Parametric design is not a style

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 [1990] 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.

Bidirectional relationship

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 connection |  1975
apollo soyuz connection | 1975

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.

ruling curves | waterpavilion | ONL 1997
ruling curves | waterpavilion | ONL 1997


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.

parametric GFA structure and skin | LIWA tower | ONL 2014
parametric GFA structure and skin | LIWA tower | ONL 2014

LIWA tower

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 [2014] 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.

Genetic structure

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.

Body Chair @ Dutch Design Week 2016

Body Chair | design Kas Oosterhuis | Dutch Design Week 2016

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.

Body Chair detail | design Kas Oosterhuis | 2016

This user centric Make Your Own shaping process is driven by the web based application at, 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.

go to and shape the chair that suits you

Automotive Styling [Wiederhall 12, 1990]

[original punctuation]

Luigi Colani | Jumbo carrier | 1978

Luigi Colani | Jumbo carrier | 1978

The linear one-dimensional movement along the highway is broadened to the second dimension when turning off or filtering in · Driving along at a regular speed one feels the line-movement, the movement intersecting the landscape and zipping it open · The car and its driver are the point that is multiplied one dimensional to form a route · While overtaking and turning off, one moves away from the straight line movement for a second, the first dimension is being stretched to the second dimension, for a moment the line is granted the sensation of the plane

When the road rises (on a dike for instance) or even more clearly when the road crosses a road below by means of a bridge construction, then the sensation becomes three dimensional · By moving sideways and upwards one feels the elasticity of space: the traffic junction with its fly overs · The three dimensional sensation is created by movement, by the system of roads and bridges, slip roads and exits · The monotony of the straight line is as essential as the fact that it may be widened (and become a plane) or deepened / heightened (and be turned into space) · The moving particle, the car, stretches dimensions and is even able to interweave them at certain points · In a joint venture with the cars the road system represents the elasticity of space · The details designed by the Department of Public Works add to the overall picture · As far as design is concerned items like barriers, white lines, graphics, dikes, the long rows of lights, all fit in very well · The disarmingly effective way in which the barrier rises from the asphalt or grass, is excellent in its simplicity · The broad white lines which divert at the exits and meet again at the slip roads guide along the continuous stream of driving, small, streamlined containers

The boxes on wheels seem to be mesmerized by the point perspective they have to reach · Apart from some dissidents, they feel the inward need to move along the road, faithfully keeping between the long white lines or the dotted lines, all of them with a different speed · The driver gets in his car at one of the innumerable ends of the many-branched road system, he takes part in the system, to wander away again to one of those numerous ends, to his temporary destination · The car and/or its driver are the messengers, linking point of departure and point of arrival · In between there is the road system, an open network, available to anyone who owns some means of transportation, knows the rules and wishes to conform to them · The road system and the car literally belong to the same system · Without cars there would be no smooth asphalt roads, without roads cars cannot function · Ecologically speaking they belong to the same organism

It is difficult to determine whether the driver decides for himself where he wants to go or has become part of a mechanism following its own laws · When the driver gets in his car and enters the system, he becomes its voluntary prisoner · During his journey he contributes to the preservation of the system, but his place is interchangeable: his place may be taken by anyone else · The driver has swapped his individuality for a collective contribution to the further development and complication of the physical communication system · More and more energy is being dissolved for the further evolution of the road system as a building · Each individual contribution adds to the total amount of energy condensing in the communication network, each contribution adds to the intensity of the earth encompassing movements

The original surface of the earth is being transformed in a continuous acceleration into an artificial landscape with artificial objects and events, linked by the visible communication cords · The compact energy of the fuel and ores is set free and rearranged into much lighter, airier volumes · When compressed, the basic material of a car takes up no more space than a small cube of 40 x 40 x 40 cm3 · To turn this cube into an industrial object, the chemical structure of the various basic materials is purified and turned into a plate-like or fluid half-product · Then it is spatially transformed into hundreds of parts which are assembled according to a particular pattern and turned into a complicated artificial organism · The volume of the car is increased more than a hundredfold compared to the total volume of the compact basic materials · The simultaneous explosion of space (pump up the volume) and implosion of knowledge, laid down in the form of a car, represents the elasticity of constructional space · This process seems to be characteristic of products of our culture: do more with less material

