Some days ago I shared a video of a swarm of thousands of starlings. This shared video quickly has over hundred likes, it sure appeals to people’s expectations of what is beautiful. I added two words:swarm architecture. In other words I linked the image of the swarm to architecture, notably my own.
Now how can a recording of a dynamic swarm possibly link to something that is as static as architecture? [the answer is literally blowing in the wind]. I certainly did not refer to the swarm as a superficial reference only, and it is explicitly not meant as a metaphor. I hate metaphors, my design attitude is based on what it is, not what it looks like.
So what is the swarm in my architecture? It really started 20 years ago when we were designing and executing the Waterpavilion at Neeltje Jans in Zeeland. To actually build the steel structure we found out that describing [scripting] the exact geometric relations between the reference points on the control curves would form the best basis for the communication with the production machines. We realized that CNC production machines do not read drawings but process data instead. So we decided to produce data which were directly used by the algorithms running the machines. It was the birth of deep parametric design to production.
Now we learned how to describe the relations between reference points of the point cloud, we realized that we were actually doing something very similar to what birds do in a flock. The birds follow some simple rules as to form the flock. Yet the birds execute their rules as a player in a running complex adaptive system, similar to being a player in a game. This triggered me to think of architecture as a dynamic system, not only in the design phase where everything is still mouldable, but also in its behavior as a built structure. That being noted, I invented the Trans-Ports multimodal pavilion in the years 1999 – 2000. The Trans-ports pavilion is a structure that changes shape and content in real time as to accommodate changing use over time. Keywords that I used from then on: time based architecture, real time behavior, multimodality, interactive architecture. The nodes of the dynamic structure act as in a swarm, they look to their immediate neighbours as to change position and information content.
In that same year I was invited to make an interactive installation for the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2000. As proof of concept for multimodality and real time behavior I designed together with Ilona Lénárd the interactive painting titled Handdrawspace, 360 degrees projected on the 3 curved screens around the central arena for the interaction with the public. The public would move between center and periphery of the arena and trigger arrays of sensors informing the algorithms. The algorithms controlled the number of dots, the size of dots, and the background colors.
Everything we have done since, whether interactive installations or built structures, notably the Web of North-Holland, the A2 Cockpit, the Bálna Budapest, the LIWA tower in Abu Dhabi are further steps in the development of that basic concept of the swarm. Without compromise, the logic of the swarm functioned as the very genetic material facilitating our design language.
NB: I have written since quite a number of articles on swarm architecture [google entry: swarm architecture kas oosterhuis].
My attention was triggered when reading on Facebook a discussion between Archis / Volume critic Arjen Oosterman and Geert Bekaert Prize winner Mark Minkjan. The discussion circled around the value and misleading tendencies of architectural rendering, taking a MVRDV project as an example. Although I sympathize with Arjen Oosterman, who rightfully was blaming Minkjan for an easy twist of populism, my immediate professional reflex was: why not discussing the meaning of the design itself instead? The architectural discourse should in my opinion address the inspirations, intentions and possible implications of the actually proposed design as to be able to discuss in public the impact on the design practice. Therefore, to put the money where the mouth is, here are my observations of the very design itself, interlaced with some explicit opinions.
Real science fiction
Knowing the MVRDV lead designers – Jacob van Rijs en Nathalie de Vries invited me to be their design tutor – I wish to take their design intentions seriously. I am familiar with their original fascinations for bold design concepts, very much encouraged by myself back then in the early nineties, and I have seen how they were subsequently influenced by OMA’s hyperbolic turbo language and lightweight cynism. The Ravel Plaza design stands for something I think is worthwhile reflecting upon, however not for the reasons Mark Minkjan was awarded his prize for.
When looking at the design I am not shocked by the abundance of greenery on the balconies, neither on an assumed absence of balustrades, but I am not so much shocked as well as straightforwardly disagreeing with a design intention that destructs, collapses, erodes and explodes. I simply can not raise empathy with the act of eating away bits and pieces of a World Trade style tower. Instead of developing an original concept for a residential tower with lush balconies, which would be an absolute important thing to do, they chose to erode something they criticize as to define their design goal. Therewith the design intent becomes a built form of critique of something they do not want. But, if one doesn’t not want it, why taking that as a starting point at all? Just to to tell a story? But what story? Looking at the design, I see a resemblance with the crash of the World Trade towers. Why taking a disaster – whether an unconsciously or consciously made design decision – as the inspiration for the visual effect? Having watched many sci-fi movies and having seen the twin towers coming down as a real form of science fiction, I realize that the visual impact of the image of destruction can be so strong that it somehow burns into the designer’s mind. Somehow there is no escape from it, at least not when takes a straightforward tower design as the starting point for the storytelling. My critique on MVRDV’s design is that it confirms a destructive Hollywood driven self-fulfilling prophecy rather than offering an alternative tio it.
