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Parametricism and the Autopoiesis of Architecture
Lecture by Patrik Schumacher, SCI-Arc, Los Angeles, September 2010

Plus: post-lecture debate with Eric Owen Moss
Published in: Log 21, winter 2011


Thanks. It’s great to be here. I had two great days to see what’s going on here and I think what I have to say speaks, to a certain extent, criticallyto what is going on here. The lecture is a variation on a lecture I have been giving this year. I’ve added an element that relates to the book, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, which is an attempt to create a comprehensive and unified theory of architecture, and which features parametricism as the last chapter of volume two. The argument is that parametricism continues the autopoiesis of architecture, which is the self-referentially closed system of communications that constitutes architecture as a discourse in contemporary society. The book is in two volumes. Volume one, a new framework for architecture, is coming out in December, [released Dec 7, 2010] and then a new agenda for architecture appears in volume two, probably six months later. It is difficult to summarize, but just to raise a bit of curiosity about this, I will make an argument for why a comprehensive unified theory is of interest.

A comprehensive unified theory of and for architecture is important if you are trying to lead 400 architects across a multiplicity of projects, touching all aspects and components of contemporary architecture in terms of programmatic agendas and at all scales. With a unified theory one is better prepared to manage the different designs, designers, and approaches that run in different directions, potentially fight each other, contradict each other, and might stand in each other’s way. I am also teaching at a number of schools, the Architectural Association Design Research Laboratory [AA DRL] being one of them, an expanding group that is now 150 to 160 students. Here again there the issue of trying to converge efforts so that people don’t trip over each other and get in each other’s way. The need for a unified theory is first of all to eliminate contradictions within one’s own efforts – so one doesn’t stand in one’s own way all the time. If you go around from jury to jury, from project to project, you say one thing here, another thing there, and yet further ideas come to mind elsewhere; by the fourth occasion you might be saying things and doing things that don’t gel, don’t cohere with the first three. You might be developing ideas about architecture’s societal function. You might be concerned with what is architecture, what is not architecture, to demarcate architecture, for instance against art and engineering . You might think of yourself to participate in something like an avant-garde and so you might try to develop a theory of the avant-garde. Or you might reflect about your dependence on design media, and so you try to develop a theory of architecture’s medium; then about design processes, i.e. design process theory. You wonder about aesthetic values and the notion of beauty, whether it is still relevant. Y ou try to develop a theory of beauty, an aesthetic theory. And you might be concerned with phenomenology, with perception: H ow do we perceive space, how do subjects orient themselves in space?   Next might be t he concept of style: Is it still relevant? Y ou try to develop a theory of style. You try to read the history of architecture in a certain fashion,  … and so it goes on and on, partial theory upon partial theory … and you do all this to position yourself with respect to contemporary architecture. D ifferent authors, different thinkers, might undertake and spend half their careers on any of those issues. Some of us might do two or three of these. Observing oneself and others pursuing such partial theories it makes sense to ask whether these things can be brought into a coherent system of ideas where they might be able to forge a kind of trajectory that has to do with guiding practice. You can only lead a coherent practice with a coherent (deep and comprehensive) theory.

No one has attempted a unified theory since Le Corbusier, and perhaps since the book The International Style, or perhaps since the work of Christian Norberg-Schultz (Intentions in Architecture). F or a long time it has been nearly taboo even to start thinking about such an idea. I find it very interesting that the concept of style, as promoted in The International Style, had returned after it was abandoned by most of the early modernists . The return of the concept  - as international style -  became a factor in the phenomenon of the style that dominated the transformation of the global built environment for 50 years. It contributed to the generation of an unprecedented level of material freedom and plenty, aligned, of course, with the growth of industrial civilization. In the 1970s it became clear that the principles and values that had defined modern architecture for half a century were no longer the principles and values through which architecture could facilitate the further progress of world civilization. Modernism experienced a massive crisis, was abandoned. Everything had to be questioned, rethought which led to a free reigning, free-wheeling, browsing, and brainstorming discourse. This also brought forth a new cast of characters, an unapologetic intellectual pluralism, and a sense that all systems (grand narratives) are bankrupt. All this made sense at this particular historical moment. But t hat doesn’t mean that all attempts to cohere a unified theory are to be dismissed forever. After a period of questioning, brainstorming and free-wheeling experimentation new provisional conclusions must be drawn, decisions must be made about how to move a new, promising project forward in a clear way. The necessity of this cannot be denied.

