interview: Patrik Schumacher
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Patrik Schumacher studied architecture at the University of Stuttgart and Southbank University in London. He completed his architectural diploma and received his Dipl Ing degree from Stuttgart University in 1990. He also studied philosophy at Bonn and London Universities. In 1999, he received his PhD from the Institute for Cultural Sciences at the University of Klagenfurt. He successfully combines teaching and practicing architecture. In his recent theoretical work, he published two volumes on architecture with the title Autopoeisis, in which a new architectural style, Parametricism, is introduced. Parametricism is communicated through Patrik’s professional work and publications as the stylistic architectural heir to Modernism. Patrik shares his ideas of applying this new style in the following interview.

In your recent discussions, Parametricism is described as a mature architectural style that has become more refined and enhanced through computationally advanced design techniques like coding. As it is essential for the contemporary avant-garde design scene to master these techniques, do you foresee dangers of architects getting expended or limited by these computational tools, producing banal end results that lack parametric originality or architectural values?
All design is always limited by its tools. The boundaries of what can be represented within our design medium are the boundaries of our design speculation, in effect the boundaries of our discipline. What cannot be represented and operationalised within our design media remains outside the designer’s realm of competency. Once this is understood, what should strike us with respect to our contemporary situation is not so much its limitations as the extraordinary recent expansion of the boundaries of possible design speculation - an expansion that continues every year. In contrast, before the digital design revolution, the discipline’s design speculation was restricted within the very narrow confines of the system of ortho-graphic projections that had not changed much in the preceding 500 years.

As narrated in your theoretical work, “The Autopoeisis of Architecture”, architectural styles are best comprehended when they are perceived as design research programmes. In the contemporary post-Fordist society, how can you apply this approach in order to avoid parametricist taboos? Is there a need to re-think the architectural education system?
Yes, it’s time for architectural education to adapt to the requirements of the new epochal style of parametricism. The more advanced parts of the education system are more like research institutes than mere training institutions. This is a necessity in the absence of dedicated/funded public or private research institutes in architecture. The most ambitious/advanced master courses have been important research vehicles for cumulative avant-garde research following the paradigm and heuristics (dogmas and taboos) of parametricism. It’s important that this style becomes a hegemonic design research paradigm and global best practice, in terms of methodology and values. Only if the better part of a new generation of ambitious architects moves together, in a convergent or at least compatible set of directions, can real, impactful progress be made. Revolutionary periods of resetting the research paradigm have to be followed by collective, cumulative research efforts that can effectively work through the new problems and deliver on the new promises.

In the first volume of “The Autopoeisis of Architecture”, you state that there is no architecture without theory. How does that affect the practice of ZHA? For instance, how is architectural theory being applied in projects like Galaxy Soho in China, which has been recently completed?
ZHA is a theoretically reflective practice. The early work was embedded in the theoretically reflective movement and style of deconstructivism. For the last 15 years, all our work has been guided by principles and values that I have since 2008 formalized and named as the principles of parametricism. This also applies to our Galaxy Soho project in Beijing. All elements are parametrically variable, and all sub-systems are differentiated and correlated with each other. Curve-linearity dominates. However, the Galaxy project also lives up to the ambitions I have more recently formulated with respect to architecture’s communicative function. Galaxy is our best and largest example of our theory-led attempt to construct legible, navigable, information-rich environments. The theoretical premises that motivate our Galaxy design - as formulated in my theory of architectural autopoiesis - might be summarised as follows: especially within the post-Fordist network society (information society, knowledge economy), total social productivity increases with the density of communication. The life process of society is a communication process that is structured by an ever more complex and richly diversified matrix of institutions and communicative situations. 

Post-Fordist network society demands that we continuously browse and scan as much of the social world as possible to remain continuously connected and informed. We cannot afford to withdraw and beaver away in isolation when innovation accelerates all around us. We must continuously recalibrate what we are doing in line with what everybody else is doing. We must remain networked all the time to continuously ascertain the relevancy of our own efforts. Telecommunication via mobile devices helps, but does not suffice. Rapid and effective face-to-face communication remains a crucial component of our daily productivity. The whole built environment must become an interface of multi-modal communication, and the ability to navigate dense and complex urban environments is an important aspect of our overall productivity today. Our Galaxy project delivers the demanded 360 - degree communication interface. As you enter the complex, hundreds of destinations unfold in front of you. The space expands in layers below, above and all around. In all directions, there are deep layered vistas that open into further and deeper vistas with every step. This condition exists both in the outdoor urban space as well as in the interior spaces, which might be described as a multi-level interior urbanism.

