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On Parametricism
Georgina Day interviews Patrik Schumacher
Topics: architectural styles, the societal function of architecture/design, what parametricism shares with modernism, relationship of parametricism with other societal/cultural/intellectual phenomena, relationship of architecture and politics, architecture’s autonomy
Extracts published in: Paper – Platform for Architectural Projects, Essays & Research, Issue 4, University of Westminster


What is Parametricism as you understand it?

The term ‘Parametricism’ implies that all elements of architecture are becoming parametrically malleable and thus adaptive to each other and to the context. Instead of aggregating a few platonic solids (cubes, cylinders etc.) into simple compositions - like all other architectural styles did for 5000 years – we are now working with inherently variable, adaptive forms that aggregate into continuously differentiated fields or systems. Multiple systems are correlated with each other and with the environment.  All spaces should resonate with each other because within Postfordist network society all activities need to be networked and stay in continuous communication with each other.
Parametricism is the most potent movement and avant-garde style in architecture today. It has been maturing and accumulating contributors globally for over 10 years. Avant-garde styles are design research programmes akin to the paradigms in science. They set the scene for collective, cumulative design research. I observe a great convergence of creative efforts in world architecture. Most architecture schools of the world participate in this research and experimental design effort. There is no other equally original and compelling game around. This convergence also starts to draw in the other design disciplines.
I am merely describing what is going on and I think this phenomenon deserves a name. Indeed, this movement needs a name in order to make the next logical step: to make a real impact and transform the physiognomy of the global built environment in the 21st century just as Modernism did during the 20th century. We need to realize that we are forging a powerful new style that continues the succession of the great epochal styles of the past: Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Historicism, Modernism. To claim this lineage is a powerful and necessary move to impact beyond the avant-garde discourse internal to architecture. The category of style is the only architectural category that means something in society at large. Only the emergence of a new style can be important, impacting news coming out of architecture. It would inform all future clients about the availability of a new aesthetic and global best practice.

You have distinguished between epochal, transitional and subsidiary architectural styles in your writing about Parametricism. What does each of these categories mean, and how does Parametricism fit into the landscape?

Parametricism is the only credible candidate to become the epochal style of the 21st century, the first global style for architecture, urbanism and the design disciplines since the crisis and demise of Modernism 35 years ago. Postmodernism and Deconstructivism were transitional styles, each leading the discipline for about a decade. Modernism – the style congenial to Fordist mass society – participated in the immense material progress that was made possible by the mechanization and industrialisation of all aspects of life. However, the next level of progress calling for more social diversity and individuality, more rapid innovation, to support a richer and more complex social life process, was no longer supported by the Modernist principles of separation (zoning), specialization and repetition (standardization). Postmodernism reacted to the need to inject more variation into the monotonous environments of the Modernist era by tapping into the reservoir of historical styles and motifs. It also supported the revitalization of the historical city centres which were often abandoned during the Modernist drive to locate new production facilities and residences on suburban green field sites. Deconstructivism took the PostModernist ideas of diversity and complexity (collage) and turned them into abstract principles, leaving behind the (ultimately irrelevant) historical source material that had inspired the PostModernist idea of collage. Parametricism advanced beyond Deconstructivism by shifting the emphasis from the mere agglomeration of differences to the organisation and articulation of a complex, variegated order. In contrast to Pomo and Decon, Parametricism has the rationality and constructive capacity to conquer the arena of mainstream world architecture. At the same time it is both open ended and super adaptive to the diverse cultures and climates of contemporary world society. Its design principles  - increase adaptive variability, differentiation, correlation – are abstract enough to become universal without any sense of closure. There are always myriad ways to add degrees of freedom (variables), to differentiate, to correlate. Parametricism remains an infinite project, inexhaustibly craving for creative ideas.

You argue that Parametricism is epochal because it responds to contemporary historical conditions. The complexity of the world today, fuelled by mass information and elaborate social and geographical networks, seem to require a new sort of architectural language to aid users in navigating this landscape. Why is Parametricism best suited for this?

