Patrik Schumacher – Parametricism

Daniel Davis – 25 September 2010

By far the biggest villain in all of parametric design is Patrik Schumacher. I usually would not give him the time of day, but since my previous post was such a fan-boy writeup of one of the heroes of parametric design, Robert Woodbury, it seems only fair to deal with Schumacher today. It also seems important to write about Schumacher because recently I have read quite a few people – mostly students – who have earnestly quoted from Schumacher’s essay on Parametricism, while at the same time – in closed circles – I have never heard of an idea more ridiculed. The infamous essay can be found online in the Architects Journal, although earlier versions were published in AD, and a video of Schumacher explaining the essay at Intensive Fields can be found here. Everything I could want to write about Schumacher’s use of the word ‘style’ in this essay has been said far better by Adem Mayer, instead I will take issue with the term Parametricism.

Schumacher is clueless when it comes to digital technology – I wouldn’t follow his advice on how to operate a kettle, let alone parametric software. At the heart of his incompetence is Schumacher’s use of the word Parametricism. Digital architecture has a very specific vocabulary; generative, parametric, emergent, swarming, associative, digital morphogenesis, optimisation, L-Systems, cellular autonoma, and genetic algorithms all have different meanings. This is not to exclude people like Schumacher from our club, but because these words are necessary to describe all the different fields in digital architecture, fields that are distinct and not always able to be clustered together. Yet with parametricism Schumacher makes it clear that he is not talking about parametric design, but of all of digital architecture, speaking of swarming and genetic algorithms in the same breath with parametric design. Etymologically, despite Schumacher’s protests, it is hard to separate parametric and parametricism. The suffix ‘-ism’ should turn parametricism literally into the doctrine or characteristic of parametric. It is possible Schumacher has taken the word parametric design literally, as design from parameters. Such an interpretation is a truism – there is no design without parameters – besides, the architecture from Zaha Hadid Architects that Schumacher uses as his only example of parametricism is probably some of the least constrained architecture in existence; literally deployable anywhere in the world, the architecture from ZHA is free from the parameters of sites, free from the parameters of culture, free from the parameters of tectonics, free from the parameters of the environment. Aside from ZHA, for a supposedly global style, Schumacher has very few examples of parametricism. In Intensive Fields he does show student work which he credits to “some students” – an immoral and unacademic credit. In Intensive Fields Schumacher himself confuses parametricism and parametric, claiming “the only precursor of parametricism is Frei Otto.” Otto, by Schumacher’s own definition, produces parametric architecture (not parametricism), because like Fosters he neutralised the difference in his structures. I am not even going to go into Schumacher’s inexcusable exclusion of Gaudí, the Gothic, the Bauhaus, and the Baroque from this history of parametric / parametricism.  So Schumacher’s use of the word Parametricism is at best confusing, to him and even more so the general audience. It derives from his lack of understanding of this field and is highly disruptive because people such as myself who are studying parametric design now need to go back a redefine what parametric is after Schumacher defined it for us.

Otto's drawing for the German Pavilion at Expo 67 (via:
Otto’s drawing for the German Pavilion at Expo 67 (via: )

I would personally define parametric, within the context of digital architecture, as a type of geometric model whose geometry is a function of a finite set of parameters. While a parametric model is a representation tool, I think that it does privilege a certain type (style?) of building simply by making some operations easier than others; you see the same thing in other representational modes, especially in student projects, people who design in plan tend to make complex plans, people who design in section make complex sections and people who design with models tend to privilege the building as an object. But this is only true if the design is generated through this representational medium. So if I was to make a Grasshopper model of Villa Savoye, it does not make Villa Savoye parametric architecture, the generator of Villa Savoye is still very much the set square. However, if Le Corbusier designed Villa Savoye with Grasshopper, then he would have likely found making all those orthogonal walls annoying and that the array tool gives far more impact for less work, in turn changing the nature of the project to embody some of the characteristics of parametric architecture.

Which begs the question, is ZHA a parametric firm? In my opinion, no. ZHA belongs in a group, with the likes of Gehry, who are second-generation, digital architects. That is to say, they are using computation to change the economic viability of their projects, but the design process, to paraphrase Neil Leach [1], is still traditional, devoid of computers, top-down and postmodern. For ZHA, a scarily consistent signature architect, the font of Hadid was founded long before they started using computers. Whether ZHA uses a parametric model to generate the construction drawings of their signature is meaningless because the design was generated through a different medium. So Parametricism in this weird double-talk is Schumacher’s attempt to associate ZHA (and even claim the ZHA created) a movement with which they have nothing to do. Stick at what you are good at Schumacher, making money, and let the third generation show you what this revolution is really about.

Well I guess after all that I am never going to work for ZHA. If you feel like jumping under a bus you are more than welcome to try to defend Schumacher in the comments, or if you just want to get on a bus, you are welcome to do that as well in the comments.

[1] Neil Leach, Digital Morphogenesis, 2009.

5 December 2010: Patrik Schumacher responded to this criticism in the posts comments. His reply begins: “Don’t be such an ungenerous prick!”…