fabric fields, path systems, and open spaces delivers a complex variegated urban order that is as information-rich and navigable as natural landscape formations.

Hegemonic Parametricism Evolves a Multi-author Urban Order

One obvious way in which the vacuum left by state planning can be filled is by means of what one might call ‘private planning’, i.e. by a process whereby private development corporations or consortiums unify larger and larger development areas within a coherent, market controlled urban business strategy. While isolated insertions continue – we can observe a tendency towards attempts to merge and integrate parcels within the historical centres and towards larger and larger privately master-planned development site within the wider expanse of the global mega-cities where development is concentrated. In this sense private planning is on the rise and thus affords opportunities for visual as much as programmatic integration. The example of London’s great estates offers an encouraging historical precedent here, a precedent of private, market based, long term urban asset management and private planning establishing an urban order, inclusive of a visual architectural order. However, the question remains: Is the degree of order that parametric urbanism aspires to possible beyond the level of integration achievable via private planning? More generally: is urbanism at all possible in the face of free market dynamism?

The market process is an evolutionary process that operates via mutation (trial and error), selection and reproduction. It is self-correcting, self-regulation, leading to a self-organized order. Thus we might presume that the land use allocation and thus the programmatic dimension of the urban and architectural order is to be determined by architecture’s private clients within a market process that allocates land resources to the most valued uses. However, in the absence of stylistic and methodological coherence we cannot expect the underlying programmatic order to become legible as a spatio-morphological order. For this to happen we must presume a hegemonic stylistic and methodological paradigm that has the versatility and ordering capacity to translate the social order into a complex variegated spatial order. A shared paradigm offers the prospect of coherence across multiple authors working for multiple clients. No controlling hand needs to be presupposed.

7 Complex Variegated Order via multi-author coherence, Istanbul Cultural District, Studio Hadid/Schumacher, Yale University, 2013
This design experiment in un-planned multi-author urban order demonstrates how coherence, interarticulation and resonnance can emerge if independent authors work from within the shared paradigm
of parametricism that enables and calls for mutually adaptive, affiliative and resonate design moves.

Parametricism can draw and exploit the following a powerful analogy: The analogy of unplanned multi-author parametric urbanism with a multi-species ecology. Consider the way the various features and creatures within a natural environment coalesce to create a complex variegated order on the basis of rules  - in turn based on the complex interaction of multiple laws of nature – that establish systematic correlations between the various organic and anorganic subsystems that make up a natural landscape. The topography correlates with the path of the river, the river together with topography and sun orientation differentiate the flora and the differentiation of the flora – together with river and topography - shape the differentiation and distribution of the fauna, which in turn impacts back on the fauna and thus often also on rivers and even the topography. While thus causality is complex and not easy to unravel, correlations and thus inference potentials are being established in all directions, and give information to those who want to navigate such a landscape. The key here is the build-up of correlations and associations (irrespective of the underlying causality). Each new species of plant or animal proliferates according to its own rules of adaptation and survival. For instance, the moss grows differentially on the terraced rock surface in certain shaded slopes, i.e. depending on surface pattern, sun orientation, self-shading rock formation etc. A population of a certain species of birds then might settle on these slopes accordingly etc. In the same way parametricism envisions the build-up of a densely layered urban environment via differentiated, rule-based architectural interventions, that are designed via scripts that form the new architectural sub-systems, just like a new species settles into a natural environment. This process delivers rich diversity, yet fully correlated, if designed according to the heuristics of parametricism. Each new architect/author can be uniquely creative in inventing and designing the rules/scripts of his/her project and participate in its own unique way in the build-up of a variegated, information-rich urban order. The analogy also extends to the navigation in rule-based environments: the urbanite’s intuitive orientation within a parametric urban environment functions analogous to animal cognition/navigation in a natural environment.


The Reversal of Architecture’s Historical Entropy Law

The only viable candidate for the next hegemonic epochal style is parametricism. Neither a hegemonic Postmodernism, nor a hegemonic Deconstructivism could overcome the visual chaos that allows the proliferation of differences to collapse into global sameness (white noise). Both Postmodernism and Deconstructivism operate via collage, i.e. via the unconstrained agglomeration of differences. Deconstructivism can be looked at as the aesthetic sublimation of the urban process of “garbage spill” collage. Only Parametricism has the capacity to combine an increase in complexity with a simultaneous increase in order, via the principles of lawful differentiation and multi-system correlation. Only parametricism can overcome the visual chaos and white noise sameness that laissez faire urbanisation produces everywhere. Parametricism holds out the possibility of a free market urbanism that produces an emergent order and local identity in a bottom up process, i.e. without relying on political or bureaucratic power. The values and methodological principles of parametricism are prone to produce path-dependent, self-amplifying local identities, starting with the given natural features and settlements. Its ethos of contextual affiliation and ambition to establish or reinforce continuities allows for the development of unique urban identities on the basis of local contexts, topography, climate etc. Parametricist order does not rely on the uniform repetition of patterns as Modernist urbanism does. In contrast to Baroque or Beaux Arts master-plans, Parametricist compositions are inherently open ended (incomplete) compositions. Their order is relational rather than geometric. They establish order and orientation via the lawful differentiation of fields, via vectors of transformation, as well as via contextual affiliations and subsystem correlations. This neither requires the completion of a figure, nor - in contrast to Modernist master-plans - the uniform repetition of a pattern. There are always many (in principle infinitely many) creative ways to transform, to affiliate, to correlate. A unique, unpredictable, but recognisable and legible order (which allows for orienting inferences) will emerge, as long as all architects acquire the required skills and create within the parametrist paradigm and ethos that calls for continuities and affiliations, under the critical eye and peer pressure of each other. 

