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Viewpoints: Farshid Moussavi on the need for parametric thinking

Farshid Moussavi

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.

Readers' comments (2)

  • Glad to read about the meaning of the term parametric being understood intrinsically. In recent times it has become fashionable to use the term parametric to generate banal forms which have little more than momentary titillation on offer.

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  • Bill Caplan

    Thank you Farshid Moussavi for this elaboration of the universality of parametric thinking and its promise for "intelligent designs that embrace the full complexity of our environment". Given the difficulty in bridging the gap between form finding and material architecture, perhaps this should be an educator's call to arms. Although engineers have successfully applied the power of parametric software for several decades, architectural designers have been slow to employ the true capability for anything more than pure form generation, as you aptly indicate. Much of this has to do with the inability of architecture schools to provide a schema that focuses parametricism on form 'created from' "parametric thinking as a way to integrate formal experimentation with performative concerns". In lower case, parametricism is both a technique and a mode of thinking that employs the empowerment provided by software for performative design, as applied by the designer's creativity. It is time to dispense with the capital "P". As a style or classification it will not survive the decade.

    Bridging this educational gap will be fraught with obstacles. Although the world is certainly different from that you describe in the ‘90’s, the problems of creating a relevant studio experience in an industry unaccustomed to change remain. The overwhelming majority of studio instructors insufficiently understand how one might progress from the assignment of external parameters, whether they be environmental, physical, social or cultural, to engage in a feedback loop with form. This presents a major stumbling block. If we do not grasp this moment, the opportunity for designers to employ parametricism to inspire performative design might be lost, left to the engineers. It will be displaced by the next plaything to shape form, as well as the progressive dumbing of existing software. Each year, in the name of 'user friendly', the handful of companies that control AEC software tend to reduce itemized control in favor of generic modifiers. It will not be long before the parametric programs geared for architectural designers will severely restrict the application of parametric thinking in favor of parametric filters, with pushbutton design solutions. Yes, hardcore programs will always exist for engineers and techies, but they will remain beyond the scope of architecture students and designers.
    This is the crucial time to realize parametric thinking for architects and designers.

    The future of parametric thinking lies in the hands of our educators. We must not let this empowering opportunity slip away.

    Bill Caplan
    Managing Member
    ShortList_0 Design Group LLC

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