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.

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4 comments

  • hawkeye 27 December 2010 at 2:39 am

    Coincidentally entitled 80s graff doco “Style Wars” has a number of bizarre correlations – check it out on YouTube…

    Matt

  • Daniel 27 December 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Thanks Matt, I booked-marked it and will check it out once I am in a country that has an internet connection fast enough for streaming video.

    Daniel

  • Eric 15 January 2011 at 6:06 pm

    Hello,
    I would like to add some things to the discussion that might lend some additional content. First, I would like to add context to my understanding of the subject matter. I became interested in parametric design about a year ago and have been researching it ever since. The research has been ongoing with zero direction but my own desire to understand it as an architectural process. I currently study architecture in the US and have found that my research has led me in several directions. I truly believe that parametric design started in engineering with the use of animation to visualize how a part moves within an assembly. Additionally, I think that geometric modeling using differential equations also plays a large role in parametric design, like that found in fluid dynamics. Either way, throughout my research, I could not really find anything directly relating to architecture and I started to develop my own ideas about its application in architecture. Once I read Patrik Schumachers paper on Parametricism as a Style it clicked and I thought to myself, this is what I mean.

    I do not think that Parametricism is agnostic to design methods. Actually, I think it is the next step in the development of multiple design methods. This, I believe, has roots in Deconstructivism, especially Peter Eisenmen’s diagram. In Eisenman’s Diagram Diaries, he starts with a simple 2D polygonal model and abstracts a 3D model using various digital methods. I found resemblances to this in Schumacher’s paper on the Parametric Diagram. The difference is that Eisenmen developed a series of diagrams each created by an additional contextual characteristic where Schmacher’s diagram is a singular model with parameters as the additional characteristic. Eisenman started the design method and Parametricsim adapts it to current technologies. However, I like both approaches.

    Eisenman’s intent was to develop a framework of contextual elements within the final diagram of the series. These contextual elements were usually deeper than the obvious vernacular or local typologies but it still existed. It was just more complex. I believe that the parametric diagram also does this just through a different method. Parametricism, I think, actually allows for a more expansive approach because of the vast amount of variability in parametric design. To me, the opportunities seem endless because of the abstract mathematical properties. Actually, solving parametric equations by hand is a trial and error process. This leads me to believe that if the inputs are from contextual elements the output is contextually sound, regardless of its form. It is just a matter of finding the appropriate inputs.

    Additionally, I think that parametric design is very similar to biological and molecular structures. I am advocating neither creationism nor evolutionism but I do agree that there is a natural design to everything in this world, which is comprised mostly of logical and mathematical principles at its most fundamental properties. By adapting to parametric design methods, architecture could lead to a more natural design process. Even if this does create a “blob-like” form, the numbers calculated to do it so it must follow some logic. This will allow us to create in a way that is logical and controlled but without the final product already established in the designers mind.

    I have heard some arguments that digital and parametric design takes away the artful creation of architecture. Designing a building from beginning to end in a controlled yet thoughtful manner while still maintaining budgetary constraints and satisfying the customer? This seems like a successful project to me. I especially like the idea behind intensification of communication between spaces. I think it is our job as designers not to direct emotions of people but rather to promote emotions. As long as our design intent is positive, I am certain the emotions will be of similar scope.

    Lastly, Is ZHA a parametric firm? I am going to have to say yes. After I was first exposed to the firm’s designs a few years ago, I must admit I was a little lost with all the curves but once I began to explore parametric design and I discovered Zaha’s foundation in mathematics it made complete sense. In addition, Maya is a completely parametric platform. Developed for game and entertainment design with the modeling of human parts and rigging them to move like humans relates to what Savim Krish said in his comment, “The skeletal systems of all mammals are parametric. We share a parametric body for with all mammals, whales’ frogs and giraffes (they have 7 neck bones like we do).” ZHA harnessed this and used it to create architecture.

    Great blog!

  • Daniel 18 January 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Hello Eric,

    Thank you for such a long and thoughtful comment,

    I am reluctant to wade into the debate on Eisenman and De-con since I have only just surfaced after foolishly jumping in the deep end during first year. But since you are going there, I will too.

    Eisenman definitely has roots in the computational movement, and it is no surprise he studied at Cambridge University at a time when mathematics and computation were just coming in. As such, he uses an almost mathematical design process process. It is tempting to conclude that because he uses a mathematical design process and because parametric modelling is based on a mathematical design process, they are one in the same. To me the distinction comes from the motivation of the architects; for Eisenman the design process is a way of freeing himself intellectually from the design outcome, whereas parametric modelling is applied to give the architect control over the design outcome within a space of possibilities. I think Eisenman’s built work speaks for itself (see: House VI, a clients response), although I don’t deny he is important figure in the discourse of architecture. Parametric modelling, while not guaranteeing success, at least focuses on the outcome of the building – whether it is the Stylistic outcome like Schumacher advocates or the preformative outcome like Neil Leach suggests. Therefore, I wouldn’t say Eisenman is a precursor to parametric modelling, he partly comes from the same trunk, but the branch he sits on is very much separate from the branch parametric design rests on.

    Daniel

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