So, to raise some curiosity about this idea, let me discuss the chapter structure of volume one. After the introduction it all starts with a chapter on architectural theory, which is put forward as an important, necessary component of architecture. It actually marks the inception and origin of architecture with Alberti 500 years ago in the early Renaissance. That’s where I say architecture starts. Everything before that was not architecture, it was some form of traditional building. Most of this book is an attempt to observe architecture and its communication structures, its key principles, distinctions, methods, practices. I t’s a comprehensive discourse analysis of the discipline, and from that develops a normative agenda of selecting, or filtering out, the pertinent tendencies, the permanent communication structures, and the variable communication structures that have been evolving within the frame of the permanent structures. All this is elaborated in order to forge a statement and position on how to move forward. To make this more digestible I have extracted poignant theses from the theory, and I will just read a few here.
Thesis one is that the phenomenon of architecture can be most adequately grasped if it is analyzed as an autonomous network or autopoetic system of communications. So I am not talking about architecture as simply a collection of buildings. I’m not talking about it as a profession or a practice. I’m not talking about it only as an academic discipline. Rather, I am concerned with how all of these activities are joined together to create a system of communications.
Thesis four states there is no architecture without theory. Thesis six contains the notion that resolute autonomy, or what Luhmann calls self-referential closure, is a prerequisite of architecture’s effectiveness in an increasingly complex and dynamic social environment. The notion of a self-enclosed autonomy of the discipline means that we as architects and as a discourse as a whole need to define the purposes that guide us, the conceptual structures and modes of arguments that are legitimate and meaningful to us, what tasks to focus on and how to pursue them. The kind of network of communications that we constitute determines this. In contemporary society there is no other authority we can appeal to which would instruct architecture with respect to the built environment and its evolution. Neither politics, nor clients, nor science, nor morality. We have the burden as a collective to determine the way forward. That’s what I mean by autonomy – the autonomy to adapt to an environment and to stay relevant in it. And that is not guaranteed.

I also discovered that only by differentiating the avant-garde as a specific subsystem can contemporary architecture actively participate in the evolution of society. I believe that institutions like SCI-Arc and the AA which seem to be one step removed from the burdens of delivering state-of-the-art solutions here and now, are a necessary condition for architecture to rethink and upgrade itself continuously.
Thesis ten suggests that in a society without a control center architecture must regulate itself and maintain its own mechanisms of evolution in order to remain adaptable in an ecology of evolving societal subsystems. These subsystems are constituting society according to the notion of society underlying this discourse. There can be no external determination imposed upon architecture, neither by political bodies nor by paying clients, except in the negative, trivial sense of disruption. Yes, they can stop your project. Maybe they can clamp down and deny permission, but they obviously cannot constructively intervene. The same occurs with other so-called subsystems of society, like the legal system, science, the arts, etc. They are all self-regulating discourses.
Thesis 16 suggests that avant-garde styles are designed research programs. If I talk about style or use the concept of style I am not necessarily alluding to all its connotations. I am making an effort to redefine style as a valid category of contemporary discourse, because to just let it drop to the side would be an impoverishment of contemporary discourse. The notion of style is one of the few ideas that is meaningful beyond the confines of architectural discourse. For the world at large it’s the primary category of understanding architecture, and we need to engage with that. All avant-garde styles are design research programs. They begin as progressive design research programs, and parametricism is now in that phase. They mature to become productive dogmas, which happened with modernism. And there is productivity in the ability to routinize insights for rapid dissemination and execution. And obviously all styles end up as degenerate dogmas.  That is their trajectory.
Thesis 17: Aesthetic values encapsulate a condensed collective experience within useful dogmas. Their inherent inertia implies that they (values) progress via revolution rather than evolution. Aesthetic values obviously shift with historical progress. You need to relearn your aesthetic sensibilities to find those that are productive and viable and that allow you to exist and be productive in contemporary life. The same goes for moral sensibilities. I am arguing, for instance, that minimalist sensibilities have to be fought and suppressed because they don’t allow you to adapt to contemporary life.
Thesis 19: Architecture depends on its medium, enormously. Parametricism is also a product of the development of the medium of architecture. Architectural communication is happening primarily within the medium of the drawing, becoming the digital model, becoming the parametric model, and the network of scripts. Architecture depends on its medium in the same way the economy depends on money and politics depends on power. These specialized media sustain a new plane of communication that depends on the credibility of the respective medium that remains inherently vulnerable to inflationary tendencies. If you overdo make-believe renderings, if they are not backed up by reality, there is a danger of inflating and losing credibility, but without this compelling medium you would never be able to convince yourself, or anybody else, to project complex, large-scale projects into a distant future, or to coalesce the enormous amount of resources and people needed to support and believe in a coordinated effort. Architecture, of course, also needs, with its increasing complexity of tasks and agendas, to upgrade its medium, just as money did. Money is no longer coinage; it became paper money, became electronic money. Administrative power is also benefiting from the microelectronic revolution in terms of administering, controlling, connecting, and directing. Each of these social subsystems has a specialized social medium. All these media evolve together with the tasks they take on.
One more thesis, Thesis 23: Radical innovation presupposes newness. Newness is first of all otherness. The new is produced by blind mechanisms rather than creative thought. Strategic selection is required to secure communicative continuity, and adaptive pertinence.

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Now I want to talk a little about the theoretical sources that allow me to work out a comprehensive unified theory of architecture with confidence and conviction. To do that, one of the key things you have to grasp is the societal function, or the raison d’être, of architecture in the world – why it came into being, why it took certain forms and moved toward certain developments, and what the best bet is for staying relevant and continuing to play an important role. This requires some sense of the overall social process and its workings. For the first decade of my architectural life, beginning in the early 1980s, I looked at Marxism and historical materialism as the kind of overarching theoretical edifice through which to think what is going on in architecture. When I went into architecture at the University of Stuttgart, I was joining the late modern period. People were still convinced of modernism. There was still hi-tech – Foster and Rogers were still the prominent going tendency. I was into it, but one or two years into my studies, I discovered postmodernism in the writing of Robert Venturi and Charles Jencks’s The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. And so I changed, and, in fact, the university changed. And a few years later there was a radical shift to deconstructivism. It seemed that in the 1980s, every two or three years there was a revolution in style, in paradigm, in outlook, and in values. I think that period left a mark on some people’s general philosophical outlook . Soon there was a pluralism of styles. It seems that since then the kind of monolithic, cumulative, trajectory of modernism is a thing of a past era and that we’re now living in a world of continuous flux and splintering, fragmenting trajectories and ever-changing values. However, this is a historical illusion.

