Schumacher on Schumacher

Daniel Davis – 19 December 2010

It has been a strange week. It started in Copenhagen with me teaching students how to build wooden reciprocal frame domes. I was preparing to leave Copenhagen and spend some time in London so that I could, amongst other things, gate crash the launch of Patrik Schumacher’s new book The Autopoiesis of Architecture. But as I was packing my bags, my Grandfather died. I decided to skip London so that I could return to my family, and I spent the next 48 hours recreating the journey my Grandfather made when he was my age and immigrated to New Zealand from London – only his trip cost 10 quid and took 6 weeks. At some stage while I was floating in the jet-stream, in between timezones I have never visited, I received a message from London, from Patrik Schumacher, in response to this blog post, that began: “Hi Daniel, Don’t be such an ungenerous prick!” To be fair, a Google search for “Patrik Schumacher” used to show as the 9th result: “By far the biggest villain in all of parametric design is Patrik Schumacher,” which is a quote from me, so his response was on the level. Schumacher mentioned being “attacked by a blogger from Australia,” in his lecture at the launch of The Autopoiesis of Architecture, and at almost the same instant Schumacher made this statement, on the other side of the world, I helped bury my Grandfather.

I don’t place any significance on the interweaving of these two events, but I do find the circles in the narrative interesting.

Once things settled down, a long debate between Schumacher and a couple of other readers emerged on the blog. It seems a shame to hide such a significant debate in the comments, so with this post I want to highlight what was said, and direct your attention to the original comments (here) – although judging by the number of people who have ‘confessed’ to reading these comments (as if this blog is my secret diary) you might already know about them.

There is something to be said about the character of Schumacher that he would respond to critique like this. I think it demonstrates that Schumacher is serious about Parametricism – this is not just some idea he dreamt up for a speaking gig or as a way to increase his publication count (not looking at any academic in particular). His response is not so much a defense of Parametricism as it is an invitation to participate, for even a rebuttal of Parametricism achieves Schumacher’s goal of getting architects to consider how “harnessing generative computational processes” advances architecture. With such a broad idea, an idea that Schumacher is still – very publicly – working out, in a very fractured community, it is little wonder he has stepped on a few toes. But it is apparent from both his words and his actions that he wants others to join in refining this vision.

On the name Parametricism

Schumacher writes:

Perhaps you can try to come up with a better label, or argue why you think that any such labels are not useful. This argument was made quite a lot – and I have an answer to that: a name is an anchor for self-description, collective reflection, and a fighting slogan for outward proselytizing and media recognition. Why should we leave these advantages to others. Why should we impoverish our discourse?

Parametricism is definitely double sided. On the one hand there is something very marketable and memorable about it, which is partly why students are so seduced by it. On the other hand it invokes notions of parametric design, when Parametricism is fairly agnostic to design methods. I think for many people in the area of computational design, it is hard to get past this, it has taken me almost three months.

On the perceived lack of context for Parametricism

Schumacher writes:

I am not a full time lecturer, I am a practicing architect before I am a theorist, and I have a lot to show even before going into somebody else’s work … I encourage anybody with the passion, insight and the time at hand to do this work of presenting the best work within the framework of parametricism.

An almost perfect critique of Parametricism would be to evaluate historic architecture in terms of parametricism principles. This would get away from the application of other value systems in the discussion of Parametricism and would critique it with its own logic.

On the design methods that applied to Parametricism

Schumacher writes:

Do not forget that parametricism as a style is not only defined via its design techniques but also via its ambitions and certain key features of its results, i.e. the general increase in the spatial complexity (sustaining an increase in programmatic complexity) as well as the general intensification of relations, i.e. an intensification of communication between spaces within a building and between the building and its surroundings. We need to understand what all this is good for in the end. What are the advantages of parametricism for the progress of our civilisation?

Is ZHA a parametric firm:

This was very articularly answered by Matei in some earlier comments, but Schumacher adds:

ZHA projects are always following the heuristic principles of parametricism , even if not all of them are always computationally driven. But we should also not forget that an intelligent and talented designer can – to a certain extent – articulate adaptive correlations between object and context, volume/façade and environmental parameters, between the variously differentiated subsystem within the building via mere modelling without deploying algorithms. The intelligence that is able to invent and think through such correlations is prior to its computational implementation. And, to a limited extend there can be ‘computation without computers’.

On emergence vs parametric

You make an interesting point about GA s in the context of a circumscribed optimisation problem, but you might decide to speak about bounded vs boundless emergence, or introduce the concept of relative degrees of circumscription with respect to emergence.

For some reason ‘degrees of boundedness’ really resonates with me and has helped start me thinking about what happens in the middle of these two extreme positions.

Iam still tentative about agreeing with Schumacher, but what is the alternative? People are more than willing to kick him, but are reluctant to put forward their own vision – I very much belong in this group. In this sense perhaps Parametricism has been unsuccessful at getting architects to consider how “harnessing generative computational processes” advances architecture, for we have become so focused on our niche it is hard to see the advances of architecture through the details of parametricism. In a weeklong twist of fate, I have become sympathetic to Parametricism and Schumacher’s arrogance, and I fear yet another blog post might need to be dedicated to Schumacher once my copy of The Autopoiesis of Architecture arrives.