saying I want
saying I want
Mark Wigley in conversation with C, LV and VL. Recorded March 7, 2014
C: To start with we would like to identify a key word, parameter, as in parametric and Parametricism. Our understanding of a parameter is a number that is a result of our obsessive quantification of reality. This has been enabled through technological advancements and our ability to comprehend, hold and process data at a much larger scale. With this assumption that now everything can be quantified, and now that we have access to it, this has led to a more complex understanding of the world. Parametricism attempts to represent this complexity and through it moves beyond modernism. But Schumacher’s definition of Parametricism is a description of a process that leads to a specific formal output. To me this seems like an unverifiable theory because the only way to critique or judge it is based on form.
MW: I was looking up the definition of parameter on my phone while you were talking. It’s quite a word. Parametricism on the other hand is the wish of the person using the term, whether it be Patrick Schumacher or anyone else. He’s using this word in the hope that a certain group of people will subscribe to it. That’s his dream: to do something important, to think of Parametricism occupying the space that used to be occupied by the word Postmodernism. Which is not a very interesting aspiration if you think about it. One possible response would be to say there is no such thing as Parametricism.
That’s not a good description of what people have been doing in recent years. Not because these people are not somehow linked, but because you haven’t described what it is that links them. Or because what they’re doing isn’t an “ism,” that no single account would do the work justice. Or because your theory is incoherent and overburdened with too many misunderstandings of too many thinkers and designers. All of these accusations are accurate but the main problem for me is the ideological one, the overtly fascistic dimension of such a totalizing ambition. I am profoundly opposed to this project, even though I have no right to be because I could always be more knowledgeable about what those people are doing and what he’s trying to describe. So lets just say that I am expressing an aesthetic prejudice against what this person is trying to do, not a prejudice against the aesthetics of contemporary computationally based work but a prejudice against the aesthetics of a certain way of doing theory. The way he is understanding Parametricism for me is entirely fascistic. It’s not just like control or about control. It is the aesthetics of control. The crime is the attempt to produce a totalizing theory, that is to say, the idea that everything could be described in this particular way. It reminds me of the not very well disguised fascism of Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language. Perhaps it was not by change that Alexander was one of the very first advocates of computationally driven design. The pseudo-scientific aesthetic of a book with the form of 1.0, 1.1, 1.1.1, 1.1.2. etc. already alerts us to the nightmare.
When a student at Columbia, at the end of Patrick’s talk, said, “But you seem to have left out the aesthetic,” he hesitated, as if this was a moment of surprise and deep insight, and said that is a good point, he should include it. You could just see that he wanted to go “220.127.116.11, Aesthetics” instead of wondering if that’s a challenge to the whole system.
Of course it’s just an attempt to produce a system and all systems are totalizing. It’s not yet a crime to want to have a totalizing theory and all theories are more ambitious than they can say. But in this case the particular totalizing theory turns on the concept of parameter. Parameter implies formula. There’s a formula and if you adjust a parameter within it you’re going to get a different result. Adjusting a sufficient number of parameters would come up with any object, or in reverse any object could be perfectly described if just had the right parameters and measures. It says the world could not be just fully calculated, but could be thought of in terms of a formula, a formula more efficient than the world. The complexity of the world is reduced, or at least absorbed, along with the contradictions and unknowability of the world. Parametricism is another pathetic attempt to contain the strangeness of ourselves and our worlds. It tries to expel any otherness. And this gesture, of excluding the other, is the very basis of the greatest darkness in human history and the human present.
This dream of having a complete description of the world that is smaller than the world lurks in all theory, and lurks with an implied violence that requires vigilance from us, even in the face of a seemingly modest and open theory, but is repulsive when turned into the very ambition and effect of theory, hence the need for vigilance. The dream of so-called Parametricism is the quasi-theological dream of having the blueprints for world production. One more architect applying for the God position. It is such an uninteresting way to understand things.
Furthermore, it displays such an impressive historical naivety. To oppose this way of thinking to so-called modern architecture is ridiculous because so much of the ideology of modern architecture turned around the idea of minor variations within in mass production. The idea of mass customization is an inevitable step, already implied in the nineteenth-century logics that drove twentieth-century architects. To go from the Henry Ford idea that every car is the same car, one model, only black, to a world of personalized 3D printing is not a shift from a non-parametric world to a parametric world. It’s a significant shift in the number of parameters but remains within a logic of parameters. The ability to generate any shape at any time produces an aesthetic of novelty but the approach is not novel. The search for formulas, the awareness of parameters, has a long history in our field.
C: But we could also say that the iPhone is nothing new and that it is simply a much smaller mainframe computer that at one time occupied a giant room.
Due to the increase in its processing power and decrease in its size, it is not a new innovation in itself, but this continuation of customization has allowed new and novel uses with it.