In my search for a credible theory of architecture and theory of contemporary society I discovered Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory. Luhmann’s fundamental premise is that all social phenomena or events depend on systems of communication. He steps back from Marxist materialism to a kind of abstraction, but one that I think is plausible. You always have to abstract to theorize. To focus on communications is interesting because if you think about everybody’s life process – where the bottlenecks are, where the crux of your problems is, your issues – you are always coping with social systems, your ability to communicate within them, to find a position within them. Even the physical world only gets to you through systems of communication. For example, if you’re struck by illness your main problem will be whether you have health insurance, whether you have people you can communicate with, whether you are imbedded in a system of communications with rights and the ability to speak. If you want to traverse physical space your issue will be whether you have money, an airline ticket. The bottleneck will be traffic, other people’s attempts to travel, security controls at airports, etc. You are protected if you have the ability to buy a hotel room, an apartment, switch on the heater, pay the bills. Communication structures everyone’s interface with the physical world and our relations with each other. T hink about architecture: we construct projects only through communications, whether through drawings, contracts, phone calls, emails: communications, upon communications, upon communications – that’s what runs this world. Everything goes through that needle’s eye.

Luhmann’s philosophy of history differs from both Marx’s and Hegel’s. I insist an architectural theorist must possess a philosophy of history, a theory of historical development. Luhmann looks at history in terms of modes of social or societal differentiation – demarcating epochs. Today societies are organized in terms of functional differentiation. This is what Luhmann calls functionally differentiated society comprised of the great function systems of society as parallel systems that co-evolve with each other as autonomous discourses, i.e. as systems of communication like politics, law, economics, science, education, health, mass media, and art. A politician has no way of influencing scientific truth. (What is to be done with that knowledge is perhaps a matter of political discourse). The economy is also separate from politics and has its own autonomous domain and communication system, based on money and exchange in the market. The reverse is also true: science can deliver knowledge, but science cannot instruct politics. The same independence holds with respect to art and science. The beautiful cannot be scientifically determined. The truth might be ugly, but thruth is not a matter of aesthetics.
T his is Luhmann’s picture of society, which I very, very briefly sketch here. Luhmann has in fact written comprehensive analyses of all these social subsystems, but he did not write about architecture. He fits architecture - anachronistically - into the art system, but really didn’t talk much about it. I have been reading Luhmann for about 15 years, and it increasingly occ urred to me that architecture could be theorized in the same way. Architecture is one of those great function systems of contemporary society, or functionally differentiated society. That is the primary premise/thesis of ‘The Autopoiesis of Architecture’.
Just a few more points about what this means. Luhmann discovered a series of important processes which determine these different systems within the era of modernity. The emerging market-orientation of the economy, the liberalization of the economy, is the pertinent way for the economy to become an autopoetic system. The political system has been evolving and succeeding through democratization, and only through democratization does it become a truly autopoetic, self-referentially closed system. The legal system found its autonomy and forward drive through positivism rather than natural law or god given legal discourse. Art discovered its self-programming in romanticism. All of these mechanisms mean that these systems become autonomous and adaptive to each other. They become versatile, innovative, progressive, and ever-evolving. All these processes are established somewhere between 1800 and 1900. My thesis here is that t he concept of space, or the spatialization of architecture, is the equivalent of the democratization of the political system, the liberalization of the economy, etc.

As Luhmann was analyzing these different function systems he realized that – despite their differences – they share parallel structure . Each in their own unique way, they are all facing parall el, or comparative, problems: How could they demarcate themselves? How could they cohere around an elemental operation? How could they represent within themselves the differences between them and their environment? Luhmann discovered that each of these systems has a binary code, and programs that elaborate how the code values will be used in concrete cases. Each has its specific medium, such as money for the economy, and they all have a unique societal function, which acts as a kind of evolutionary attractor for the differentiation and autonomization of the respective system. This unique and distinct function unfolds in a series of tasks. Each of these systems projected itself forward through something Luhmann called self-descriptions. This means that within each discourse there are theoretical reflections via great treatises, written accounts of trying to think through and argue the function, the purpose, the raison d’être of each of the function systems. So within the political system there is political theory. The legal system developed together with jurisprudence. Science developed together with epistemology, the philosophy of science. And architecture has architectural theory, but only a deep and comprehensive kind of architectural theory can serve as self-description. In volume two I go through some of them: Alberti’s Ten Books on Architecture; Durand’s lectures on architecture for the era of neoclassicism; Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture for modernism; and The Autopoesis of Architecture for our times, for parametricism.
We can identify in every function system a so-called lead distinction. The lead distinction for architecture is form versus function. You find it in Alberti. You find it in all major self-descriptions. This lead distinction is the re-entry of the system-environment distinction into the system. It represents the distinction of the system of architecture against its environment – that is, against the totality of society – within architecture. So with the category of form, architecture represents itself to itself as distinct from function, which is the category representing the external world reference of architecture. The lead distinction of the economy is the distinction of price versus value: price is the internal reference; value is the external reference. In science it is theory versus evidence, in the law norm versus fact etc. There are further parallels between these function systems. To identify the respective structures in architecture that coincide with the structures found in the other function systems has been a creative puzzle-solving exercise, but in the end a coherent picture emerges that allows me to take a position with respect to all of the partial theories I have been developing over the years.

