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06.10.2010
Comment> The Parametricist Manifesto
What is the style of the past decade? Patrik Schumacher calls it parametricism, and it's poised to go mainstream.
Zaha Hadid Architects' Nordpark Cable Railway could not have been achieved without parametric modeling. Seen here: the Lowenhaus Station.
Werner Huthmacher

In 2008, I first communicated that a new, profound style had been maturing within the avant-garde segment of architecture during the last ten years. It seemed urgent that the style acquire a name in order to recognize itself as well as to be recognized in the world at large. Therefore “parametricism” was enunciated during the 11th Architecture Biennale in Venice. The term has been circulating since and gathering momentum within architectural discourse. Here I give an updated version of the Parametricist Manifesto.

Parametricism offers a new approach to architecture on the basis of advanced computational design tools and techniques. However, as a style it involves much more than the mere employment of certain tools and techniques. As a style parametricism is marked by its aims, ambitions, methodological principles, and evaluative criteria, as well as by its characteristic formal repertoire.

Parametricism succeeds modernism as a new wave of systematic innovation. The style finally closes the period of uncertainty engendered by the crisis of modernism, marked by a series of short-lived episodes including postmodernism, deconstructivism, and minimalism. The new style claims universal relevance for all architectural programs, on all scales from architecture and interior design to large-scale urban design. Parametricism is also uniquely geared to engage with the ecological challenges that architecture must address. Both in terms of techniques and in terms of sensibility, parametricist architecture is eager and able to elaborate adaptive responses to diverse environmental parameters.

The concept of style has long been losing ground within architectural discourse. And the reassertion of the concept as a valid and productive category calls for a conceptual reconstruction in terms that are intellectually credible today. What stands in the way of such a reconstruction is the tendency to regard styles merely as a matter of appearance, as well as the related tendency to confuse styles with short-lived fashions. Although aesthetic appearance matters enormously in architecture and design, neither architecture as a whole nor its styles can be reduced to mere matters of appearance. Neither must the phenomenon of styles be assimilated to the phenomenon of fashion. The concept of style must therefore be sharply distinguished and cleansed of all these trivializing connotations.

The Alpenzoo Station.

Style denotes the unity of the difference between the architectural époques of the Gothic, Renaissance, baroque, classicism, historicism, and modernism. The historical self-consciousness of architecture demands the revitalization of the concept of style as a profound historical phenomenon that can be projected into the future. For this purpose I propose that architectural styles are best understood as design research programs conceived in the way that paradigms frame scientific research programs.

Thus, a new style in architecture is akin to a new paradigm in science: It redefines the fundamental categories, purposes, methods, and innovative course of a coherent collective endeavor. Styles represent long, sustained cycles of innovation, the gathering of design research efforts into a collective movement so that individual efforts are mutually relevant and enhancing. The new style poses many new, systematically connected design problems that are being worked on competitively within a global network of design researchers. Over and above aesthetic comparability, it is this widespread, long-term consistency of shared design ambitions and problems that justifies declaring a style in the sense of an epochal phenomenon.

The experience of modernism’s crisis and its architectural aftermath has led many critics to believe that our civilization can no longer be expected to forge a unified style. Did the profound developmental role of styles in the history of architecture from Gothic to Renaissance to baroque to historicism to modernism come to an end? Did history come to an end? Or did it fragment into crisscrossing and contradictory trajectories? If so, are we to celebrate this fragmentation of efforts under the slogan of pluralism?

Architecture today is a world architecture where every architectural project is immediately assessed in comparison to all other projects, and convergences are possible. This does not spell homogenization and monotony. It merely implies a consistency of principles, ambitions, and values to build upon so that different efforts compete constructively with each other and can establish the conditions for cumulative progress rather than pursue contradictory efforts.

The Hungerberg station.

Parametricism responds to the new challenges architecture faces in the current era of post-Fordist network society. Post-modernism and deconstructivism were mere transitional episodes, similar to Art Nouveau and Expressionism as transitions from historicism to modernism. The distinction of epochal styles from transitional styles is important. In a period of transition there might emerge a rapid succession of styles, or even a plurality of competing styles. The demise of modernism led to a protracted transitional period, but this is no reason to believe that this pluralism cannot be overcome by a new unified style. The potential for such unification is indeed what we are witnessing.

Within modernism such subsidiary styles as functionalism, rationalism, and organicism adhere to the basic design principles of modernism: separation and repetition, i.e. separation between specialized subsystems and repetition within each subsystem. Postmodernism and deconstructivism rejected the order of separation and repetition by posing historical diversity and then diversity via collage and interpenetration, albeit without establishing a new order. Parametricism is able to recuperate and enhance the deconstructivist moves within a new capacity to create diversity within a coherent, complex order. Thus it supplants separation and repetition with continuous differentiation within systems and intensive correlation across systems.

As a conceptual definition of parametricism one might offer the following formula: Parametricism implies that all architectural elements are parametrically malleable. This implies a fundamental ontological shift. Instead of the classical and modern reliance on ideal, hermetic, or rigid geometrical figures—straight lines, rectangles, cylinders, etc.—the new primitives of parametricism are animate, dynamic, and interactive entities—splines, nurbs, and subdivs—that act as building blocks for dynamic systems like “hair,” “cloth,” “blobs,” and “metaballs” that can be made to resonate with each other via scripts.

In principle every property of every element or complex is subject to parametric variation. The key technique for handling this variability is the scripting of functions that establish associations between the properties of the various elements. The goal is to intensify both the internal interdependencies within an architectural design as well as the external affiliations and continuities within complex urban contexts.

The Congress station.

The general conceptual definition of parametricism needs a complementary operational definition in order to make its hypotheses testable and to expose it to constructive criticism. The operational definition of a style must formulate general instructions that guide the creative process in line with the general ambitions and expected qualities of the style.

Each style poses a specific way of understanding and handling functions. Accordingly, the operational definition of parametricism comprises both formal rules and principles that guide the design’s formal development and resolution as well as functional rules and principles that guide the elaboration and evaluation of the design’s functional performance.

The formal heuristics would include avoiding rigid forms, simple repetition, and isolated elements by replacing them with forms that are soft, intelligent, differentiated, and interdependent. And the functional heuristics would avoid rigid performance stereotypes and segregative zoning. Simultaneously, event scenarios and activities communicating with each other would constitute positive dogmas.

Parametricism must not be dismissed as eccentric signature work that only fits highbrow cultural icons. The latest built works from Zaha Hadid Architects are much more than experimental manifestos; they are succeeding as high-performance projects in the real world. The Innsbruck train stations are a good example. No other style could have achieved this coincidence of adaptive variation to different site conditions with genotypical coherence across those phenotypical variants. At far larger scales, parametricism is equally able to deliver all the components for a high-performance contemporary architecture. Parametricism is ready to go mainstream. The style war has begun.

Patrik Schumacher

Writer and theorist Patrik Schumacher is a partner at Zaha Hadid Architects. A version of this essay appeared in The Architects’ Journal in May.