Parametricism has the versatility, rich formal repertoire and the associative tools to build up the complex, variegated order contemporary society calls for. Parametricism has developed the capacity to intricately structure very complex urban scenes that nevertheless remain legible and navigable. In my recent writings I have tried to define the societal function of architecture (and the design disciplines) as the ordering and framing of communicative interaction. All problems of society are problems of communication. The life process of society consists of a rich, diversified panoply of institutions and communicative situations. In order to communicate within specific communicative situations the relevant participants have to first find each other and gather in particular settings, brought into particular spatial constellations, enveloped by specific atmospheres that prime and prepare the participants with respect to the appropriate moods and modes of communication to be expected. This sorting, ordering, orienting and framing is achieved by the designed/built environment. To get a grasp of the importance of the ordering capacity a complex built environment we might consider the following thought experiment: imagine that the population of a metropolis like London is thrown naked onto an undifferentiated tarmac surface. Nobody would know where to go or what to do. Nobody would even know who they are anymore. What is being erased is all the visible information about society’s order and institutions. The built environment is society’s material memory. It functions as a system of signification. Based on this societal function of architecture I have formulated the task of architectural design to proceed along three dimensions: organisation, articulation and signification. Accordingly, in my forthcoming second volume of ‘The Autopoiesis of Architecture’ I am proposing to upgrade the intelligence and capacity of the discipline along these three dimensions and suggest that the design project can be divided into three projects: the organisational project, the phenomenological project and the semiological project. These are general proposals that are initially independent of any investment into a particular style. However, I believe that Parametricism is best placed to take on these agendas. I have started to work with students on the idea of a parametric semiology where a complex design is build up as a complex system of signification, using agent based crowd modelling (functional crowds) to set up systematic correlations between architectural features and behavioural responses.

Should we be suspicious of an architecture which is quietly guiding us through the mêlée of choices we have to make? Does it give too much power to architects and architecture?

No, I am not worried about this at all (neither am I convinced by any supposedly critical concept that assumes people are lead, lured or lulled into ways of life that are against their own interest like e.g. the concept of  the ‘society of the spectacle’).  Being guided is different from being pushed and shoved. Our ambition is to unfold more choice in dense, convenient, perceptually palpable and legible arrangements. Our architecture operates via articulation (perception) and signification (comprehension) much more than it works via physical organisation. The more complex a society is the more will it have to rely on the active orientation of its participants, being ordered via perceived thresholds and semiotic clues rather than via physical barriers and channels. The framing territories and settings that architecture offers are themselves communications. They communicate about the type and mode of interaction that are to be expected within the respective space or setting. These spatial communications are broadcast premises of all further communications to be expected within the frame of the respective space. Like all communications they can be either accepted – by entering the space and subjecting oneself to the expected rules of interaction -  or rejected, by exiting or passing by the respective territory.

If Parametricism is part of the wider social system as you argue, then does it have equivalents in other disciplines? Is there something equivalent for art, or politics, or economics?

No, Parametricism is a design style and as such it only applies to architecture, urbanism and the other design disciplines. We should not assume that there could be a parametricist politics, economics or science. I would also exclude this with respect to art. Since the 1920s art and architecture are distinct autopoietic systems of communications, and as such self-referentially closed. For instance, there was no movement in architecture that could be regarded to be the equivalent of surrealism or informal abstract expressionism. Neither was there an art movement that paralleled functionalism, metabolism or high tech architecture. The societal function and thus the criteria of success are different in each autopoietic function system.
The same question was posed to me recently by a student at a seminar I gave at Carnegie Mellon University. The student cited the case of Postmodernism which seems to have expanded from architecture into art, literature and even philosophy. However, I think that Postmodernism refers to something rather specific and different in architecture. When the term was expanded into art it became much broader in its scope. In philosophy the term included the work of Derrida which in turn is associated with Deconstructivism which in turn positioned itself in radical demarcation against architectural Postmodernism. This demonstrates how terms shift meaning as they cross system boundaries. So again, as art, science, architecture/design, politics, economy etc. are self-referentially enclosed, autopoietic systems of communication their societal function and thus the criteria of success are rather different. So we should not expect overarching movements and discourses. The different discourses are in fact conceptually incommensurable. Therefore direct communicative integration is out of the question. However, this does not exclude that irritation or even inspiration operates between autopoietic systems. An irritation or inspiration is not a communication. It is a perturbing impact that might be absorbed within the observing (receiving) system on its own terms in unpredictable ways. Philosophy often acts as an exchange hub or transmission belt for conceptual innovations/irritations between different disciplines. In this way postructuralism as well as the new science of complexity (chaos theory) were appropriated and interpreted within architecture. Each autopietic system incorporates newly circulating concepts in its own way. There is no point in complaining or worrying that architects misunderstand and misappropriate the concepts of philosophy and science. That is to be expected.
However, since all these subsystem of society are co-evolving with each other within society we might expect radical transformations in society to be somehow reflected within all subsystem, albeit in rather different ways and somewhat asynchronously. The transformation of the economy from the Fordist to the Postfordist regime of reproduction might be cited here as giving an important impetus to the emergence of Parametricism. Both transformations are related to the absorption of the possibilities offered by the micro-electronic revolution. The shift in science towards the study of non-linear dynamics, chaos, self-organisation and the emergence of complex systems is a loosely parallel transformation in the sciences. So these parallels can be observed and such parallel developments become sources of inspiration. But such parallels must not be taken to infer the possibility of an integral master-discourse that unifies the distinct function systems under a single logic. Practical attempts at such a unification would reduce and blunt the complexity of functionally differentiated society, and would imply a form of totalitarianism. There can be no single, overarching master-discourse, nor a single control-centre within contemporary society. Architects are thrown back onto their own unique collective discourse and have to self-regulate their collective analyses, values, methods and criteria of success rather than hope for instruction from elsewhere.