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Let me show a few pictures of MAXXI in Rome as a reminder that there is a certain credibility in realizing projects that follow the principles I’m talking about. The Rome project is a field project. It has a very stringent formalism. At the same time it is very capable of adapting to contexts, in terms of continuing field conditions, aligning with an urban grid on one side and with a separate urban grid on another side, incorporating existing architectures, and managing to create a coherent space around a corner. I would argue that it does a lot of difficult things with ease and elegance. Some of the strong alignments with the context go right through the building. There’s a sense of bringing together disparate elements under a single formalism, with flow lines irrigating the space. One of the ambitions that were realized are found in the moments of deep visual penetration, affording the transparency and legibility of the complex organization. In the central communication hub, ramps and staircases follow the formal language of walls and ribs, creating something which is as coherent as it is complex. Formal coherency is a precondition for generating an overall complexity without creating visual chaos. Although MAXXI was designed 10 years ago, it is a (successful, early) parametricist project. T he proliferation of lines, bundling, converging, and departing from one another, creates a field rather than a space.

So let me define parametricism. First of all, a conceptual definition: all elements of architecture have become parametrically malleable. That’s both fundamental and profound. The advantage of this is the intensification of relations both internally, within a design project, a building, and externally, with its context and surroundings. There is a very fundamental ontological shift with respect to the base components and primitives constituting an architecture. For the previous 2,000 years, if you like, including modernism, architecture was working with platonic solids, with rigid, hermetic, geometric figures, and just composing them. Compared with classical architecture Modernism was allowed to stretch proportions, was able to give up symmetries, and instead had a kind of dynamic equilibrium and more degrees of freedom. These changes moved these geometric figures from edifice to space with all the advantages of abstraction and versatility this move entails. But the base primitives remained, nothing else. Now, if you look at the kinds of primitives we are working with today, it is a totally different world – splines, blobs, nurbs, particles, all organized by scripts. I think it started with deconstructivism, to a certain extent, and then Greg Lynn talking about blobs in 1994-95. When we were teaching at Columbia in ’93, we were creating dynamic, and cross-inflected textures and fields. This was also the beginning of certain computational mechanisms. Instead of drawing with ruler and compass, making rigid lines and rigid figures, we worked with dynamical systems. That’s a new ontology, which cannot but leave a profound, radically transformative mark on what we do. If we succeed, and I have no doubt, parametricism will succeed, we’ll change the physiognomy of this planet and its built environment, just the way modernism did for 50 years in the 20th century. The recession over the last two years put a bit of a damper on this, but that should not be misunderstood as a failure or refutation of this kind of work. In fact, architecture continues to invest in digital technology, fabrication systems, etc., and any prohibitive cost is diminishing as a factor. An economic recession cannot stand in the way of universalizing these principles. Parametricism is the way we do urbanism and architecture now.

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So the thesis is clear: parametricism is the great new style after modernism. I consider postmodernism and deconstructivism to be transitional styles, or transitional episodes. I think that architectural innovation and history proceed by the succession of styles. These are the great paradigms and research programs by which architecture redefines itself. Postmodernism and deconstructivism are temporary phenomena, a decade each. Parametricism is already 15 years down the line. Design research programs establish the conditions for the collective design research needed to agree on the fundamentals that add up to an overall research project. If you are fighting over fundamentals every time you start a new project, you cannot progress. Here I draw not on Luhmann so much as on the philosophy of science as projected by Thomas Kuhn, theorizing paradigm shifts, and in particular I draw on Imre Lakatos’ theory of scientific research programs . Science is founded, or re-founded, with certain paradigmatic categories, principles, anticipations, and intuitions about how a science could progress, and on that basis, after a revolutionary period of paradigm exploration , a new paradigm or research program has to emerge and win the competitive battle, and then reconstitute cumulative research. Like a research program, a shared style implies that you are formulating pertinent desires, framing and posing problems to work on, and you are strategically constraining the solution space. We are identifying problems and are trying to solve these problems by means of parametric systems, by exploring the power of malleability in the elements. The style imposes a formal a priori. There are very strong analogies in science. For example, Newton set up a certain set of principles by which every phenomenon was investigated, probed, and modeled. From problem to problem, the same principles are held steady, otherwise there is no testing, no research. Innovation requires this kind of steady, collective effort. It is the condition of any progress. 