Aesthetic values and the notion of beauty are crucial elements of the ZHA design process. In what manner are those combined with the research agenda of the practice? Do you follow a purely formalistic approach, or is there a more elaborate combinatory scheme of performative criteria in your design research?
My theory of architecture and design distinguishes aesthetic values from performance values, which reflects the discipline’s pervasive discursive operations. Accordingly, I identify the discipline’s lead distinction as that of form vs. function. In terms of evaluative criteria, this translates into the double code of beauty and utility, implying that all designs need to satisfy both aesthetic values and performance values. The design process oscillates between addressing formal (aesthetic) problems and functional (performance) problems. Aesthetic evaluation - and the attempt to formally resolve a design - is an inevitable (and, in practice, irreducible) aspect of design work. However, in the final reflective analysis, aesthetic values must be explicated functionally; i.e., all aesthetic values must in the final analysis be reducible to performance values.

My theoretical reduction runs roughly as follows: the aesthetic value affords the quick, intuitive identification of the performative. Aesthetic values - to the extent that they are historically well adapted - facilitate quick, intuitive decision making, both for designers making design decisions and for users making decisions about which space to enter. The recognition of the beautiful is the instant, perceptual recognition of the vital, the functional, which is identified on the basis of its mere appearance, prior to a more in-depth experience and verification of the entity’s functionality. Therefore, the category of beauty cannot simply be opposed to rationality. Being attracted to beauty is not, per se, irrational. The discrimination of beautiful vs. ugly is a culturally refined instantiation of the fundamental biological mechanism of attraction and repulsion: organisms are attracted to what serves their survival and reproduction, and repulsed by what impairs their survival and reproduction. Aesthetic sensibility is a constant, universal feature of all human behaviour and action. Some of its aspects might be hardwired by biological evolution (order vs. chaos); other aspects are culturally evolved and imparted, and yet other aspects might be based on individual conditioning.

All of this implies that aesthetic appeal can be subjected to rational analysis and criticism. We cannot trust our sensibilities blindly. They need to be subjected to a critique that queries their historical pertinence. For instance, I can demonstrate by rational argument that a classical or modernist/minimalist sensibility is impairing the subject’s capacity to fully participate in the most advanced, vital and productive of today’s life processes.

Thesis 3: (A o A, THESIS 17, section 3.8 The Rationality of Aesthetic Values)
Aesthetic values encapsulate condensed, collective experiences within useful dogmas. Their inherent inertia implies that they progress via revolution rather than evolution. Aesthetic values must be revolutionised if societal conditions or technological opportunities change. Clients vote with their commissions. Users vote with their feet. The in-depth, rational critique of aesthetic values is a matter of theoretical reflection, often triggered after a crisis; for instance the crisis of historicism after WWI or the crisis of modernism in the 1970s.  The in-depth, rational critique of aesthetic values cannot take place in the heat of the design process – or in the heat of the ongoing life process. That’s why we must be aesthetically sensitive. Aesthetic evaluation cannot be altogether eliminated and replaced by theoretical analysis and rational argument.

Argument and analysis can only confirm a general, operational programme for the application of the code values “beautiful” and “ugly”. These programmes are familiar to us: they are the styles to which we are committed, and to which we must be - at any time - committed, as potent designers, discriminating clients and productive users.

Considering how you combine teaching and theorising with practice, the projects completed in ZHA depict a successful exemplary method of performing architecture as a system of communications. To what extent would you say this has affected the industrialised civilisation of the building business?
Our impact on the world of construction and the global built environment has been marginal up to now. However, mainstream impact is the aim and raison d’etre of all avant-garde efforts to innovate. I think parametricism is a very strong global avant-garde movement that will eventually have a huge, transformative impact, like modernism had in the 20th century. Parametricism offers compelling advantages with respect to the challenges of post-Fordist socio-economic restructuring and the ecological challenge.I am confident that these advantages will become more and more evident with each new project.

Text: Alexandros Kallegias
Architect at Zaha Hadid Architects, Director AA Athens Visiting School
Photos: Zaha Hadid Architects

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