A hegemonic parametricism thus holds out the prospect of a free market urban order.


8 Progression of Styles: Freedom vs Order,  graph by Patrik Schumacher
Parametricism achieves an inversion of architecture’s entropy law. Freedom must be bought by giving up order until the techniques of parametricism give a new, powerful ordering capacity to the discipline of architecture, a capacity that delivers a simultaneous enhancement of freedom and order.

If we look at the historical progression of styles we find that the last 300 years established what we might call architecture’s entropy law: all gains in terms of design freedom and versatility have been achieved at the expense of urban and architectural order, i.e. increases in versatility had to be bought by a progressive degeneration of architecture’s ordering capacity. The increase of the designer’s degrees of freedom was established via the enrichment of architecture’s formal-compositional repertoire. This increase in freedom/versatility was the paramount criterion of progress in architecture’s pursuit of matching the requisite variety of societal complexity.  Like the move from classical architecture to modernism, the move from modernism via postmodernism to deconstructivism delivered an expansion of degrees of freedom and versatility (to accommodate a more complex society) that was paid for by a relaxation or rejection of rules of composition, i.e. of means of ordering, and thus a resultant degeneration of the visual order.

Order was progressively eroded. This long trend of a negative correlation of freedom and order can be reversed under the auspices of parametricism. Parametricism offers the simultaneous increase in freedom and order and thus inaugurates a new phase of architectural neg-entropy. Parametricism’s radical ontological and methodological innovation translates into a massive leap in both dimensions of architectural progress considered here, i.e. it entails an unprecedented expansion of architecture’s compositional freedom and an unprecedented leap in architecture’s ordering capacity through the deployment of algorithms and associative logics.
Parametricism is the first style that delivers further degrees of freedom and versatility in conjunction with a simultaneous increase in its ordering capacity via new compositional rules like affiliations, gradients and associative logics. In principle all design moves are now rule based and thus with the potential to enhance the visual order and thus legibility of the built environment in the face of an increased complexity.

9 Classicism: High Level of Order - Limited Degrees of Freedom,  Architectura Civilis, Paulus Decker 1711
The ordering principles of symmetry and proportion gave classical architecture the capacaty to compose potent unities by ordering the city around the institutional ensemble of church and palace.

10 Modernism: Increased Degrees of Freedom – Lower level of Order, Nicolai Kusmin, Miners Housing 1930
Modernism did let go of the constraints of symmetry and proportion and gained the freedom of radical abstarction. It maintained orthogonality and worked with the ordering principles of separation, specialisation and limitless repetition.

11 Postodernism: Further Increases in Degrees of Freedom – Further Loss of Order, OMA, 1976
Postodernism rejected the monotony of modernist separation and repetition and opened itself up for an unconstrained juxtaposition and collage of architectural forms and motifs from all other periods of architecture.

12 Deconstructivism: Further Degrees of Freedom -  Further Degeneration of Order, Zaha Hadid 1986
Deconstructivism abandons orthogonality and all historical motifs to regain the freedom of abstraction and intensifies the principle of collage by allowing superimposition and interpenetration as much as juxtaposition.

13 Parametricism: Pronounced Increase in Freedom -  Sharrp Increase in Order, Zaha Hadid Architects, Masterplans for Appur
Parametricism expands the repertoire and thus freedom with spline/nurb based curvelinearity as well as gradient swarm formations. Parametricism hugely expanded architecture’s ordering capacity via the scripting or agent-based emergence of associative logics.

Parametricism is by now manifestly superior to all other styles that are still pandered and pursued. This implies that parametricism should sweep the market and put an end to the current pluralism of styles (that resulted from modernism’s crisis and) that has been going on for far too long due to ideological inertia. The plurality of styles must make way for a sweeping, universal, i.e. hegemonic parametricism, to allow architecture to finally make once more a vital, decisive, transformative impact on the built environment, the way modernism had done in the 20th century.


1 ‘Parametric Urbanism’ was the title of a three-year design research agenda at the Architectural Association Design Research Lab (AADRL) in London from 2005 to 2008.

2  It was Friedrich von Hayek who first understood economic competition to be a discovery process and the economic problem (the problem of efficient resource allocation) as a problem of knowledge utilization and information processing. See: Hayek, F. A., The Use of Knowledge in Society, American Economic Review, XXXV(4): 519-30, 1945, and: Hayek, F. A., Competition As A Discovery Procedure, 1968, re-printed in: The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics 5, No. 3 (Fall 2002): 9–23.

3 The crucial work on formal/aesthetic problems which in practice takes up the larger part of the architect’s design work is being denigrated or denied in the discipline’s self-descriptions. Architecture is responsible for the built environment’s social (rather than technical engineering) functionality. Social functionality of the built environment depends now more and more upon its communicative capacity, which in turn is a matter of visual communication.

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