In your account of architectural history, the last epochal architectural style was modernism. What similarities are there between the two?

After having emphasized the radical differences between Parametricism and modernism we should also see the parallelism that exists between the two styles at a higher level of abstraction. The crucial point of similarity should be clear by now: Parametricism has drawn together a sufficiently large group of creative participants over a sufficiently long period of cumulative research to be in a position to become the epochal style of the 21th Century just like modernism was the epochal style of the 20th Century. Both styles required about a decade of collective cumulative research and development to reach this point. Both styles are operating on the basis of radical abstraction and in the consciousness of permanent, creative innovation, on the basis of a shared set of principles that describe the respective global best practice of their respective era. Both styles recognize the fact that architecture has become a unified world architecture. (Le Corbusier was a global figure with global reach and with creative staff from all over the world. The same applies now to all known architectural practices.) Modernism already understood the universality of architecture/design’s competency: All design, for all scales and function types lies within its exclusive purview, including urbanism, architecture, interior design as well as the whole world of designed artefacts – as long as they are function as interfaces of communication. This universality of architecture’s concern differs from the 19th century when e.g. factories and worker’s housing were excluded from architecture. (What remains excluded are infrastructural systems and machines that function hidden from view. Such purely technical systems are engineering matter.) Parametricism also stresses both the exclusivity and universality of its mandate. There is yet another parallel, a parallel which has been (correctly) observed by my critics: There is a parallel between my current attempt to establish the retrospective recognition of the maturing style of Parametricism and the attempt of Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson to retrospectively canonize modernism as the new ‘International Style’ 80 years ago.

One of the definitive features of modernism was its political aspirations to create a more equal society, and its appetite for the moral improvement of man. Does Parametricism also have an explicit political and moral agenda?

