Patrik Schumacher

The Future is Ready to Start

Patrik Schumacher presented his work at Belgrade Design Week

Arhart magazine, 26.06.2012.

Each architectural style represents an epoch in the history of civilization, and Parametricism is the first new epochal style after Modernism. Schumacher’s view of architecture is Hegelian: Evolutive stages of civilisation correspond to certain styles in architecture. He divided the entire history of architecture in several dominant styles. In this system, not all recognised styles are epochal. Some of them, such as the Gothic style, represent merely a transitional stage, but not a major style with its articulated discourse.

He claims that Modernism still operates as the dominant paradigm, even though Postmodernism has been exercised allot in past decades. By introducing Parametricism as the new style, and strongly claiming that it is inevitably going to become mainstream within the next twenty years, Schumacher is predicting the future. He is not only announcing a new style, he is also announcing a new epoch, a new stage in the evolution of human kind: “When we analyse history, we can see that the built environment always had a vital role in building the social order. Social order needs spatial order. Society can progress only within a built environment and the entire world of artefacts. That is why I put architecture and design in the same category.”

In his capital work “Autopoiesis of Architecture” he is defining the theory of Parametricism, and by working with Zaha Hadid he also has the means to “contaminate” the world with parametric design: “The purpose of my theoretical work is to legitimately and confidently claim that it is time for a new style, to change the physiognomy of the built environment, like Modernism did in the twentieth century. We now have new generations of architects, a new semiology and completely new tools. I have been working on it for more than fifteen years, and in 2008 it occurred to me that it is definitely becoming a new paradigm, so I came up with the name Parametricism. If we succeed, and I have no doubt that Parametricism will succeed, we’ll change the physiognomy of this planet.”

But why is Parametricism chosen to become the new epochal style and in what way will it replace Modernism? 

Schumacher is speaking primarily of the difference between the two social orders: the Modern and the so called “Postmodern” one. It is this shift from one type of society to another, that enables a new style in architecture to emerge: “The main difference between the two orders is related to the change of the production process. Modernism represents companies which were at the heart of the production process. Departments were separated and each of them was repetitive in itself. It was an order of separation, specialisation and repetition. At the same time, those are the characteristic of modern architecture: compartmentalisation according to a particular function and endless repetition of the same forms. Modernistic cities were built according to the same logic. And it is essentially the logic of mass production. During the Fordian era everything was rebuilt according to this style. The crisis occurred back in the 70s because this logic could no longer sustain due to the development of technology, proliferation of needs and individualisation. The process of production has sped up and increased diversity. Isolation was not possible any more. We could no longer function separated, doing repetitively something we were specialised to do and always efficiently do the same thing. Now we have to continuously update and improve, constantly stay connected with everybody else, checking whether what we are doing is still relevant with the respect of what everybody else is doing. We are now in a network society which demands of us a continuous keeping in touch, observing and communicating. Architecture needs to adjust itself and follow this process of evolution.”

However, neither of attempts to create the new Postmodern style truly replaced Modernist paradigms: “it became clear that we needed more rich and complex environments. Deconstructivism established the idea of diversity, but in the form of collage. Patches are thrown onto each other without order, and without communication to each other. Parametricism introduces resonance of those layers. Moreover, Parametricism is the only style after Modernism which can be called epochal, because it has its discourse. It is grounded in theory unlike all others. I myself passed the evolution process throughout my career from Modernism, through Postmodernism, and finally ended up in Parametricism. We at the Zaha Hadid Architects are convinced that this style has matured enough to become the new dominant style. It is a much bigger movement than Deconstructivism was.”

What does this alien futuristic world of parametric design look like? What constitutes its visual identity?

Unlike the world of architecture that we are familiar with, which is made of cubes, cylinders, pyramids and other classical shapes, this new universe which is slowly unfolding in front of our eyes, is filled with rather strange forms like distorted and cracked blobs and shells which resemble certain constructions from the nature, or perhaps even something from outer space. But what is wrong with good old boxes and straight lines? Schumacher calls them “primitive shapes” and explains why we no longer feel comfortable inside spaces divided into isolated square-shaped compartments, connected by empty corridors and sitting on square- shaped chairs: “The twenty first century brought about dramatic changes and we now live in a network society where communication is crucial. Architecture should increase interaction and the information exchange, and can no longer insist on physical separation as it did until now. Moreover, we should not push people through passages like cattle, but make sure they navigate quick and easy. This allows them to self-organise in a complex matrix of differentiated spaces, and enables multiple communication scenarios. It surely marks an ambitious project of ordering social processes in space. Each space is in fact a communication. It invites its visitors to participate, and gives them clues on how they may behave, what to do. But people are no longer satisfied with simple ordering of space with rigid forms and strict compartmentalisation. They need to communicate with each other and move swiftly. This is why rooms should not be separated but rather interconnected. Spaces should be constructed in such a way that everyone can easily see, find and communicate with everyone else. Accordingly, the role of an architect should be understood in this sense: we are constantly making ever more complex matrixes for ever more complex social processes that unfold within. This is portrayed through a free flaw of lines, whether it is a parking space, a library or a business company. The point is that wherever you are, you see many different things going on. Many things are simultaneously in the view, because you don’t want to miss anything. As you move through space you have many options what to select next. Conversely, when running down a corridor where you see nothing, you know nothing and miss everything.”