Yet at the same time: the more effective the use of material, the more energy it takes to reach such levels of effectively · The ability to move fast, and some simple inventions, have had a snowball effect on daily life, from sport to transport · And from physical transport to electronic transport · Nowadays we are informed with the speed of light (radio, TV, computer), the time that is needed to transfer information has been reduced to practically nil · We transmit and receive almost simultaneously · We cannot observe the transportation of this instant communication with our senses · Although the atmosphere is being riddled with a permanent, seemingly structure-less network of all sorts of radiation, we cannot observe this presence · Had our sight been turned in to a different wavelength, even then it would be impossible to detect any structure because of the jumble of waves

Inspired by the speed of electronic communication, we have felt the need to move faster ourselves, to take a seat in a mechanical device (train, car, plane), which compresses the length of the journey · Sport, in origin a means to spend one’s leisure time, becomes a speed race · New sports are being invented, based on the elements of speed and streamline · The demand for speed becomes a compelling factor in the design of objects which may move · Science and design are closely linked · Moving objects face a certain amount of drag from the matter surrounding them: air, water, ice or asphalt · More and more effective designs are invented to reduce the drag in these objects pulling themselves along · It is evidently a matter of the utmost importance to perfect the form, thus reducing the drag · The streamlined form uses less fuel, leads to better performance, is in short economically more effective

All the new theories from aerodynamics and aqua-dynamics, together with the professionalization of leisure activities, have yielded the evidently communicative objects but also a number of fascinating new sports: windsurfing, hang-gliding, throwing frisbees, skateboarding · Existing sports like ballooning, flying kites, skiing, cycle-racing, sailing and speed-skating are being subjected to an aerodynamic metamorphosis, as a result of new theories about drag and transfer techniques and as a result of the availability of new materials, generally developed in space travel odes with their high-standard materials · Technology is facing the challenge of further reducing weight and drag and improving performance · The new shapes of the new and renewed sports are inviting: even when these objects do not move they carry an aura of irresistible dynamism · The surfboards, the ski-boots, the frisbees, the skateboards, they are the equipment of a new way of life: leisure activities have been professionalized, leisure time has become a profession

The new professionals surround themselves with bright colours and fresh air, they are constantly moving on, under or in their streamlined fetish · They are the new nomads, the exempted who have released themselves from labour ethics and the principle of usefulness · They are not only the consumers of these attractive new objects, they are also their provokers · Because of their lifestyle, developing these new objects has become a serious and flourishing industry, into which science, technology, stylizing design and professional pleasure have been combined quite naturally · The streamline is halted, the movement is caught in the slender, tense volume · When at rest, the surfboard seems to be o bit unbalanced, but it seems eager to move · The object has a built-in tension, which is only released when it moves full speed ahead in the water, when it may use its streamline to the full · In the exuberant trial of strength between the concentrated energy of the streamlined object and the drag of the water, the surfboard seems to relax, it seems to feel perfectly at ease, like a fish in the water

When at rest the Citroën CX is like a tense bow and arrow, which need no longer control its subdued energy when it is ‘shot’ along the road, its elastic form showing out well in just o matter of seconds · The CX designer has tried to capture the caged tension of the formal concept in every little detail · The tension which keeps the arrow to the string of the bow has been caught in the design of the muscled sides of the car · The roofline is as tense as a bent steel spring · The back-window has been made concave to accentuate the curvature of the roofline · The nose has been pushed forward very far and has been pointed, to add to the tension in the bow · The stylist has abraded the frontal volume near the headlights, thus anticipating on the erosion which speed will cause · The sidelines, the folding lines in the tinplate, seem to have been drawn apart · The stylist makes the two loose ends of the line meet again in the undefined middle area of the side in a sort of whirling movement · In the formal concept the volume is taken as a whole, not interrupted by details · Our attention is not drawn to the various parts of the car (headlights, doors, windows), it is the object as a whole which calls up the image · The stylist uses quantitative data from technology (cx value), sound of the wind, comfort) to add to the subjective and individually-intuitive formal concept · Intuition and science are combined to increase the expressive qualities of the object · The stylized volume is measurably effective, the inherent tension visibly active

