Parametric software is no substitute for parametric thinking
There is nothing new about parametric thinking in architecture. Great architecture has always been aware of its societal role, and has consequently been informed by multivalent parameters. Parametricism with a capital ‘P’, on the other hand, dispenses with the hindrances of external parameters and promotes the autonomy of architectural forms. It promises to be a style that invents novel ways of shaping matter to produce unexpected spaces − more than often with dazzling results. Something is wrong, however, as every form emerging out of Parametricism is inexplicably (yet predictably) smooth and undulating, made up of small, gradually changing units. How is Parametricism going to keep its promise?
When I joined the Architectural Association in the early 1990s, John and Julia Frazer’s unit was the only one focusing on the processes of formgeneration (most others were investigating semiotic functions). Prefiguring Parametricism, their best students pursued a detached process of form-finding by writing new algorithms. Conversely Diploma 5, which I co-tutored, approached parametric thinking as a way to integrate formal experimentation with performative concerns − form derived from cultural, social and economic contexts. Students gathered information surrounding their project through fieldwork, before proposing a ‘program’ for generating form. The intention was to incorporate a discipline of analysis, avoiding form for its own sake. This necessitated establishing a correlation between a complex array of relevant external parameters through the architectural techniques of geometry and organisation.
As young tutors, we were accused of being interested in pseudo-scientific data, produced without any ideological stance. I remember inviting Peter Cook to one of our reviews − he was sufficiently offended by our lack of playfulness that minutes into the review he stormed out. Admittedly, Diploma 5 had its shortcomings − it was limited by Autocad and Microstation. The students spent so long gathering data that little time was left to run ‘programs’ again, in order to change how parameters were drawn together. The method was bottom-up, so students could only control the process and not the form resulting from it.
The world has moved on since our initial experiments with parametric design. It is faced with great problems defined by complex causes, all of which are linked. It is imperative that we cease perceiving architecture as only matter − a plastic art − and revisit parametric thinking after our distraction with Parametricism and its segue into formal extravagance. Architecture is a material practice, not a matter-practice. Once architecture is removed from the complexity of its surroundings, it freezes in time, while its environment continues to change. Architects must engage with the physical attributes that define these social and environmental parameters: climate and economics, wood and steel.
These ‘potencies’ must be considered as architectural material. Parametric software collates this material as parameters so that we can make formal decisions that are sustainable. With it we can design not only novel forms, but ones that, for instance, use less material in structural spans, render envelopes more energy-efficient, optimise seating alignments, fine-tune interior acoustics and make buildings responsive to their urban surroundings. Forms will be not be uniform (following Modernist ideals of efficiency) but optimised, differentiated, anisotropic.
Let ‘sustainability’ not be a safety-check on the architectural process, but a way to design. Today’s software empowers us to think transversally across design information and to make decisions based on the feedback loops between formal and functional relationships. Parametric software must be rescued from the enclosure of Parametricism − however spectacular its effects − and put to work producing intelligent designs that embrace the full complexity of our environment. It is too easy to use our frustration with Parametricism, or even the shock of the economic recession, to hark back to nostalgic and provincial Modernism. The world is too complex, its problems too pressing. The built environment and the cultures it embraces require parametric thinking that places material over matter.