No, we need to leave the formulation of political agendas to the political system. Even with respect to modernism I would argue that the egalitarian political aspirations you would like to ascribe to the Modern Movement were not universally shared within the movement. The political aspirations came from the European labour movements and their political parties  - like the German Social Democratic Party -  which gained a certain measure of political power after WW1. The architecture of those years could not afford to ignore these new socio-economic and political forces. Social-democratic municipalities were important clients of the early Modernist architects. As I describe in my book ‘The Autopoiesis of Architecture’ attempts by some Modernists like Hannes Meyer and Mart Stam to push further and project a more radical, communist political agenda within architecture were largely divisive and thus disruptive of the modern movement. There is no point in allowing political controversy to penetrate and usurp the architectural debate. Such controversies cannot be resolved within the architectural discourse. They can only be resolved and decided in the political system in the medium of power, i.e. such issues are not only a matter of convincing arguments but a matter of using arguments to gather interests into power-blocks that can then act politically. The outcome of this actual political process furnishes the political premises for architecture. These premises are to be translated into congenial architectural designs. Parametricism is intuitively doing exactly this and I suggest it should be doing this with conscious determination, like modernism did in its time. The socio-economic forces of a market-oriented postfordist network society and the attendant political forces of liberal, parliamentarian multi-party (and multi-cultural) democracy are delivering the general socio-economic and politico-cultural premises for our parametricist design agendas. The fact that the current avant-garde movement feels less political than the modern movement is not inherent in these architectural movements themselves but is due to the fact that the general political landscape today is relatively mute. Modernism took off right after the social (socialist) revolutions that swept across (parts of) Europe in the aftermath of WW1. The political transformations of the late 20th Century were less dramatic and less popular. Architecture itself cannot become a site for original political initiatives or for an original political activism.
We all might participate in the political process as citizens, voters, party members, demonstrators etc. However, in our capacity as avant-garde architects we are called upon to adapt the thinking and design resources of the discipline to those socio-economic and political tendencies that emerge as legitimately victorious from the political process proper. We are not called upon to second guess the results of the proper political process. Architectural discourse is not the arena within which an effective political discourse can unfold. It is an arena in which prior political decisions that have been formed, empowered and legitimized elsewhere are to be translated into space.
In contrast to art, philosophy or political theory, architecture is inherently affirmative rather than critical. There can be no such thing as “critical architecture”. As professional architects we are not called upon to undermine prior (democratic) political decisions. Who could give us this right? What would give an architect the right to second guess for instance the decision to invest in a public building with a particular programme and represented by a legitimately constituted client representative. The attempt to subvert such legitimate intentions would be arrogant, pompous, and in no way justifiable. The politics of the new building has been defined already. It is now our job to translate its political intentions in a congenial, effective, sensitive way, innovative in terms of its architectural translation. In a competition setting we might try to reinterpret the political agenda of the project, in an open discourse with the legitimate jury. That’s fair enough. If we go too far we might lose our chance. Perhaps that’s a risk worth taking. That level of subtle activism within the institutional processes is welcome. We might suggest particular political nuances but we are not sovereign to decide over the political character of the institutions we are asked to design for. This sovereignty lies with the institutions (clients) themselves.
Functionally differentiated society works if we can all trust the results of the other function system as premises of our own specific functional contribution. We live and work on the basis of system-trust. We must be able to trust the results of science/engineering and draw our specific architectural conclusions on this basis without entering the scientific discourse itself. We must equally trust that our client/investor operating within the economic system got his investment decisions right. We must also trust that the political process contributes its particular rationality (in terms of collectively binding decisions) according to its specific communication processes. Those of us who have no trust and respect for the actual political process and who thus think that the political system does not deliver, who think that politics presents the bottleneck of progress, those of us should exit architecture and enter the political process proper in full force, or at least seriously engage in a political debate, perhaps join a (radical) political party, and become true activists within the political arena proper. The architectural discourse cannot substitute itself for this real political discourse. Only within the real political discourse can one test one’s arguments in debates with seasoned political activists. Only through such engagements could we test, confirm or evolve the rationality of our own political opinions.  In the absence of such debates we remain ignorant, frozen in our amateur opinions.  Only in the political process proper can one legitimately and effectively influence and change the constitution of the clients of architecture (for instance by arguing for and politically succeeding with nationalizing real estate development). However, to try to criticize, subvert or even sabotage (public or private) clients with legitimately granted rights over a site would not only be ineffective but irrational, as it would negate democratically constituted and confirmed rights.
For instance, I myself have sympathies in the direction of libertarianism but my architecture can only be based on the assumptions of mainstream politics, the political agenda that is in fact empowered. A practicing architect can only decide in this way. After the political premises are settled (in the political system) there remains the question of the most pertinent, effective architectural solution to the ordering agenda of the legitimate (political, economic, social) power. This question can no longer be answered in the political system, nor in the economic system, nor in science. This question can only be answered in the architectural expert discourse, according to its specific categories and criteria of success. And in this respect we can confidently rebut the attempts of politicians, engineers and even clients who try to force our design hand. In all matters of architectural organisation, articulation and evaluation the autopoiesis of architecture  - the architectural discourse -  reigns supreme. Whenever a politician, or client forces our hand the result is expelled from the domain of architecture. The result would be a building but it certainly would not count as architecture.

Is your account of Parametricism a fully materialist account, like the accounts of architectural modernism offered by thinkers such as David Harvey and Fredric Jameson? These analyses describe architectural styles as not only emerging from, but necessarily emerging from underlying structural conditions. If so, is Parametricism irresistible?

