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Introduction: a call for a post-2008 architecture

We have always been parametric

At the end of the 20th century, recent innovations in architecture were proposing a fundamental shift in the way that we understand and construct buildings. Technological innovations in software, material science, digital fabrication and automation offered a vision of infinite variability and customization. This vision engaged with human perception, defining an affective architecture tailored as an immersive environment.1 This ever-changing “new” architecture, where every design is a “one-off,” has become a core part of the current practice of a younger generation of architects. It has been validated by narratives around technology: the promise that digital fabrication, operated by CNC technology, could produce bespoke forms at an equivalent cost to a mass-produced product provided the perfect argument for adopting an ever-changing architecture.2 Mass-produced products had defined other industries for many years, but CNC technology was promising to offer a liberating alternative, one in which design would flourish and would be constantly in demand, as clients will always be in search of a fresh new design proposal.

The implications of continuously supporting a paradigm of “one-off” architecture, which has to reinvent itself in every building, has ramifications that span from the tectonic composition of the built environment to the business models and commission allocations in practice. It has also deeply influenced the education culture of the field, preparing students to engage with a highly competitive marketplace where it is a commonplace to work for free or engage in underpaid or exploitative practices due to the unremunerated format of design proposals.3 This is the result of a high volume of design labor that goes to waste by speculative business practices of clients or architectural competition entries that have little to no chance of success.

Within this context, the rise of the parametric paradigm can be understood as a response to the core inefficiencies in the field. Understanding the design variations that a proposal will need throughout its development, the parametric paradigm has offered a technical workflow where an architect does not design one building but rather a multiplicity of virtual buildings, all ruled by variable data. Whether there are changes in the budget, regulation or simply a change of heart of a client, parametric software has allowed architects to design hundreds of possible designs by defining buildings not as objects but rather by associations and proportions between elements, maintaining an overall consistency throughout a network. Out of this virtual multiplicity, thousands of designs can be eliminated without incurring much of a loss, as it is only one of those models that moves forward to be realized.

The multiplicity of virtual buildings allowed by the parametric methodology' can be seen as a triumph of capitalist productivity, where the labor of one designer is exponentially multiplied, allowing the possibility of defining a whole city, one in which every single building can be singular. This technical and conceptual project was explored in the ideas of“parametric urbanism”4 by Patrik Schumacher within Zaha Hadid Architects, at the Architectural Association and at the University of Innsbruck. The arguably utopian vision of parametric urbanism proposed a unified algorithmic style that could rule the variation of every building and detail of a city or district, adapting buildings to local site conditions. The utopianism behind this proposition was not only in the visual or stylistic coherence between buildings as argued by Schumacher’ but also in the potential triumph of the ability to scale the labor and vision of a single designer to operate over a large territory.

Parametric Urbanism by Research led by Patrik Schumacher. Design proposal led by Ursula Frick and Thomas Grabner at the University of Innsbruck, Austria

FIGURE 1.1 Parametric Urbanism by Research led by Patrik Schumacher. Design proposal led by Ursula Frick and Thomas Grabner at the University of Innsbruck, Austria.

In reality, the parametric model, while it has allowed for mass customization and the differentiation of hundreds or even thousands of different building parts, has failed to scale the domain of influence of a single designer. The virtual multiplicity existing within a parametric definition generates a pool of competing proposals out of which only one will be taken forward for execution. The multiplicity of the virtual equates to a singular actual.

Clients have come to expect the possibility of exploring the domain of the design potential, expecting to see proposals that address a brief in radically different ways. After all, the substantial amount of capital that is required to develop architecture has made common sense for both the private and public sectors to require a large amount of design proposals to be available before taking a final decision about what will become a permanent part of the built environment. The parametric model is ill-equipped to perform such a task, as a parametric definition has demonstrated to be better suited to offer the variation of a proposal and not fundamentally different proposals. Parametric differentiation is a change in degree, not in kind.

Nevertheless, the public and the private sector for years have collaborated with architects to take part of a form of procurement that allows for a quick production of a multiplicity of radically different proposals, each of them with a careful consideration of the building constraints. This is known as the architectural competition. This technique can be considered the ultimate parametric modeling methodology, as it is able to produce a large virtual multiplicity, with substantial design variation practically for free for the client, at great expense from participants. The resulting catalog of proposals is often tossed aside as the unsuccessful attempts of an equation that has been designed to define a singular winner.

Architectural competitions follow all the principles of a parametric design methodology, offering cheap design variations exploring the possibility space of a building. The problem arises when one understands that parametric design discards 99% of digitally created possible buildings, design proposals that are generated algorithmically as the result of the declaration of design decisions as variables. On the other hand, an architectural competition discards the 99% of designs generated by the unremunerated labor of architects that have been orchestrated as a competing pool to arrive at a suitable solution. Architecture competitions are nothing new to the field, as they are a long-standing practice deeply ingrained in architectural culture. Architectural competitions, therefore, remind us that we have always been parametric, as our freely offered labor validates practices of unremunerated speculative work.

Architectural competitions have validated Patrik Schumacher’s claim that the parametric agenda is an epochal style." However, they have not done so through Schumacher’s argument of an emergent aesthetic of articulation between free market agents but rather by a global acceptance of a procurement technique that is able to extract free value out of thousands of practicing architects through their aspirations to contribute to the advancement of the discipline and to obtain a remunerated commission. The epoch that parametric design defines is that of neoliberal economics, operating under a “winner takes all” ideology and a “trickle-down” form of propagation of knowledge, where innovation developed for avant-garde projects is gradually supposed to reach societal adoption. This has not occurred. On the contrary, a pursuit for the always new “one-off” building leaves little room for cultural adoption.The winner-takes-all model has created large asymmetries of power, capital and wealth.

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