MW: I agree and I think that’s what I mean when I say it is significant that you can now mass customize, but the significance is not a system change in the sense that now we are in the fluid world of the parametric and we used to be in the fixed world of the right angle. The other related problem with it is that Patrick wants to associate that way of thinking with the work of the Hadid office as if that work comes out of parametric logic, rather than the other way round, that parametric logic has enabled that work to evolve in compelling ways. It involves a more or less criminal claim that certain early projects done as paintings by Zaha are already that way. To read her early work as proto-parametric is to catch only one dimension of the brilliance of that early work. It’s important to remember that Zaha, one of the genuine minds in our field, was trained as a mathematician, so basically this is a mathematician who paints, disrupting the complacencies of architecture but also drawing so thoughtfully on architecture’s own history, most obviously the Russian avant-garde but ultimately a wider spectrum. Zaha is a much more interesting confusion of the mathematical and the aesthetic.
LV: In 2011 Farshid Moussavi, in her article in Architectural Review, “On the Need for Parametric Thinking,” she criticized Parametricism as being a closed, formally driven movement that aspires to novelty but that produces always expected results.1
In opposition to this she claims for a parametric thinking, a network of thought able to produce an intelligent architecture “that embraces the full complexity of our environment.” Having in mind the word parameter and its double sided meaning, Schumacher on one side, Moussavi on the other, how have you experienced the emergence of this term in architecture during your deanship?
MW: On a biographical note, Greg Lynn was in my first class when I first started teaching at Princeton in 1988 or 1987. I like him a lot and his work was not yet down that path but it was really on the edge of that direction. At that time Hani Rashid was teaching here at Columbia and then Greg joined him in Bernard’s experiment with the new computational technologies. There were three “paperless studios” which I think were Scott Marble, Hani and Greg. Bernard was a wonderful curator in making space for these very young people in the school. It required another kind of gesture to support the next generation that was doing stuff with computers. So very quickly, over the 15 years of Bernard ’s leadership, GSAPP became global epicenter for this kind of thinking. Then you start to get another generation as those students who were in the first paperless studio start to become teachers. By the time I arrived, you had the reverse problem: the first set of teachers remain interesting but their students have now become religious teachers, wanting their students to do the same thing that they did.
That early experimental thinking had become academic. I began a process of outsourcing the experiment to other schools, basically Parsons, Penn, Pratt, Sci-Arc and so on. Basically we provided the faculty for about 5, 6 or 7 schools to concentrate on this stuff. And those people who were becoming quite stale with us did much better in these places. They became terrific teachers which is wonderful. By being in other schools they were finally able to develop their own angles. You can imagine the kinds of people I am thinking about. Since this is a laboratory school, each experiment has to be displaced by the next. that was the old experiment, which is now being carried out in a network of schools.
In a certain sense, what began here was what David Benjamin would describe as “post-parametric.” It’s another logic in which the parametric itself is no longer so infinitely magically wonderful. It is just the beginning of an argument rather than the endpoint. It is now just a basic toolset, rather than a religion. Every architectural office in the world is now deeply parametric by virtue of the software platforms they use, the platforms used by the galaxy of their consultants, but also by their clients, all the way from the data flows in individual houses to the management of whole cities. There are so many counter-strategies that can be employed in this environment. For example, David Benjamin’s studios attempt to reverse engineer parametric thinking.
Not tweaking parameters to generate shape but testing all possible shapes to maximize a series of performance qualities whose interaction is not clear. In other words, discovering hidden parameters rather than starting with them. It’s saying, “I don’t know the truth, but I could randomly test every possible solution.” The software could deliver me potential answers. A project that does everything it has to do without explanation.
C: Right. If you assume that the software will deliver the answer, the question then becomes the answer, the question becomes the truth. By saying I want to get a skyscraper that will optimize sunlight and create nice wind flows, is that any less of a truth than saying I want a skyscraper that looks like x, y and z?
MW: I think it is just a way to reposition the concept of parameter in the conversation as a step towards starting new kind of conversation. Basically I feel personally very close to the “parametric” generation but their thinking has become normalized in the profession. What used to be thought of as a very exciting revolution and a form of avant-garde practice is now simply what you need to do to build an office building. Right now it is being deployed to reduce budgets and ambitions more than it is being used to liberate new potentials. Parametric thinking is not inherently progressive. If you want to be regressive then parametric thinking is super useful.
Of course the ability to have 40 different professionals working on the same drawing at the same time and the drawing react to all the changes made by everyone else can generate great work. For example, when Ben Van Berkel did the Mercedes-Benz building the whole building would redraw itself in response to every minor change and the design was able to evolve in a holistic way without adding to the budget. The building could go further under such conditions. And this can be radicalized into the possibility for much more experimental multi-dimensional operations, and easily lend itself to open source operations because there is no real requirement that one particular person has to be inputting something. I strongly feel that architecture will gain a lot by going open source. And even there, the reverse engineering approach that Benjamin is exploring can evolve. Almost anyone could input anything into a design and another set of calculations would explore both the consequences in terms of current thinking and the possible new forms of thinking that might be implied.