On the deepest level of my thinking I am indeed a materialist in the Marxian sense, just like David Harvey and Fredric Jameson, but not without qualifications. In fact, I no longer call myself a Marxist. My architectural theory is based on Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory. Luhmann proposes to conceptualize the life process of society as a communication process rather than as a material reproduction process. This is  - of course – a radical abstraction. However, I think this is a rather pertinent and powerful abstraction. All our problems and bottlenecks are problems of communication. Both the problems and the solutions of mankind have to do with society’s self-generated complexity. Even on an individual level, all our problems are problems of communication. Even those problems where the materiality of our life seems to assert itself, transform right away into communication problems. E.g. when you fall sick you need to communicate with passersby or friends to call a doctor, then you need to communicate with the doctor, worry about your health insurance etc. When you want to travel to Australia the physical distance to be overcome is not your problem. Your problem is whether you can apply for and get a visa, whether you can buy a ticket, whether the congestion and security controls are well managed, and you know how to navigate the congestion and security controls etc. The same applies to architecture. The critical issue for an ambitious architecture that wants to contribute to the next stage of our civilization is not the technical-material problem of how to create an envelope that protects against the elements and beasts, but the critical issue is how a designed territory operates as sophisticated framing communication that gathers and orders relevant (socialized) participants for specific communicative interactions. So I believe that communication-theory provides a parsimonious, productive framework for architecture’s reflective self-description. However, as I elaborate in the Epilogue of Volume 2 of my book ‘The Autopoiesis of Architecture’ this theoretical perspective is coherent with an ultimately materialist underpinning. After all, communications are also material processes, based on material media of communication and material media of information processing.

Post Script on the question of architecture’s autonomy:
What do I mean when I use the term autonomy or when I call architecture an autopoietic system?  My point is very different from e.g. Eisenman’s idea that architecture is self-centered and only concerned with its own formal-compositional issues. Eisenman posits that architecture should throw off its concern with the world, abandon function and only concentrate on architectural form. That’s not at all a sustainable position that could guide the discipline. For the discipline as a whole this attitude would be suicidal. For a formal innovator Eisenman’s attitude is perfect. His innovative, formal productivity is unhampered by simultaneous worries about social/functional relevance. He can leave it to others to select from and apply what might be relevant in his production. There is indeed a certain division of labour in any discipline, in particular the division into avant-garde and mainstream. Within the avant-garde there are design medium innovators, formal innovators, programmatic innovators, theorists, fabrication innovators, integrators, etc. The discipline as a whole incorporates Eisenman and his (productively one-sided) work into an overall evolutionary trajectory with its moments of mutation, selection, reproduction. I am trying to formulate the overall rationality of the discipline that necessarily involves the integration of world-reference (function) and self-reference (form). Architecture must be a congenial, relevant contributor to contemporary life. It must function via its formal productions. Form must power function. This task demands formal innovation and formal innovation cannot be achieved by only talking about functions. That’s why we must tolerate and integrate characters like Eisenman with their productively false consciousness.
Architecture must evolve to keep itself relevant for society. To do this architecture must absorb influences and must innovate to adapt to contemporary societal and technological conditions.  However, it does so on its own terms, through its own unique discourse, on the basis of its own unique, accumulated wisdom. Just like scientists  - and only scientist  -  determine what is proper scientific knowledge through their collective scientific discourse, so it is architects  - and only architects -  who determine through their collective architectural discourse what is good, appropriate contemporary architecture. Architecture is autonomous in how it adapts to the contemporary challenges. Society demands that architecture has to adapt. The appropriate formula here is: Openness through closure. The self-referential closure of the discipline prevents that outsiders (politicians, engineers, investors) with their one-sided interests and uneducated gut-reactions can force the design. They can constrain but never force the hand of the architect. If this happens the result is rightly expelled from architecture, not considered within the field, not taken seriously, laughed at etc. The result will be dismissed as mere building, as commercial vernacular, as amateur dilettantism because it violates the accumulated intelligence of the discipline. This intelligence/wisdom is often only intuitively grasped and not explicitly rationalized. It exists as sedimented dogma. (In my book ‘The Autopoiesis of Architecture’ I am trying to reveal the underlying rationality of a lot of these sedimented dogmas.) Here the point I am making is that the accumulated experience of the discipline with the integration of multiple (often conflicting) concerns is much more likely to solve all aspects of a client’s (often complex) agenda (often involving multiple stakeholders and audiences) than the client himself. And indeed this expertise is usually respected. Architectural juries are usually headed by architects. Architectural reputations are certainly made and lost within the autopoiesis of architecture and only from here expand in the world at large, e.g. Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies, Corb, Gehry, Hadid … all of them were selected within the autopoiesis of architecture before they became famous beyond these confines. These observations are giving evidence to what I mean when I insist on architecture’s autonomy as self-regulating, evolving discourse. This should not be confused with the autonomy an individual architect might want to insist on.


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