The revolutionary proposals of Luigi Colani for a large transport plane calls for a shift to a different scale level, the volume has been increased with a factor of one thousand compared to the car · The science of air-traffic provides the designer with other data influencing the form of the object · There is more formal freedom, driving a car imposes far more formal restrictions · The volume of the car is like a stylized cockpit with engine, the large transport airplane is more like a flying container of enormous size, in which the ergonomics of the cockpit hardly influences the form as a whole · Fascinating about Colani’s design is the fact that he designs the giant object (which has the size of a building) as a single volume, without any additions · The form integrates the landing-gear, the separate parts merge very smoothly · Only the counter-rotating propellers are still clearly recognizable as separate elements · The volume rather looks like a streamlined potato, it does not remind one of an airplane at all · The movement-factor has made the stylist provide the volume with a built-in tension · When it is moving, it sets the external forces in motion, it intersects the mass of the atmosphere

The streamlined container increases its internal tension at the expense of the external tension · The smaller the drag, the external forces working on the surface of the volume, the stronger the designer’s wish to increase the internal tension of the object, as if to maintain the difference in potential between the two · The technician aims at drag reduction, the stylist aims at giving maximum expression to his individual styling · A non-streamlined volume would only be confronted with external tension, bombarding the square volume with its airy matter · The volume has to defend itself and has to gather all its material to withstand the attack · The stream-lined volume, however, has anticipated the attack by building up an internal tension, equal to the external tension to be caused by its speed · As a certain amount of tension between dimensions pervades the road-system, so the tension between the non-moving environment and the moving object might be seen as the tension between volume and time, between third and fourth dimension · The tension between space and time is increased in the object at rest when the forthcoming movement is anticipated on · The volume is stretched in time · The object anticipates in time, time becomes part of the design · The stylized volume does not resign to the restrictions of its physical three-dimensionality, but tries to break through the boundaries of its own volume · Paradoxically the volume can only be set free and become an ‘open’ container when the restricting surface becomes continuous and homogeneous, like the loose element in the time-space continuum (De Stijl), like a comprehensive constructive network (Frei Otto) or like a stylized, glove-like membrane (Philishave)

Kas Oosterhuis, Wiederhall 12, 1990

The 3d printing delusion

I have seen during the last year various claims on “a 3d printed car”, a “3d printed house”, a “3d printed office”, a “3d printed airplane”. The UAE announced that by the year 2020 25% of all new construction will be 3d printed. What of this is really true? What of this is likely to happen?

3d printed office Dubai | design Killa architects | 2016
3d printed office Dubai | Killa design | 2016

What is 3d printing?

First of all we need a definition of what is 3d printing. For sure it an additive technique, not subtractive, meaning that one adds material to form the object. Being additive does not cover the intention of 3d printing though, since all on site concrete would be 3d printed according to that definition. So the definition will need some more specification. The process of 3d printing must be automated, robotized, controlled from a distance, executed by machines, not by people handling hand-held tools.

Slow cooking

But even then, a fully automated concrete pouring machine would not be very relevant since it would automate a traditional process which is not very smart. Even when the pouring process would not need any molds, as could be the case with a rather slow procedure using quickly hardening concrete, that process would be nothing more then an mechanization of an known procedure. Such slow cooking 3d printing process could be compared with an automated horse, which would be just an automation rather than inventing something new like a wheeled car. Well, we still count car’s propulsion forces in horsepower, proving how strongly past customs survive in today’s vocabulary.

