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The swarm fallacy

Since the release of The Autopoiesis of Architecture,M Patrik Schumacher has advocated elevating the use of parametric design techniques to the status of an architectural style he calls “Parametricism.” For Schumacher, parametric design is a strategy not only to address the issue of design and form but also to open up links that the discipline shares with our current economic system, forms of practice and education, as well as the societal organization through the design of large-scale projects and cities. At the core of his vision is the idea or articulation or mediation between stakeholders. The curvilinearity of design is suggested to be the result of a difficult equation between a myriad of parameters. The heuristics of Parametricism as Schumacher defined it in 2011 included functional heuristics such as avoiding functional stereotypes and formal heuristics such as smooth differentiation,11 The formal heuristics of Schumacher overlaps with the continuous paradigm we have discussed in this chapter, as he recognizes the foundational impact that nonstandard calculus offered for the discipline. Like Lynn, he also understood space as a dynamic medium. As Schumacher explains, “modernism was founded on the concept of space. Parametricism differentiates fields. Fields are full, as if filled with a fluid medium.”-'2 While the advocacy for formal heuristics appears innocent, Schumacher quickly establishes a link between curvilinearity and articulation as an organizational strategy representative of free-market economics. He rejects top-down interventions in the urban fabric and suggests that the market operates as a self-organizing bottom-up process, one in which “only market processes can process the new diversity and complexity of information, and generate the knowledge required to deliver land and real state resources reliably to productive and desired uses, avoiding wasteful misallocation.”33 Schumacher seems to contradict himself as he has also gone on record to discuss how market economics often generate “garbage spill” urbanism,34 and that Parametricism is able to provide a legible spatial order without becoming a top-down strategy'. As Schumacher writes.

While laissez-faire development can deliver a socially (market) validated program mix and program distribution, it seems bound to produce a visual chaos in the urban dimension.The visual disorder in not only' ugly' and distracting; it is disorienting, and thus compromises the societal functionality of the built environment. The articulation of a legible social order—the architect’s core competency—is itself a vital aspect not only' of the city’s ‘livability’ but also of its economic productivity.35

Therefore, Parametricism attempts to position itself against the rigid imposition of form, and against the laissez-faire development that ultimately contributes, in the view of Schumacher, to urban chaos. Parametricism attempts to present itself as a malleable design response to markets founded on ideas borrowed from the natural sciences in the study of complex adaptive systems and emergent phenomena. Utilizing agent-based modeling techniques, or algorithmic swarms, Parametricism can claim to develop bottom-up design, which, like the market, can self-organize and adapt a multiplicity of input variables and represent different stakeholders. However, swarm strategies are also able to obfuscate decision making. As many' other forms of artificial intelligence, algorithmic swarms acquire autonomy and agency, dictated by the objectives of its programming author. What these techniques truly' obfuscate is that the implementation of algorithmic swarms always relies on a top-down choreographer, a decision-making process that defines what is included and excluded from a model and what are the strengths or weights used by' each agent to influence the general system.

While branded on the rhetoric of emergence, Parametricism is truly able to exercise top-down design, enabled by the obfuscation behind black-box algorithms.

Parametricism utilizes complexity theory and emergence to provide validation through a form of natural order. The image of the swarm is cast as a visual diagram of Schumacher’s claim when he states “Parametricism. Its most conspicuous outward characteristic is a complex and dynamic curvilinearity accentuated by a swarmlike proliferation of continuously differentiated components.”36 While algorithmic simulated swarms are an effective means to study and understand self-organization and systems design, there is a danger of extrapolating the inherit self-organizing properties of such closed systems to the qualities of architecture or cities. From a technical standpoint, the use of swarm algorithms for architectural design are not engaging with the phenomenon of self-organization as observed in the natural world and culture, as the digital models operate within constrained parametric domain—therefore defining a closed system.

Agent-based modeling is argued as a non-detenninistic system, and this is true when dealing with unexpected or even minuscule deviations in data that can affect a simulation, generating a non-repeatable solution each time the algorithm is calculated. However, this is not the case in a form of agent-based simulation often used by parametric designers where the digital environment in which the algorithms are executed internally defines all variables, as such a closed system effectively becomes a deterministic technique.The fact that these algorithms are presented as operating over a time-lapse is irrelevant to defining them as non-deterministic. The variable of time becomes a parametric slider that can be moved back and forth and will arrive at the exact same solution each time. These issues point out incoherencies in Parametricism, revealing a strategy of obfuscation where disciplinary research genuinely interested in self-organization and open-ended systems, is co-opted by the argument for a formal style that is rigid and authoritative.The brand of aesthetics emerging from “nature’s complexity” remains top-down.

Architecture critic Manuel Shvartzberg develops an excellent historical recollection of the development of swarm algorithms, from the work of Craig Reynolds to the development of the Logo platform by Seymour Papert.17 While Shvartzberg sees swarms as a form of techno-cultural infrastructure that has contributed to the development of the individual as a self-directed agent who has acquired the “pleasure of commanding,” this judgment falls into the assumption that parametric design is indeed the result of self-organizing ideology in maturation for several decades. Shvartzberg states that an example of the appropriation of the swarm for use in the architectural vocabulary can be seen in the “parametric urbanism” exercises of Zaha Hadid Architects, as used in the cover of The Politics of Parametrics,38 where the image of the swarm is clearly identifiable. However, this is the swarm fallacy, deterministic architecture models constrained to a parametric domain argued for as open and adaptable. The ability to develop “swarm-like” or “swarm-looking” urbanism needs to be assessed as part of the rhetoric of bio-validation exercised by the parametric agenda.

Thames Gateway as an urban field courtesy Zaha Hadid Architects. The image was used in the cover of The Politics of Parametricism by Matthew Poole and Manuel Shvartzberg in reference to swarm systems

FIGURE 2.12 Thames Gateway as an urban field courtesy Zaha Hadid Architects. The image was used in the cover of The Politics of Parametricism by Matthew Poole and Manuel Shvartzberg in reference to swarm systems.

Source: Courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects

 
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