The Most Convincing Argument Against Parametric Design Yet

Have a hard time articulating what the movement parametric design is? So does its founder. At the Guardian, Rowan Moore takes a stab.

The Most Convincing Argument Against Parametric Design Yet
[Photo: Martin McCarthy/iStock]

In a nutshell, parametricism is an architectural philosophy that contends that a computer can design more complex forms and useful spaces than human beings can–popularized by the late Zaha Hadid and her partner Patrik Schumacher, who is now running her firm.

The problem is that it’s very rarely described in a nutshell. In fact, the most defining aspect of parametricism might be its inability to be defined succinctly and clearly–even by Schumacher, who coined the term.

Now, Guardian architectural critic Rowan Moore has attempted to cut through the jargon in an interview with Schumacher–and the picture he paints is not a promising one.

After an introduction in which Moore describes Schumacher as more or less the Peter Thiel of architecture–a fan of “unfettered capitalism,” an unabashed nationalist in a largely liberal profession–he tries to get a straight answer on a simple question: what is parametricism? Writes Moore:

I give him an elevator test: if I were a venture capitalist, looking to invest in your product, how would you convince me? “It’s not an easy one, you can’t nail it,” he replies. (Ding! Test failed.)

Despite Schumacher’s penchant for explaining parametric design in what Moore describes as an “impressive but impenetrable string of polysyllables,” Moore manages to boil it down. Essentially, he writes, it’s a way of “designing buildings in such a way that every element can change in response to the multiple parameters,” such as how the building is used, or the duration of time people inhabit it. These designs rely on computers to “both to process complex information and to conceive complex architectural shapes.”

[Rendering: Methanoia via Zaha Hadid Architects]

Using algorithms to design complex and adaptable buildings that will be perfectly suited to users seems like a sound-enough philosophy. Yet in practice, Moore contends, the enormous, curvaceous, largely steel buildings that Schumacher and Hadid designed parametrically are neither relatable nor especially adaptable. He points toward Hadid’s Riverside Museum in Glasgow as an example, a building whose zig-zag, zinc-clad roof makes it visually spectacular, but not any easier to navigate or inhabit as a museum. When Moore asks what about the still forthcoming Beijing Airport Terminal makes it especially responsive to visitors, he merely points to the sloping floor-plan meant to guide people–hardly a convincing argument.

“For something so keen to base itself on scientific information,” Moore writes, “parametricism is short of evidence that it actually works. It rests on the unproven belief that it is possible to mold architectural forms perfectly to the complex and unpredictable uses they will contain. It is supposed to be adaptable, fluid, responsive and connective with its surroundings, but most parametric buildings so far tend to be the opposite.”

Moore takes a high-minded philosophy, strips it of its pretense and finds that, when it comes to actually applying it, there’s really not much there. “Schumacher is right that information technology creates new possibilities,” he concludes. “but there is no inevitability about the forms it takes.” Read the full article on the Guardian‘s site.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.