3d printed office Dubai| contourcrafted components | 2016
3d printed office Dubai| contour crafted components | 2016

Less than 10% is actually 3d printed

Is it right to call something a 3d printed home when only 10% of the whole is 3d printed? We need to be honest about the amount of 3d printed parts of a 3d printed car, a 3d printed home etc. The best I have seen so far is a 3d printed framework, representing less than 10% of the total enterprise of assembling a car, of putting together a house. The examples I have seen rely heavily on exterior and interior finishing for the walls, the floors and the ceilings, and on additional handcrafted efforts to establish a precise bond to windows, doors, let alone the wiring and plumbing of the house. I know the ultimate goal is to print complex hybrids using different materials for their different functionalities. But the inconvenient truth is that we are far from that point.

Promotional vehicle

Recently I have seen the 3d printed office in Dubai, a promotional vehicle as to promote the Museum of the Future, an excellent design by Shaun Killa architects from Dubai, scheduled to be completed before 2020. Also the the 3d printed part of the office is no more than the raw and rough core structure, counting for even less than 10% of the completed building. The shape it suggests from the outside is not what is actually 3d printed. A elaborate structure has been added to the 3d printed core as to hold an doubly curved stucco facade. The strangest thing is that introducing 3d printing techniques has caused an excessive amount of traditional labor as to end up with a proper finishing. Yet as a promotional vehicle it works very well as the take off for the ambitious governmental promotional campaign to build 25% of all construction with 3d printing technology by the year 2030.

3d printed office Dubai | design Killa Architects| 2016
3d printed office Dubai | Killa design| 2016

Can it be scaled up?

Yet the biggest inconvenience I feel towards 3d printing is its inability to be scaled up to the grand scale of larger buildings and larger machines. Now it is feasible to 3d print in a meaningful way smaller things like scale models, rings, parts. Scaling up tenfold in all three spatial dimensions means multiplying 1000 times for the object. Thousand times in production time and another thousand times of material costs. In other words we are factor one million away from economically 3d printing parts that are ten times bigger than the examples around. No way that optimization of the 3d printing process and topologically optimizing the deposit of materials can compete with that reality in the near future. Not for the bulk of work that lies ahead of us.

3d printing is for the long tail of economy

So when 3d printing concrete for larger structures that need to be built fast is a not such a smart idea, what could be a smarter approach using 3d printing technology? Will 3d printing be scaled up to cars, homes, office, towers and larger structures at all? My view is that it will happen in the consumer market, but not to replace the larger structures and not executed by the larger companies. I believe it may flourish among individual customers representing the long tail of the economy. Roughly half of the global economy will be managed by ever growing multinationals, while the other half of the economy is privately managed as to express individual lives. A form of basic income could pump up the length and mass of the long tail.

The challenge is to 3d print complex hybrid components

But that is not the whole story, 3d printing has all my attention since it allows to design and produce series of unique components. The great thing about 3d printing is that we no longer need to build molds, or that the molds become the load bearing building blocks themselves. It allows for the assembly of series of small and medium sized components to complex and hybrid larger structures, and deposit materials where and as needed. My own research heads into this direction, into the direction of the design and production of made to measure transportable chunks of a complex 3d puzzle, hybrid components integrating every aspect of material composition, structure, skin, distributed building physics, practical finishing and attractive ornamentation. And its needs to be able to be 100% recycled and display overall good performance in design, production and in use.

Surface quality

Mind you, none of the examples around today come close to having a nice surface finish, nothing like a serious structural capacity on the larger scale. I have seen no integration of climatic control unless used as a second perforated skin. And certainly not the much needed exactness to fit to other components, as to fit seamlessly to the 3d printed parts.

Trapped in the delusion

So let’s be serious about robotic 3d printing and robotic assembly of complex parts, let’s put the bar high as to trigger much needed practical inventions. Let’s design to produce a serious structure which features all aspects of a modern comfortable building. Otherwise we will be trapped in the inconvenient truth of the 3d printing delusion.

Kas Oosterhuis, 15 September 2016