Allen Koppenhaver (B.Arch candidate) | This essay examines the contemporary struggle to produce parametric designs that visually express the characteristics of a particular place. Without the limitations of an external context, the self-referential nature of parametricism enables a copy-and-paste mentality that might actually be detrimental to architectural invention.
As early as the 1960’s, telecommunications technology has been slowly changing the way we communicate in the western world. These changes have produced the widespread availability and interconnection of personal computers and information systems that are able to operate and update information at real-time speed. Since the inception of this electric age, the virtual world has grown into a ubiquitous presence in human life. During the 1990s, this presence also crept into the realm of architectural design in the form of computational or parametric design, a topic to be later explained. This once diminutive corner of architectural invention has grown into the driving force behind the most famous works of contemporary architecture. As the balance of human life teeters further from the physical world and towards the virtual, works of architectural design are forced into an epidemic of placelessness. These placeless works of architecture are a sign of the globalization of the world that has led to a steady reduction in local and regional culture.
In the field of parametric design, algorithms or the rules outlined by computer code works to create architectural forms based upon different inputs or variables. This approach to design is the basis for most of the curving, non-rectilinear buildings that have proliferated in most major cities around the world. Parametric design relies heavily on the wow factor of its futuristic looking forms, but as a result has forgone the inherent need to produce a building that responds to its site context. Quality works of architecture should respond to conditions on and around the site such as natural and man-made elements, climate, culture, economics, etc. This is not to say that parametric designs are inherently incapable of contributing to or expressing the physical and/or metaphorical site issues that have driven architectural design for centuries. However, many of the most celebrated projects in this field have fallen victim to the trend of producing buildings that can be placed in any location around the world and thus respond lifelessly to their immediate surroundings.
We have seen this problem before. Parametric design may have been manifested through technological innovations within the last few decades, but it has its ideological roots in architectural movements as early as 1919 when German architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus school. The Bauhaus movement featured similar characteristics to parametric design in its repeatability and placelessness. Bauhaus architects sought to establish a machine aesthetic for the industrial age. Using the tagline of “‘form follows function’,” this movement “led to the geometric designs and glass façade, steel exterior support, and concrete floors and interior championed by Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe.” These principles meant designing in the most efficient manner possible, which practically translated into producing architectural forms that were devoid of historical ornament. The Bauhaus was a leading factor in the creation of the International Style by Philip Johnson, which was introduced to North America at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932. This debut gave the Bauhaus the international recognition and praise necessary to influence the pioneers of thinkers of computational parametric design. As parallel forms of avant-garde culture, both Bauhaus architectures and parametric design place a common emphasis on geometric expression, similar choices of material use, and the embrace of modern technology.
One of the most famous thinkers and designers in the field of parametric design is Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. Her firm, Zaha Hadid Architects, is responsible for some of the most famous and truly innovative curvilinear buildings of the past twenty years. At her right hand is Patrik Schumacher. In a 2010 article with the “Architect’s Journal,” Schumacher outlined the so-called ‘taboos’ of parametric design. They include, but are not limited to: avoiding rigid forms for lack of malleability, avoiding simple repetition for lack of variety, avoiding collage of isolated, unrelated elements for a lack of order, avoid rigid functional stereotype and avoiding segregating functional zoning. A few of these ideas that Schumacher lays out, like avoiding rigid forms and repetition, are direct rejections of the principles of ancient Greek and Roman architecture. These two principles have been considered staples in architectural beauty since mankind began writing about architecture. As a result of his purely formal emphasis, Schumacher comes off less of a principled theoretician and more like the disgruntled architecture school graduate with an “I’ll show you” mentality after his professors told him he was only allowed to use straight lines and right angles during his time in graduate school.
Schumacher would like to consider Zaha Hadid Architects’ work visionary and even goes as far as to insinuate that post-modernism was merely a ‘transitional episode’ after modernism and that “Parametricism is ready to go mainstream.” One could retort that post-modernism has produced some of the greatest architects and projects of the twentieth century. More importantly, however, there is evidence to suggest that parametricism is already mainstream and not the cutting edge advancement in present day architecture that Schumacher would like to believe. It has become in practice a copy-paste, siteless, soulless, corporate architecture that is churned out at breakneck speed to be planted in the same way in any location around the world. While Zaha Hadid Architects is not guilty of blatantly copying this new aesthetic, others have clearly taken their cues from this firm, sometimes quite literally. The most obvious instance of this occurred in 2013 when Zaha Hadid’s Wanjing SOHO project, in Beijing, fell victim to the copy-paste architectural trend in the form of the Meiquan 22nd Century project, which began construction at the same time and was set to complete construction before Hadid’s project.
Although Zaha Hadid took legal action to combat the infringement of her intellectual property, her magnaimous reaction is far from what one would expect after being unabashedly copied. The usually crass and aggressive architect was quoted in an article by Spiegel International saying that, “she has a philosophical stance on the replication of her designs: If future generations of these cloned buildings display innovative mutations, ‘that could be quite exciting.'” This disappointing reaction means that Hadid wants reparations from anyone copying of her placeless parametric designs, but could care less that there is a literal copy of her building in the same country.
Hadid’s lack of dismay over the copycat nature of architecture is obviously a reflection of her personal concern with creating culturally relevant architecture. The aforementioned Wanjing SOHO project is one of several projects built by the billion-dollar real estate development group, SOHO China. The result of the partnership has been fruitful for both parties. The team has designed and constructed bulbous buildings on a massive scale in China for several years now. The glaring unfortunate result of this business relationship is SOHO Galaxy. Completed and opened in 2012, the building today sits empty, expensive, unattractive and culturally irrelevant, save for its futuristic shapes that are seen in other projects in mainstream Chinese architecture. The building was designed with an open plan in mind as an invitation to the public to enter within to use the space for leisure, walking, dancing and general social interaction. It is unfortunate that Hadid, who has designed projects in China for years, overlooked the social interactions of Chinese people. Architect and critic Michał Jurgielewicz wrote on Galaxy SOHO saying, “Chinese people are habituated to spend most of their leisure time outside, adapting the streets, squares, open areas, malls, all architectural elements, for their personal activities.” Hadid time and time again falls victim to elevating herself and her brand over the current state of culture. She would rather repeat her placeless, contemporary styles with a basic set of rules and tricks to objectify architecture into something looks like a U.F.O. rather than using parametrics to create something that could empower or glorify the culture of the countries that her projects exist in.
All of the negative connotations of computational parametric design can of course be taken with a grain of salt. A discussion of the merits of any design culture is not meant to crucify as much as serve as a warning to designers who use these strategies: there is a need to be more attentive to the local and regional cultures when designing with parametricism, especially if it can so easily be used to produce placeless solutions.
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Schumacher, Patrik. “Patrik Schumacher on Parametricism – ‘Let the Style Wars Begin'” Architect’s Journal. May 6, 2010. Accessed November 14, 2015.