Parametric Urbanism

Input: the incessant feed of raw physical and numerical data providing a foundation upon which all proper and responsive parametric design thrives. Variations of innovative data response exist all around, from the simple mechanical technology found in transition lens sunglasses to the complex algorithm of preferential and personalized data tracking that drives suggestions and network connections in such social media giants as YouTube, Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Architecture is primarily a physical art aimed to provide a sturdy and socially responsive solution to shelter. At its core architecture thrives on the ability of a trained designer to ascertain the needs and requirements of his client and craft a structure to meet those needs all the while providing just the proper combination of stability, utility, and beauty. It is necessary for an architect to marry ecologically considerate forms functioning in harmony to nature with subjective beauty, as a design proposal lacking in either element will respectively be poorly responsive to its contextual or, quite frankly, just plain ugly.

Peter Eisenmann's City of Culture
ecologically considerate form or subjective beauty?
Eisenmann’s City of Culture: parametrically modeled

Granted, beauty is subjective and contextual approach is not absolute, but raw data processing (in the form of numerical analysis) is rarely undertaken during the process of design at which a building’s form is crafted in response to its physical context. Sure, it would be false to say architects do not take in a variety of numerical data. However other than the raw data of solar calculations, localized demographic analysis, and financial assessment (to name a few) architects practicing parametric architecture and parametric urbanism craft their buildings largely in a subjective process that depends more on client need and design instinct than on specific numerical analysis. However, in an age saturated with data and input of all forms, architecture is beginning to respond and inform its surroundings based on objective figures gleaned from such existing technologies as GIS (geographic information systems) and solar analysis.

So does this entail an architectural response fully responsive to numerical information gathered from digital archives and up-to-the-minute data input? Not in the least. Architects must still serve as the parametric interpreters of context to process objective/subjective data and produce a considerate response to the unique and capricious whims of vacillating and objective value-based input. Perhaps Tim Love says it best that at one end of parametric design is “gee-whiz formmaking” – that is, blobitecture, sculpture-buildings, all the frills of too-eager form giving; while at the other end of the spectrum lies “a [purely] metric-based emphasis on social and/or ecological relevance.” He calls for architects to strike a much more measured stance.

“It’s too often the case that the process of creating forms by inputting and manipulating data does not require the designer develop a nuanced and comprehensive design strategy; and the process itself can produce a spurious and easy complexity that masks the absence of that more expansive approach. In some projects, for instance, specific cultural, social, and physical contexts are deployed mainly as tactics for autonomous form making.” - Tim Love

As data coalesces and consolidates to a manageable level of processing, a vastly growing pool of “input” streams begin to emerge. Architects must now more then ever act with wisdom and discretion toward the tools and responsibilities of the profession; an architect must not be caught up on the pure pragmatics of parametric design to respond to yes/no 1/0 data inputs, neither should he be obsessed over pure form. A balanced approach is key.

The beauty of such advancement lies in parametric thinking. Certain materials and systems can react to input on the fly, whilst other more entrenched forms will likely not change over the course of their built-lifespan. Architects must act in either case to appropriately respond to long and short-term vacillations of context. Parametric tools yield a powerful method of processing data on both fronts. A well-constructed building can provide a parametric shell fully responsive in form to any aspect of its context. This form can be based on any number of processed data input streams. However, once constructed a building’s form is very unlikely to change and specific place-based material technologies come much more into play. Parametric design in this sense can be applied equally at macro and micro scales, in each case reacting as needed to any range of social, economic, formal, ecological, and material data inputs.

So what lies in store for parametric design? What does the future hold as architecture adopts the tenets of such an emerging technology? The key lies in one of architecture’s hottest metaphrases- “Yes is more.” Preached by Bjarke Ingalls of the Danish Firm BIG, “Yes is more” calls architects to embrace all inputs, and links parametric design as a viable – if not mandatory – tool in the progression of the field from simply its ability to be fully inclusive of all elements in a designer’s thought process to physically conveying them in the form and function of the building itself.

BIG's Danish Pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010
Design process
integrates form and function

By responding to specific parameters and limitations of parametric design and by allowing buildings to respond and function in kind (adapting to shifts in climate, user location/preference, contextual keys, and input-based data response) architecture may grow to accommodate and spryly respond to the needs and ecological leads of our modern age.

Schumacher, Patrik. "The Parametric City." The Parametric City. 2010. Web.