We can think of the history of architecture in terms of cycles of innovation and shifts between revolutionary periods, when the paradigm is no longer working, as happened in the late ’60s, the ’70s, and early ’80s. You couldn’t really go on after Pruitt-Igoe was exploded. The principles architects were relying on were exhausted. That’s also why SCI-Arc was founded – because the old university way of doing things couldn’t continue, it was bankrupt. The situation required a sense of freewheeling brainstorming. Architecture drew on philosophers, and fundamental questions were asked. It’s interesting that today philosophy has rece ded, we’ve reached a different stage. We have drawn conclusions and learned our lessons; we have internalized new forms of thinking and argumentation, new values, new philosophies, and now we have to forge ahead, developing a new architecture. Every new generation has to relearn the raison d’être of what we do, but that doesn’t mean that what we are doing is up for discursive destruction or disposition every second year. At the early stages of a new convergence you have to become accustomed to living with a lot of failures, a lot of difficulties, a lot of implausibilities. That’s why we need the avant-garde: where there is methodical tolerance, where there are dry runs, experiments, and manifesto projects; and you can’t expect to immediately compete with the mainstream state- of- the- art. You have to stick to your principles and not allow pragmatic concerns to push you to fall back on old models, old solutions, which are easy and accepted. You’ve got to go it the difficult way. You’ve got to go it the consistent way. The dogmatic way. That’s what Newton did also. 
It’s important to give a conceptual definition of parametricism in terms of parametric malleability, but there is also an operational definition of parametricism. When I first started to talk about parametricism I was talking about formal heuristics, but now I find it necessary to also talk about functional heuristics, because a style is not just a matter of form and formalisms. Each style also introduces a particular attitude and way of comprehending and handling functions and program. Any serious style must take a position on these issues, and I think we have a different attitude and position with respect to function than the modernists. We need both functional heuristics and formal heuristics. This is not something I am dogmatically imposing. I’m just observing that I, my friends, my students, naturally adhere to these principles without fail. Their hands would fall off rather than draw straight lines. Is anybody here drawing a triangle, a square, or a circle? Ever again? No!

Postmodernism and deconstructivism celebrated collage, interpenetration, and layering in an unmediated way, but this notion of pure difference and collage, which is in fact the default condition of spontaneous urban development after the collapse of modernism, is invested only in just the proliferation of pure difference, of piling up unrelated elements against unrelated elements, etc. But within the discourse of parametricism that is taboo. Modernism, seriality, repetition are out of the question. Instead e verybody’s is putting down their own shape, form, material – all uncoordinated. So, if the modernist recipes as well as their spontaneous antitheses are rejected, where are we going?
We are trying to create a second nature, complex variegated order , at Zaha Hadid Architects and at the different schools where we teach. I am trying to formulate the positive principles that determine the new physiognomy , that define a new way of working with parametrically malleable, soft forms. Soft forms are able to incorporate a degree of adaptive intelligence. They are no longer just forms, but may have gravity or structural constraints, material constraints, performative logics inbuilt that make them intelligent.
The second positive principle, or dogma, which all of you here always demand of yourselves and which your teachers will demand of you as students, is differentiation. If you are building differentiated systems with some kind of law of differentiation, whether you work only with smooth gradients, or whether you work with thresholds, or singularities, you will always work with laws, rule-based systems of differentiation. These can be applied meaningfully in, for instance, the environmental adaptation of facades to create an intelligent differentiation of elements. You can do this by taking data sets like sun exposure maps and make them drive an intelligent differentiation of brise-soleil elements, which are scripted off the data set. But you can also apply this kind of technique to urbanism. We’re talking about urban fields, about the lawful differentiation of an urban fabric according to relevant data sets.
Once you have a series of these internally differentiated systems, you can think about establishing correlations between them, where one system drives the other. These are all co-present systems, which become representations of each other. They might be ontologically rather different, radically other. There will be multiple systems, each differentiated. T hen you can establish correlations. Here just a simple example of a tower (ZHA towers for a New York Olympic Village) that interfaces with the ground and creates a kind of resonance with it.

Here is another tower, from the Hadid Masterclass (Peter Mitterer, Matthias Moroder, Peter Pichler): the way the facade is correlated with the horizontal section of a tower has to do with the programmatic shift from an office area to a residential area. And of course you can try to mechanize these correlations in terms of associative logics. What is important here for me is that we are moving from single-system projects, which are a kind of first stage – too abstract to really grip in reality – to the inter-articulation of multiple subsystems, to multi-system correlations.
The principles of parametricism, in terms of its heuristics or operational definition, provide failsafe tools for criticism and self-criticism of project development and project enhancement. You can always identify where the rigid forms still persist, where there is still too much simple repetition, where there are still unrelated elements. You can always ask for further softening, further differentiation, and further correlation of everything with everything else. There’s always more to script and to correlate in order to further intensify the internal consistency and cross-connectedness, the resonance within a project and within a context. It’s a never-ending trajectory of a project’s progression.
The intensification of relations in architecture reflects the intensification of communication among all of us, everyday and with everything. A building can no longer be a silo out in the greenfield; it needs to be connected in an urban texture, needs to be accessible, have internal differentiation, yet have a sense of continuity in the field it participates within.
Functional heuristics: There are some taboos in terms of handling functions. We avoid thinking in terms of essences. We avoid stereotypes and strict typologies. We also avoid designating functions to strict and separated and discrete zones. These are taboos for all of us. Instead, we think in terms of gradient fields of activity, about variable social scenarios calibrated by various event parameters. We think in terms of actor-artifact networks. That’s the way we break down a program, a task. And that makes sense within contemporary society. The formal and functional heuristics of parametricism coalesce, they make sense together. To translate these functions into form you need the formal heuristics I discussed earlier.
Clearly, parametric systems or techniques could be used as technologies of design by modernists like Norman Foster; they could also be used by neoclassicists. The point is that the tools themselves have great potential, but we need to drive these potentials and draw decisive conclusions and give value and direction to the utilization of these tools. That is the difference between a set of techniques and a style, which depends on these techniques, albeit not exclusively, but drives them to a new destiny. Foster’s British Museum dome could only have been done with parametric tools. Every joint is different, every panel is different. The use of parametrics made this possible, but the spirit of this application is the spirit of modernism – with the aim of neutralizing the differences, making them inconspicuous. Here all elements are different but they want to appear the same. Against that I put forward a new kind of “artistic project”, the project of driving the conspicuous amplification of differences. (See example from the Hadid Masterclass (Maren Klasing & Martin Krcha) below). So a difference in curvature is transcoded into radically different conditions of ribbing, of gridding, of dense networking, perhaps engendering a phase change at a certain threshold. This is much more prone to the development of versatile conditions and different atmospheres, which bleed into each other instead of establishing disparate zones. I think our work forms a much more pertinent image and vehicle of contemporary life forces and patterns of social communication than that big Foster dome.

