digitalism … parametric predispositions

Arhitectura, Romania’s leading architectural magazine, has asked me to contribute to their next issue with a short article about 15 years of Studio Hadid Vienna. Read the English version below. The image below is taken from the studio project The Naked City by Manuel Lopez, Martine Nicolay and Birgit Schmidt.

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Parametric Predispositions

Robert R. Neumayr (Vienna), 2015.

Architectural design strategies and – for that matter – architectural theory and education have undergone crucial paradigmatic shifts in the most recent decades. The growing inability of modernism to address or let alone resolve society’s increasingly complex problems forced architects, urbanists, theoreticians and scholars to look for different approaches.

This lead on the one hand to the re-evaluation of supposedly still hidden potentials of the modernist project within its own logics, a tendency, that Svetlana Boym coined “off modern”, as “[…] it makes us explore slideshadows and backalleys rather than the straight road of progress.” (Boym, 2001)

On the other hand however, the then recent renunciation of linear and binary systems of perception, which for a long time had been dominating our world view, had opened up totally new areas of scientific research, changing the conception of architecture considerably and propelling the profession into a completely new paradigm. Shifting away from traditional platonic shapes and orders towards formal complexity architects had come to understand the built environment as a continuous field of diverse elements, as a spatial organization that is able to negotiate and interpolate between those elements, which are subjected to the changing forces and currents that guide their use. As Stan Allen remarks, “Field conditions move from the one toward the many, from individuals to collectives, from objects to fields.” (Allen, 1999: 92).

The transfer of such systems out of their initial domain into architecture and urbanism and their methodical digital development aims towards the generation of complex and parametrically controllable geometries, which contain highly adaptive potentials and connectivity. Variation and continuous differentiation of simple elements reflect the changing and mutually influential forces within a system’s different layers in order to eventually articulate a complex architectural systems, that ties together a spatial organisation, its environment, its inhabitants and their constantly changing patterns of use. This implies controlled and simultaneous development of function, form, structure and material, and requires attention on the associative qualities of all single constituents.

The strength of this parametric approach lies in its understanding of architecture as a system of correlations and differentiations seeking adequate and complex articulation. As Patrik Schumacher puts it: “Just like natural systems, parametricist compositions are so highly integrated that they cannot be easily decomposed into independent subsystems – a major point of difference in comparison with the modern design paradigm of clear separation of functional subsystems.” (Schumacher, 2008).

At the same time, the increasingly rapid move towards digital design processes and the development of new digital software tools and parametric techniques, which were characterized by a high level of interactivity and real-time flow control, subjected the field of architecture to further radical changes. Computer tools could suddenly be used to systematically explore vast design spaces, creating a whole series of complex, iteratively changing shapes and forms, finally moving computer technologies from representational digital visualisation to digital form finding processes.

It was precisely at that time, when Zaha took over what was then known as the “Studio Architekturentwurf 1” from Zvi Hecker and, making use of the school’s avant-garde position within the European academic context, started to set up a laboratory for contemporary digital design strategies. Embedded in an international framework of different similar-minded institutions, such as technical universities, art schools, schools of architecture, professional practices, critics and teachers, design research was understood and undertaken in its probably most effective way: as a collaborative effort taking advantage of the various external preconditions and constraints.

Zaha always organized her students in a “vertical studio”, meaning that inexperienced and advanced students always worked together in self organizing teams, collaborating on the same brief and complementing each other’s individual skills and talents, manifesting our firm belief that students can learn at least as much from their fellows as from their teachers, and that closely knit group work has become one of the prerequisites of contemporary design practice.

It was always considered an important didactic aspect, that students, according to their specific abilities and ambitions, can set out their own procedural design methods while working within the paradigm of scripted or parametric systems. Therefore, contrary to popular belief, scripting and programming knowledge was never considered to be a requirement in the studio.

The studio was strongly based on an open-source model, meaning that previously acquired knowledge was collected, organized and stored to be redistributed among the students.

Drawing from concepts of different fields of expertise, the studio’s briefs initially were programmatically developed to rethink traditional architectural design strategies, concepts, forms and media, to simply perforate the then existing boundaries of architecture. But over time, as Zaha’s and Patrik’s ideas started to consolidate into one precise theoretical direction, fields of research started to spiral around that trajectory, being reiterated and reformulated over the years, always building upon previous design research and a constantly unfolding theoretical background, systematically testing parametric design strategies in various scales of architectural and urban experimentation, from urbanism and high-rise clusters to building components, interior design and fashion accessories.

For example, using a constantly advancing set of tools and techniques throughout a period of more than ten years, various investigations into urban scale repeatedly explored the generative logics of the city as a complexly networked system of different interactive layers of information, reflecting our dynamic understanding of the urban condition and all yielding vastly different results.

Over the years the studio’s design research has co-evolved with its theoretical framework, the concept of Parametricism, thus shifting its agenda from “[exploring] a space rich enough so that all the possibilities cannot be considered in advance by the designer” (de Landa, 2001) to strategically integrating more and more complex layers of information into increasingly intricate digital systems. The most recent studio briefs were devised with the intention to further broaden the field of research and advance the contemporary architectural discourse by integrating related fields such as structural engineering and energy design more directly into the parametric design process or by trying to find adequate answers to current societal issues by means of exploring semiological and human-adaptive transformable architectural and urban environments.

And while after 15 years Studio Hadid Vienna has become history now and Kazuyo Sejima, another Pritzker Prize laureate, will take over the studio and reset its direction, its old agenda, Parametricism has remained an ongoing and evolving architectural and theoretical project.

Zaha Hadid was head of Studio Hadid Vienna at the Institute of Architecture at the University of Applied Arts from 2000 to 2015, where she taught with Patrik Schumacher and Mario Gasser, Christian Kronaus, Jens Mehlan, Robert Neumayr, Hannes Traupmann and Mascha Veech. A total of 262 students were part of the studio’s dynamic environment, and 141 of them graduated from the studio with a diploma or master’s degree. 7 of the graduates were Romanian.

Allen, Stan. Points + Lines, 1999.
Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia, 2001.
de Landa, Manuel. Deleuze and the Use of the Genetic Algorithm in Architecture, 2001.
Schumacher, Patrik. Parametricism as a Style – Parametricist Manifesto, 2008.