Erosion and explosion
As to indicate that the Ravel Plaza design concept is not an isolated incident, I refer to other recent designs featuring similar gnawing characteristics. OMA’s Asian spin-off Ole Scheeren [OS] has designed an evocative MahaNakhon tower in Bangkok, Thailand, indeed evoking the erosion of a once-has-been straightforward tower design. Needless to say that it evokes much more emotion than the simple rectangular tower would have been able to produce, but that is not the point. The point is what sort of emotion Scheeren – using the power of the proposal – has chosen to trigger. He chose to snag modernism, which I consider as a form of violation, meaning that first he needs something he is critical of to violate, and only then be able to then tell his story of erosion and destruction.
The extreme version of erosion is explosion, which is the design story line MVRDV has chosen when designing their Cloud tower in Seoul. An exploded mid section, spitting out the low resolution voxels into all directions, strongly reminiscent of the effect of the violent Ground Zero impact. Although Winy Maas denies that there is such direct relation, it is obvious that the image of violent destruction has captured the designer’s mind, and that he unconsciously can not do otherwise than express the sign of times in this way. My own scheme of things tells me that the design for a skyscraper should come from the internal logic of the design to production process itself, rather than wrapping an otherwise traditional tower with a cosmetic intervention based on lighthearted storytelling. In my worldview a good design will express itself, instead of being an illustration to a story.
Poisonous combination of erosion and voxelisation
What troubles me particularly is the poisonous combination of the erosive approach to design with the aesthetics of voxelisation. Both the designs of MVRDV, OMA, OS and BIG share the same fascination for what is often referred to as pixelation, which is in effect is voxelisation in a very low resolution. Not surprisingly the Why Factory led by Winy Maas asks their students to build towers using white lego blocks. These lego towers are built up using structural voxels. In contrast, my own scheme of things is based on high resolution complex geometry combined with a strong internal structural logic, a well balanced marriage between top-down and bottom-up approach. Now what is popular among OMA and their spin-offs MVRDV, OS, BIG and many more – while these successful offices jointly have been dominatoing the architectural discourse for decades – stands almost opposite to what I stand for. The road I have taken, together with many of my peers of the Transarchitectures movement formed end of nineties by Marcos Novak and Odile Fillion and the participants of the earliest Archilab Conferences, headed by Marie-Ange Brayer, Zeynep Mennan and Frédéric Migayrou, who is now Head of Architecture at the Bartlett in London, is the interlacing of digital technology with architectural theory and practice. It is instrumental to note that these truly new fundamental developments were completely ignored by Rem Koolhaas in his 2014 “Fundamentals” Venice Biennale. His timeline of – in his view – relevant movements in architectural theory ended when he left the AA, that is end of eighties. Everything that happened after that was not included nor respected, neither in the selected “fundamentals” in that particularly retro-active Biennale. my base point of critique that the selected subjects like stairs, walls, ceilings, balconies etc are derivates rather than fundamentals. He intentionally missed the point by completely ignoring the richness and beauty of dynamic adaptive systems and complexity, which fields of research and practice – ONL’s LIWA tower serves as a representative of applied complex adaptive systems cq associative information modeling – are dealing with fundamental issues in architectural theory, understanding and working with the actual state of digital technology.
In conclusion, I consider voxelisation for design concepts on the grand scale of architecture as a deceivingly reductive simplification of building technology, counterproductive to present advancements in architectural theory and practice. The combination of sympathy with destruction and erosion with voxelisation is outright alarming for its uncanny parallels to populism in politics using hyperbolic forms of expression in combination with simplified language.
The title of this blog leaves no doubt. I am not a fan of parametricism, while everything we do at my innovation studio ONL and at my chair Hyperbody at the TU Delft is fundamentally parametric. I will explain why. I do not think that it is a matter of definitions, but a matter of understanding of what parametric design is about. It certainly is not a style, and it should never be seen as such. In his lecture at the symposium Artificial Intuition  of which I managed the content at the Faculty of Architecture at the TU Delft Robert Aish told us that parametric design was something he was doing already back in the seventies while working for a Polish shipbuilder. Since a ship does not have a repetitive section through its body due to the streamline of the ship he developed a detail of which the values would adapt to their changing position in the body. That is parametric indeed, although Aish had a better word for it, he named it Associative Modelling. Parametric design means modelling associations between the components, which a ship or a building is made of. Associations are a form of dynamic entanglement. When one part changes its values, the associated parts change with it.
Since the early nineties my short definition of parametric design is the art of establishing dynamic relationships. Adaptive relationships of parts to parts, of things to things, of objects to objects, whether in the virtual realm or in the materialized world. Related to parametric design, but not the same, is interactive architecture, which I define as the real time relationships of people to things, and the other way round. Relationships are per definition bidirectional and never static. Relationships are constructed by acting in a complex adaptive system. Such is the case with parametric design, a parametric relationship acts both ways and in multiple ways.