This emphasis on differentiation, the amplification of deviations, rather than neutralization and compensation, is also related to the difference between exploratory design research and problem solving. Problem solving is the engineering side, the side of parametric technique. In contrast, when we are talking about parametricism as style, we’re talking about teasing out the as yet unknown potentials of these techniques but with the general direction clearly set by the parametricist heuristic principles. This has been going on for quite a while now. I believe that we are on the cusp of moving from an avant-garde condition into claiming the mainstream. Most of our projects, even most of our built works are hypotheses, manifestos, but I think some of our projects go beyond that and are becoming compelling success stories in the real world.

The projects now coming out of the office show the richness of our formal vocabulary and the richness of types of structures we are addressing. There’s a kind of unity within difference, or difference within unity, moving across various scales: Endless forms. But these endless forms are there to organize and articulate life. So: form powers function. That’s the new thesis. Spatial organization sustains social organization. Can we demonstrate, control, and predict this? To a certain extent, I would argue, we can.
If we look at the history of parametricism, in fact it’s the history of the whole evolution of architecture. The fundamental thesis is that social order requires spatial order, that society doesn’t exist without a structured environment, and that society can only evolve if it is able to enhance and intricately structure its built environment as well. Architecture provides the necessary substrate of cultural evolution.



Parametricism and the Autopoiesis of Architecture
Transcription – Post-Lecture Discussion between Patrik Schumacher and Eric Owen Moss


EOM: Let me say I have huge appreciation for the colossal self-confidence and enormous effort required to wrap your arms around contemporary architecture, and to insist on a number of organizational categories that circumscribe architecture, and re-define its mission. Congratulations.

I always thought one of the keys to architecture was to outwork everyone else. You’re certainly doing that.

You rely on linguistics in a way that I don’t think you acknowledge. You know Shakespeare made a comment about “a rose by any other name”, which suggests that labeling is not a surrogate for meaning. You’re in love with labeling – and one of the fascinating things about the act of naming is that it may facilitate a logic of nomenclature while confusing the search for the meaning the logic claims to deliver. You should acknowledge your love of labeling.

I remember submitting my Dad’s poetry to Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, who returned the material to me with a letter that said: “we don’t really know how to locate this text within our publishing sub-divisions. Is the this religion? history? linguistics? poetry? It doesn’t conform to our categories of production.” So ipso facto, the “poetry” was exorcised because it didn’t confirm Farrar’s labeling pro forma. Be careful you don’t eliminate instincts in architecture that don’t fit the a priori Parametric formulations….

Years ago a well known religious thinker, an Anglican named Malcolm Muggeridge, made a comment that stuck in my head. Muggeridge was a fan of Alexander Solzhenitsyn at the time the Russians were putting Solzhenitsyn into the Gulag. Do you know what he said? He said the Russians could cover the earth with concrete, but the concrete would inevitably crack, and out of the cracks would come…..Solzhenitsyn. An architecture metaphor for sure, don’t you think?

Maybe you’re pouring too much concrete.

Do you know Oswald Spengler?

PS: Sure.

EOM: So your efforts have a fascinating antecedent, Spengler’s Decline of the West. Almost nobody reads Spengler anymore. I think the book was written in the years after WW1. But Spengler, more than any conceptual thinker I know, relies on categorical imperatives. The book is a stupendous effort to organize, bracket, and label all of human history. You’ve reduced the task, but Spengler’s your namesake. You take on a smaller piece – architecture. He took on everything. His is a wonderful act of will. I remember one section called blood over money, which was a critique of the notion, so predictably American, that in the end, everything is about business. And if you don’t subscribe to that, you’re somehow not a grown up. But Spengler noted that there was something intractable, deeper than the “business is business” proposition. Blood over money. Dionysius over Apollo in other words. And the point was that those who analyze without reference to blood, make an important omission. You inherited a Spenglerian antecedent, but you’ve omitted the blood. You’re alone with Apollo, I think.

You also characterized Newton as a systematizer. But like most systematizers -- Freud, Marx, Darwin -- he omitted some essentials, electromagnetism in particular. You’ll argue, that, notwithstanding the omissions, the ontology galvanizes a movement, assures a clear direction, and above all, a Pied Piperism with lots of followers, and the end something for the future to build on. The problem is “something to build on” so often becomes a policy of established intransigence. It has to be dismantled along with its adherents who become obstacles to any contrary instincts.

