20 July 2011


What do the BMW Welt building by Coop Himmelblau, Giant Campus by Morphosis and the Yas Hotel by Asymptote, all have in common?

Aside from their obvious non linear, organic and blobby forms; they were all designed with the aid of parametric Cad software.

The Yas Hotel - Abu Dhabi by Asymptote.

Cad has long been viewed as simply a computerised drafting tool to increase efficiency within an office - just the evolutuion of a drawing board, or simply put; computerisation. However, in the last 15 years software has progressed to such an advanced level that it no longer has to be simply a draughting aid – it has become a potential design tool capable of making innumerable intelligent decisions to fit a program; in essence ‘computation’.

There is a strong argument that the majority of commisions realised with the help of parametricism and algorithmics to date have simply been expensive excersises in form making, and constructional experimentation. This has helped architects stamp their own sculptural ‘brand’ of iconicity on their projects across the globe whilst simoultaneously attempting to develop a new architectural paradigm for their own marketing purposes...as Patrick Shumacher subtly suggests – ‘Outside architectural circles, ‘style’ is virtually the only category through which architecture is observed and recognised. A named style needs to be put forward in order to stake its claim to act in the name of architecture’.

...Really Patrick?

Patrick Shumacher of Zaha Hadid architects.

The irony is, that parametric design could actually pave the way for a new sustainable architecture with broader social objectives, free of these pre determined styles or fashions. A process where aesthetics come as a direct result of sustainable, environmental and contextual design, not the opposite.

So how and why does Parametricism fit within sustainable and ecological design?

Styles and movements in the past have utilised theory to create recognisable aesthetics. This theorising could be informed by a simple ideology, broad cultural trend or an artist defined movement. However, naturally, in the search for the new, we consider what is old – experience and precedent. This emerging software however is wholly pragmatic, it does not deal with theory or language, it has no stylistic preference and it does not accumulate experience.

Essentially the software is programmed to search for design solutions within a set of given constraints, or parameters. If the parameters relate to environmental design ie; orientation, prevailing wind direction, massing, glazing ratio, geometry, natural light - then the software will search for the ideal fit, based on these parameters, or as we used to call them – constraints . As a result, the form is directly shaped by the framework of constants.

The process functions like a spreadsheet, so a single change can modify the whole project automatically, while maintaining the predefined parameters or required relationships between elements, areas or functions.This ensures that whilst the design and building form is allowed to change in order to maximise sustainable and environmental potential, overiding requirements such as floor areas, proximity of spaces and program are maintained to ensure the design remains functional and viable.

The current problem with these tools is that, due to the complexities and extensive learning curve of scripting, practices with limited resources in such a turbulent economic climate do not have the finances to use them. It is for this reason that they have been embraced as generators of form by the global starchitects to produce ever more ‘iconic’ and contorted forms.

It seems therefore, the problem is not with the tool; but with the hands that use it.

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