VL: By using “big data” potentially.
MW: Yes. So you could have for example an object that is produced and not really have any clarity about how it was produced or who produced it, but the feedback is two thumbs-up and a new way of judging emerges which could turn into a new mode of producing. I don’t read in the Schumacher approach a real love of taking the author out of the picture.
Authorship is simply being relocated to the authorship of a meta-theory. I think architects have insight into so many things, but they are not philosophers, they are not mathematicians, we have to preserve a little bit of space for the architect as a unique and complicated species.
What I think happened here in the school was that the parametric, which was a disruptive experiment and then became a profession norm, is now going deeper and is actually becoming more radical, even though it no longer has an aesthetic branding. The C-BIP studio was the first time within a school that a serious attempt was made to see what would happen if an array of engineers and students would occupy the same digital construction site without the usual protocols of authorship. Every object designed in that environment could be used by your colleagues but you would have a responsibility to the maintenance of that object. There is a kind of crisis coming down the pipes towards architectural education because your generation has developed such sophisticated ways of sharing knowledge, ideas, images and scripts. How could architectural education remain so addicted to such threatened ideas about authorship, about studio culture, and about the way that objects are experienced in everyday life. Not by chance, one group of students is busy making an open source library. You guys are creating the environment that will ultimately be the environment of your own education. The role of schools of architecture as a platform is about to change and I think that is refreshing.
C: You already hinted at this idea of the self-legitimizing nature of parametric thinking in the sense that when you speak of the designer as controlling parameters to create the world and being in the position of god, we are putting faith in the original person who is choosing the inputs to be manipulated and produce the outputs. And then there is a direct line that can be drawn back from the outputs through the algorithms to the inputs that can be calculated and rationalized. But that takes an initial jump in faith to agree that the inputs are valid in the first place.
MW: Of course. as a card-carrying believer in doubt, if I can say that, what’s interesting about architecture for me is the launching of a hypothesis in the space of doubt. The whole thing about doubt is that you have to make decisions. Decisions are not ever made for you. A decision is a jump. I could go left or right, nothing is telling me what I should do, I just have to decide which way to go and do it. Decision involves a leap, a jump into the abyss without knowing what will happen on the other side. The parametric logic is afraid of that, it’s terrified of decisions and more than anything else it’s terrified of jumps and of doubt. What it says is “don’t worry we can calculate everything!” To believe that everything can be calculated doesn’t mean necessarily that you’re a boring person, but it really helps. I mean, if you really do think that everything can be calculated you are very likely uninteresting, or, you would just wish yourself to be a formula, a calculating machine.
In that sense I am super old-fashioned in the idea of architecture as an act of unjustifiable confidence. It is a form of confidence. It asserts itself, it makes a statement and a stand. It’s a kind of gesture in the space of doubt. Of course doubt has a certain shape and mathematics can help you locate the shape because all of us calculate. I am not against calculation. I just went to a calculating machine to see what that word parameter means. What calculation does is to define what I could know, which only then acts as the silhouette of what I don’t know, the doubt. I can do the calculation and have little guidance other than to remind me what I don’t know, which is an invitation to decide, to jump, to invent. And some people are not that great at that. I prefer it when design and theory are in the hands of the ones who jump, the ones for whom the unknown, other, the danger of the other, is the very source and reason for being alive.
VL: Do you think they’re lead by belief or intuition?
MW: Or you choose to fall in love with this thing that you have made, that you don’t know, that you cannot know, even though you made it. But you love it, because love is that word for that thing which you can’t calculate but you don’t want to be away from.
VL: Would you describe that as a belief?
MW: Umm… that’s what’s difficult to know.
Certainly in the religious sense, in Christianity love and faith are identical words. Love is exactly when you believe, despite the evidence, you believe in that which could never be calculated precisely. The counter religion is that I can count everything and now I’m god. It’s not like the being that is everywhere and nowhere. It’s like I am Patrik Schumacher suddenly. Somehow the figure of the architect is right there at the center of the intersection between mathematics—that which can be calculated— and art—that which engages with that which cannot be calculated. At a certain point this school said I can make art out of calculation, and that went pretty well. Then it was no longer art, it was business. And now we are wondering what the relationship between architecture schools and calculation is today. My cute answer would be the very fact that you are asking me these questions.
1 Moussavi, Farshid. “Viewpoints: On the Need for Parametric Thinking.” Architectural Review. 2011. http://www.architectural-review.com/