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Grohe dialogue series 2017: the convergence of analogue and digital

Patrik Schumacher and Christoph Ingenhoven discuss architecture in the age of digital representation

How digital tools are reshaping contemporary architects was the subject of Grohe’s ‘Trends, Thesis, Typology’ event held in London on 19 October. Christoph Ingenhoven and Patrik Schumacher, though both German (albeit Schumacher heads up Zaha Hadid Architects in London), born within a year of each other (1960 and 1961 respectively), presented notably different views.

For Ingenhoven, digital methods are a parallel to and can interact with conventional design methods. ‘I would not want [digital] tools to take over the brain’, he explained, adding that he often tells his colleagues to turn off their computers and search for analogue spaces. The first work he showed, a massive but delicate extension to the massive – in both senses of the word – Stuttgart Railway Station showed a visceral fragility. Much of the form-finding came from hand-made models where fabric was stretched over wooden columns and then covered in plaster to simulate concrete – the smears and smudges of fingers were very evident. Starting in 1997, this project predates the most advanced design tools, though techniques such as finite element analysis were used to establish the structural action in the proposed forms.

Schumacher sees digital tools as the essence of contemporary architecture. Far more responsive to humans’ social and biological conditions than the orthogonal certainties of convention Modernism, they are not just useful devices that allow more complex forms, but the drivers of a new style which he calls Parametricism. Parametricism consists of three initial phenomena – Foldism, Blobism and Swarmism, which together generate the next stage, Tectonism. The first three establish a continually changing and potentially responsive formal condition, in spaces and urban environments.

Tectonism looks rigorously at components and elements of buildings themselves, refining and optimising their form so that they can do their own precise function and no other. Schumacher calls this process ‘stylistic heightening’ and argues that it brings visual clarity and expression to architecture, which is rooted in and emblematic of contemporary culture.

Yet despite the different concepts and goals behind their use of technology, chair Paul Finch detected one underlying similarity – an architect’s eye still needs to decide which of the myriad iterations is most appropriate.