Apollo < > Soyuz
An associative relationship does not necessarily mean that the neighboring part is similar in its shape or dimensions. Entangled parts can be of a different family and of a different order. I can illustrate this with my favourite yet one-dimensional form of a parametric relationship, which is the relation between the Soviet Soyuz and the American Apollo capsules docking in space. This happened back in the seventies of last century and it was a huge accomplishment, and of high political and technical importance. American and Russians embarked on a shared process of exchanging visions, views and data, eventually leading to the agreement on one single common docking ring. It basically meant that the Soyuz and the Apollo fitted exactly, in one moment in time, at one specific location, with one specific set of shapes and dimensions. It is this exactness of the association that is key to parametric design. In the world of parametric design one establishes exact relationships between parts, entangled as to adapt to the variations of the neighboring part.
While designing the Waterpavilion [ONL, 1997] we linked the reference points on the main 8 curves, define the geometry of the sculpture building, to the reference points of the steel structure, to the skin and the continuous variable fins gradually emerging out of the main body to emphasize the curvature. Structure, skin and featured fins were linked into one coherent parametric system. Associatively linked since in each instance on the curve the relative values of their mutual distances and angles would change with their positions along the curve. These relationships were not modeled in a existing CAD program but scripted from scratch using Autolisp routines. Drawings and 3d models are meaningless in a dynamic parametric world. The associations are defined with formulas and algorithms, describing their mutual relationships. Scripting is a very lean method of design, consuming very little data, exported to and retrieved from a database.
What is often considered as a parametric design is mostly nothing more than a fashionable form of tessellation of the surface, covering only a literally superficial part of the design / building. The real power of parametric design is to link all constituting components to each other, including floor, wall, roof such that when And staying within the limitations of such a mono-culture of similar yet not the same parts, one could indeed speak of a style, largely subject to fashion and voluntary follower of built-in commands of certain design software. Yet it would be unjust to the full potential of parametric design to declare the superficial qualities of being similar yet not the same a mainstream design movement, whether or not labelled as parametricism. To do that is a populist act, not respecting what are the underlying values. I remember having stated in my letter to Alvin Boyarsky describing my vision as unit master at the Architectural Association [AA] in London [1988-1989], that I reject all -isms. Then my rebellion was against modernism and its counterpart post-modernism, constructivism and its counterpart de-constructivism, both of which were deeply adhered to at that time at the AA. But I wanted no more -isms. So it may not be surprising that I became allergic to the term parametricism, which is nothing more than an attempt of Patrick Schumacher to become the founder and leader of a populist movement, feeding upon the supramatist sometimes bigoted calligrahic sweeps by the late Zaha Hadid [read my blog Calligraphic Sweeps]. His attempt to establish a mainstream movement would be more appropriately labeled patricism, more than anything else.
While modernism is an attitude which attempts to look modern, yet in its essence is not modern but retro-actively looking like something modern, and constructivism is an attempt to look like a logical structure but in fact isn’t, the container term parametricism is fit for designs that look parametric but not necessarily are parametric. I feel that it is important to make the distinction. For example the Reiser Umemoto Swiss Cheese tower in Business Bay in Dubai  may be considered parametric, while it is not parametric at all. Yes, it features 5 different sizes of openings in the concrete exoskeleton in a seemingly random fashion, but that is exactly why it is not parametric. In a parametric design all openings would have been unique in their shape, any sameness would be a pure co-incidence. at the other end however, ONL’s LIWA tower is by and large parametric, linking the curved geometry drivers to the Gross Floor Area [GFA] calculations, to the steel structure and to the skin in one coherent relational system. All windows of the LIWA tower are unique in shape and dimensions, all structural X-crosses are unique in shape and dimension, and both systems are parametrically linked to each other. Changing the position of one reference point on the curve changes all windows and steel components on at least two ruled surfaces of the body wrap, while maintaining the set value for the GFA.
Parametric design systems must and can be developed further, until the point that all constituting components have become an acting part of the system. Building components are seen as actors in a dynamic and open relational design system. The design that comes close to this point is ONL’s BYYU Body Chair, where all bits and pieces are associated part in one coherent complex adaptive system, where at the front end the customer can set individual preferences, while at the back end the design is directly linked to the data driven robotic waterjet-cut production of the pieces. Only when having a fully functional parametric design system one can establish such direct link from design to production, from customer to end-user, which explains the relevance of treating parametric design systems not as something it looks like, but as something what it is deep down in its genetic structure.
The Body Chair is a radically parameterized design for a family of Made to Measure comfortable lounge chairs. The Body Chair consists of 28 pairs of 56 triangular base components, parametrically designed as to allow for endless geometric variations. The revolutionary asset of the Body Chair is that all constituting components such as the legs, the seating and the back, are all members of one and the same design system, based on one parametric detail.
This user centric Make Your Own shaping process is driven by the web based application at www.byyu.eu, allowing the customers to shape their own personal chair. The customers become co-creators shaping their personal geometry of their personalized chair. From the web based app to the production of the 28 components the design to production process is fully automated.