The work of Zaha Hadid Architects is dedicated to seeding Parametricism across the world. The London Aquatic Centre and the MAXXI Centre of Contemporary Art in Rome are perhaps the best known examples currently. However, Zaha Hadid’s mission is not just a mere style. The style is moreover the signature of the times we live in. The German architect Frei Otto had the same thing in mind while developing his membrane structures in the second half of the twentieth century. The main idea is to start looking for the shapes in the world of animals and plants in order to create a “second nature”. This is precisely one of the key features of Parametricism, as Schumacher defines it. Moreover, many other important buildings such as Foster’s British Museum Dome also have elements of Parametricism: “In this case, even though parametric tools were being used, it was done in the spirit of modernism – with the aim of neutralizing the differences, making them inconspicuous. This means that even if all elements are different, 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.”

So, key features of Parametricism are: viable forms, ordered differentiation and continuation.

One word connects and explains all of the elements: complexity. The future of architecture is in creating multifaceted spaces which resemble our ever more complex way of living and working. Architecture should align with the philosophy of multiplicity, differentiation and rhizome, as formulated by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. This simply means that we can no longer even dream of patching things up and subsume enormous proliferation of differences into some kind of unity. It seems rather pointless. Instead of working on alignment of diversities and simplifying our environment, we should start deliberately making things more complicated. It seems that that is the only way to survive now: “As we have differences of actions and interactions we also need differentiated space. That is why Parametricism rejects repetition. Every element is different, and buildings look different from various angles. It is only with this differentiation of elements that you can create functional spaces which are adequate enough for the contemporary way of living and working, based on constant networking and updating. However, I am not speaking of the difference in the trivial sense, but of the difference with order. The key feature of Parametricism is the complex variegated order which all natural systems produce somehow. When ordered, the difference looks more beautiful and appealing.”

Semiology of Parametricism: The meaning of the space is its use!

Schumacher distorted Wittgenstein’s axiom that “the meaning of the word is its use” and transformed the semiology of architecture into pure functionality. Architecture no longer operates with symbols, but rather creates its language through the usage of space. This can be perceived perhaps as the “new Materialism” or critique of the “linguistic turn”. But most importantly, the consequence of applying this principle is putting space itself as a silent player in the game of communication. But how can space become an actor? In short, it is constructed in such a way that it enhances interaction between people, opens up possibilities for different communication scenarios. It leads and navigates following the way it is constructed.

In order to investigate how people move through space and what can be done to enhance the communication between them, Schumacher created student workshops where they use special computer programs and study interdependence between space and human behavior, as well as inventing new shapes and forms for future buildings: “We are working on shell structures for example, because they are easier for orientation than boxes. Moving from a box to another box you quickly lose orientation of where units and subunits are. We are building up ways of intercepting and interlocking, but spontaneously and without relating to clichés. We are starting from the scratch. Various shapes proliferate and combine themselves in many systems of differentiation and consequently create a kind of vocabulary. The second project we are working on is related to functionality of space. We try to interpret and predict behaviour through computer modelling. We speculate on how people might or should react and gather. Our studies show that actors adjust their behaviour according to the features of the environment. When constructing the space we should plant semiotic clues what to do and where to go. If the space is constructed and organised in such a way that it leads its users and inhabitants, there is no need to label rooms with names. Purpose should be obvious and people should easily glide through it, knowing what to expect and having a variety of options what to choose. We experiment allot with light as well, since it is very important in creating guidance and enhancing interaction.”

In short: The mission of Zaha Hadid Architects?

The mission of Zaha Hadid Architects is twofold: to ground parametricism in theory and seed it all around the world. Zaha Hadid Architects are not just designing buildings, but also furniture, shoes, kitchen systems, car parks, bus stations … They have been doing that from the mid 90s up until today, and their now widely recognisable complex and fluid design is being spread virally across the globe, with the ambition to radically transform its appearance.

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