And it looks like you’ve become the Parametric Pied Piper.

I prefer skepticism of all ordering mechanisms, rather than an allegiance to anyone. The stretch between the two possibilities may be where a truth lies: Truth as a stretch between prospects; the tension between options rather than the selection of one, and the elimination of the others.

Remember the appendix to Hitchcock and Johnson’s International Style? Philip told us how we could all be modern architects. And NYMOMA was his enforcer. Just follow the rules. And that codification didn’t begin the modern era. That book and his exhibit ended modern architecture as speculation, and began modernism as style. Study. Learn. Replicate. Pruitt-Igo [you and Jencks cite] wasn’t the culprit. Philip-style was the culprit. Could be argued he did the same with so-called Deconstruction. He used to tell me Deconstruction was about diagonal lines.

You also mentioned Darwin. When Darwin sailed by the cliffs of Chile, he looked up, aghast. He knew incremental evolution could never account for what he saw. You can read his doubts in The Origin of Species. Your hypothesis should include some speculation on what you may have left out. Today I think they call what Darwin suspected, catastrophism. Catastrophism is a radical and unanticipated rejection of a predicted order, a good category to include in contemporary architecture, don’t you think?

Marx is part of your historiography too. But he never anticipated the ingenuity of contemporary capitalism to re-imagine itself. Capitalism will be what is is in perpetuity, Marx thought. Its inflexibility guaranteed the advent of the proletarian state, he said. Nope. We’re still waiting. Marx missed the capitalist dexterity quotient. Dialectical materialism doesn’t work if the thesis is self-correcting. That inhibits the development of the antithesis. Both Marx, [and Hegel who you also quoted] missed the course correction capacity in their thesis/antithesis/synthesis formulation.

You mention Freud too. Again, it turns out that Oedipus and Electra don’t account for everything psychotherapeutic. No collective unconscious, for instance. No Prosaic, and so on…..again, from a student’s perspective, none of these vantage points need be exclusively so. They’re all useful to a hybrid discourse. But the proponents of each so often demand exclusivity.

The historic efforts to codify meaning in human affairs are all around us. They will shape our thought, if we allow such unequivocal paradigms to define us. But, in fact, I would argue that never are any of these hypotheses intrinsically so, and the more history moves, the more we evaluate these hypotheses in retrospect, the more we see their flaws, and the less plausible is the argument for yet another regulatory pro forma.

I applaud the power of your effort to demand a new order. That gives me something to attack, and architecture needs enemies, within and without. Contemporary architecture has too many friends.

The parametric hypothesis is extrinsically so because you insist on it, you label it, you argue for it, you build it, and you deny a plausible opposition. Will gives it its life. And will is another category you omit. Faustian man, remember? Will [and intellect] gives it a life and that makes it plausible in the realm of ideas. But it doesn’t make it intrinsically or exclusively so.

I made a book a few years ago anticipating this recent effort on your part. It’s called Gnostic Architecture, and it’s conceptually antithetical to your stated mission. It insists on improvisation, ambivalence, and the uselessness of charts. The unknown is the rule, the known the exception, in perpetuity.

By the way, you didn’t mention Nietzsche, another German contrarian. As I recall, Zarathustra told us “he would rather guess than know”. Parametrics doesn’t countenance the guessing postulate.

One other point: it seems to me that the appeal of the work of Zaha Hadid, was how rare, how idiosyncratic, how personal it was. You’ve added something to that, and removed something, simultaneously. I think, in a sense, you’ve homogenized the anomalous, [sorry, you can’t do that -- it’s not anomalous any more] described a policy position, and in doing so, you’ve depersonalized the content. This is an imprecise example, but 100 Sagrada Familias mean something different than one [and an unfinished one, at that].

Arguing for “differentiation” as a regulation, rather than an instinct for exceptions, as if differentiation ratified a democratic position for variation. But it doesn’t. I don’t know actually why, as a conceptual tactic, the “differentiated” internal content would necessarily be indicated by a “differentiated” external object. Regulating the form of choice means choice is gone. The modernists, of course, argued that the box allowed the most enduring internal flexibility. You argue that differentiation is a truer indication of the same prospect. But it seems to me, having recognized the inadequacy of the modern definition, you would also be skeptical of your own remodeling of the modern rule system -- alleging the same variable social priority, apparently, but with a new form language prescription.

We had a discussion here in the Thesis jury the other day – you may have been in that one – regarding the Louvre, once somebody’s house, and now a museum. So plausible differentiation needn’t follow the Parametric formulation.

I can feel you love making the Parametric argument. But your case may say as much about you as it does about architecture. It’s what you guys require to validate going proceeding ahead. Forgive me for the street-corner psycho-analysis. And again, nowhere a scintilla of a minutiae of an iota of doubt. Why are you doing this? Because it’s so? Or because you need it to be so? No inkling that something’s left out? I always thought that the unique voices in architecture included both an extreme self-confidence, and simultaneously, a deep skepticism of the consequences of that self-confidence.

EOM: Thanks very much. I thought it was a terrific lecture, very unusual.

PS: I just want to pick up a few of your points. The first thing to note is, yes, no system is perfect; there will be another crisis of parametricism, although I don’t know when and how. The triggering conditions for this would be either shifts in the societal environment which demand further architectural evolution or a kind of internal exhaustion of the paradigm, but that kind of exhaustion could also lead to a new trajectory of development within parametricism, in the form of a further subsidiary style. A crisis will come. That’s for sure. But to say systems and methodical system building is in itself a problem because there were a series of prior system building efforts the results of which did not last for ever —that makes no sense. Newton was replaced by Einstein, and Einstein could only exist because Newton had prepared the ground. In the same way parametricism is building on modernism. Contemporary society is changing and mutating, but it’s building on the material achievements of the Fordist production paradigm.

EOM: Do you think the world gets better?

PS: Absolutely. And I can give you examples.

EOM: There was a political theorist at Harvard who offered an alternative definition of the future, Samuel L. P. Huntington. He died in the last year or two. His prognosis was that the 21st century would replicate the social, political, and religious oppositions of the 19th century, and that the 20th century didn’t count. What’s “new”, he said, is likely to be a re-run of what’s old, quite literally. Doesn’t build on the past, improve it, make it better, or worse, and so on. A very different way to look at the parametrics of history. History stays the same? Could be. Gets different ? Perhaps. Improves? Not clear. Sequential? Chronological ? Doubtful. It’s not necessary that we agree with Huntington, but I don’t want my enemies to go away.

PS: I think for me, there is a meta-category I didn’t come to. The base category in my philosophical meta-discourse would still be “productivity”. In this respect I agree with Marx. But productivity must not only be measured in output by time unit, but output by time unit considering working conditions, and now we also have to consider sustainability and the ecological burden which production imposes. But if you put these three factors together, productivity is the alpha and omega of everything, of life, of freedom, of security, of charity, and that’s why it is the ultimate base category. I measure everything with respect to productivity in the sense of the productivity/vitality of a civilization, a civilization which increasingly sets itself free from the blind material forces it faces in its environment. That’s progress. All stages of this trajectory contributed to where we are now. Therefore, to say, for instance, that the systems of modernism were a mistake only because they went into crisis to let something else to grow on top and beyond it, is really unreasonable. You’ve just got to take the slice of time far enough apart and you see progress. I’ve grown up in the 1960s in a nation of 60 million, in Germany, where every single individual, without exception, had a higher level of standard of living, material plenty, and freedom than Louis Quatorze, the Sun King of France. Every single one of them had a heated house, running water, health care/medication, a car outside the front door, telephone, connected around the world by switching on the TV, taking the flight to a holiday destination at least once a year, and all that was universally available. That’s what fordism/modernism delivered. That’s what post-fordist network society is building upon.

EOM: Come on, Patrik…there are different kinds of progress. Material progress is not synonymous with intellectual or cultural growth. Sometimes they facilitate one another, sometimes they contradict. The world only gets better if you leave out the part that doesn’t. Yuri Daniel and Andrei Synyavski, two more Gulag candidates, wrote about a critical distinction any architecture pro forma should continue to make. One they called “freedom from”. That’s your material category – Marx; life as production; food, water, housing, and medicine. That leaves “freedom to”, which your belief in continuing progress omits. “Freedom to” do what? The answer should be supplied, one architect at a time.

PS: As well.

PS: Well, what I’m looking at, for instance, is contemporary corporate organization and the freedom and participatory culture they require to become even more productive – I mean, of course, the world is full of contradictions –

EOM: Let’s talk about some of them.

PS: Dyssynchronous development, brutality – of course, I know all of this, but at the same time, we need to look at which social structures, which spaces, which cultural tropes, which moral sensibilities produce the next level of our civilization. And what is interesting to me, is yes, you have Silicon Valley, for instance, with a certain culture the roots of which come out the counter-culture and the social revolutions of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and that’s where you have to look. You have to look at the most advanced, most intelligent, most productive social organizations, their culture, their sensibilities, their way of working, their spaces, and see if you can contribute to them, can lift them further onto the next level. That’s what I see the avant-garde of architecture to be doing. If we can speak to them and create spaces for their next level, then we know we’re on the right track.

EOM: Aren’t you using the exception to make a universal rule? And the fact that Parametrics has become more plausible and desirable in your terms, and of special interest to students doesn’t mean it’s gained credence as a measure of architecture content. The converse might also be true, that its greatest value was as speculative form language option, not as a regulation. I’m for the Penelope Theory of architecture. Odysseus’ wife took apart at night what she made during the day.

PS: I believe that we’re living in a world society where certain state-of-the-art solutions will ripple through and will be picked up quickly everywhere, so I think that mobile phones, Google, social network sites, all of this…

EOM: One at a time. I’ve got the same list…just never considered the items unequivocal assets…..

We should be more cautious about universal device acclaim.

What you call communication is often formulaic. And we operate within that a priori formulation or we can’t use the tools. E mail facilitates certain exchanges, and trivializes others. Speed isn’t necessarily conducive to thoughtfulness. What you list as assets are simultaneously assets and liabilities. The tools made the world different. Now it’s our job to say what’s better and what’s worse, in order, perhaps, to make what’s worse better.

EOM: I couldn’t sit and listen to this presentation for a hour or so and not be moved by it. Thank you very much.







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