Inspirationist Exclusive: Interview with Patrik Schumacher – Director Zaha Hadid Architects

5 innovative prototypes resulted on the 29th July, the last day of the Dynamic Fields, dedicated to advanced architecture and organized in Bucharest, Romania by the computational design school Parametrica [digi fab school]. The workshop benefited of the presence of Patrik Schumacher, Director of Zaha Hadid Architects, founder of AA Design Research Lab London and one of the most important figures in the world of computational design. The workshop’s purpose was the understanding of how the advancement of digital technology is helping architects respond to the complexity of the environment surrounding them.

Thanks to Parametrica [digi fab school], we were able to interview Mr. Schumacher and find out more about parametric design, user behaviour modeling techniques and parametric semiology.

INSPIRATIONIST: You are a fervent supporter of parametric design. Could you tell us some reasons why you think it is so important as a new style and for the future of architecture?

Patrick Schumacher: Yes, it is very important. First of all, what attracts young architects is simply the fact that it is so different, so original, the only really, truly new and original style of architecture today. But we need to understand why it is so superior, what is so important, what makes it more productive, and that’s mainly the capacity to create more complex arrangements where more different elements, different kinds of spaces, different functions can come together  and can fit into complex types, which have, maybe, an odd geometry and this style allows the architecture to adapt to these complex conditions, and also, particularly complex internal relations, while at the same time, also creating a recognizable unity, you can recognize what belongs together, what leads to where, rather than in traditional architecture where if you put too many different things together, it will look like garbage, it will become a bit odd. But here, in one place, you have the capacity to create a more complex order which is also more legible.

I: You argue that all society’s problems are communication problems and that, obviously, communication increases productivity: do you believe that such workshops as ‘Dynamic Fields’ [which are based on communicative interaction], contribute to solving these problems and increase productivity/creativity?

P.S.: Yes, I mean, in two ways, on one hand: of course, this kind of events are communicative events, they’re professional communication, expert communication and educational communication, they’re bringing people from different countries together, that’s very typical. So that’s just an example of contemporary life: international conferences, workshops, that happens all the time, I’m in a different city every week. But at the same time, what they’re working on is parametric architecture, a new kind of architecture, which in the end could deliver the spaces in which we can communicate better because you can find each other quicker. The workshop has different situations, it’s not just one big room where one person speaks, not just a symmetric wall, it has to have many different situations, more things working together. They assemble to a larger group, then they brake it apart into very small pieces, they have individual work, little group work. Then we have somebody saying something to the whole group, so the situation changes, very dynamic. That’s typical for today, we didn’t make this fifty years ago. And so, we could imagine a space for this workshop. Now they’re working in an outdoors. That is possible, but I can imagine a concentric building which designed according to parametric principles is automatically dynamicably adaptable, could be a more productive environment for this kind of workshops. That also allows a vizibility of the workshop to the outside. Maybe not giving them some old building could have allowed more people to communicate effectively, so it’s a good example of the kind of social scenarios we need to accomodate in contemporary architecture.

We need a lot of brainstorming today. It’s really different from the modernist era where you had some research and development, but much more work was simply about executing a plan which would not change for, sometimes, 10 years, 15 years. Everybody did more or less the same thing. There was no need for intensive communication. Work was divided according to a fixed plan and the different workers were placed in separate in places where they can concentrate on what they should be doing without disturbing each other. Now we need to continuously update and re-calibrate what we do in relation to what everybody else is doing. So we need to communicate much more. Routine processes are now much more automized and computerized so that our time is freed to engage many more of us in research and development. All work becomes dynamized.  Every year, month or week we have to do something different, that’s why we need to connect much more via a communicative built environment. This is what I call post-fordist network society.

So design workshops are a good example of what all work processes become like, there are not only workshops in architecture, there are workshops in medicine, there are workshops in the legal profession, business, conferences, all aspects of life are like this and all these social communication scenarios need contemporary spaces which make that possible, and they need to be located in a big, dense city which makes it easier to get together quickly in ever-changing constellations.

I: Your conference revolves around the idea of parametric semiology. What does this concept imply and how does parametricism interact with it?

P.S.: That’s a new idea I formulated, which I think is coherent with what i’ve been talking about: the societal function of architecture being the framing of social interaction and communication, and architecture is a form of communication. So that implies that a good environment  needs to be developed like a semiological system. It needs to be developed as a semiotic code so that you can read the environment and understand the information it presents, what is happening where. The information needs to be encoded by the designers to be decodedby the users. So the idea is that a built environment is a system of significationor a language. In my research this language is designed under the auspices of parametricism. You could also have a semiotic system under post-modernism, that’s when the idea first arrived, but did not survive long. With parametricism we can build a much more versatile language which has not only hard distinctions, but also gradients, and in-betweens, and the correlation of multiple subsystems. I call it parametric semiology. Also, there’s a new way of studying this by means of crowd modelling, where we now study how people would actually occupy spaces, how they would gather and move through spaces and how they would interact according to the spaces they’re in, We are modelling crowds as a collection of agents, individual agents are given dispositions or rules of behavior which change as they move from one place to another. As the agents moves into a certain space they all change their behavior, so the behavior is always coordinated between the actors, because they all respond to where they arein ways that harmonizes with what they’re supposed to be doing. That’s the way a built environment functions: it orders and coordinates people’s actions so that they have a chance to add up to specific desired communicative situations. When you enter a certain space, from the outside to the inside, or from the public street into a private courtyard, you have to change the way you behave, you have to recognize somebody else in the space, which in the public space you can ignore, and in the private space you have to approach, you have to greet, you have to communicate. There is a code, always, and then when you move in, you always know where you are and what demands that environment makes on your behavior.We don’t necessarily talk about it, we don’t even think of it anymore, it’s intuitive,but if somebody doesn’t do it, it becomes obvious and potentially disruptive. It is expected that behaviour is modulated according to place and place-dependent situation. Otherwise it could be really disturbing. Thus we all rely on an information-rich built environment that is coordinating and coopting, bringing everybody on the same page all the time. Spaces are positionally ordered and related. We notice where we are because we know where we came from, but we get clues as well from what the space looks like, from the articulation of architectural surfaces, the furnishings, the atmosphere created by lighting etc. So that’s a general phenomenon which all designers usually work with intuitively, but I’m making this a conscious and explicit project and I started a systematic academic design research on the basis of this idea, Hopefully, later on this methodology can be applied in the professional world,so that we can there also be more strategic in creating this kind of semiologically charged, information-rich built environment.

I: Are there any other fields, besides architecture, which you think could benefit from parametric design or in which it could make a significant impact?

P.S.: In all design disciplines, starting with urbanism and urban design, which we already have been working on for a long time under the slogan ‘parametric urbanism’. Of course, architecture, and also interior design for sure, but we also apply it in furniture design, in creating different types of furniture, very fluid, where the furniture pieces can morph from one type to another, but we can also apply it to product design and fashion design. We’re now designing a swim wear collection and I’m designing my own suit.  These designs are not finished yet, but they’ll be finished this fall. So also in fashion design, in graphic design, and certainly animated interaction design and on the web. You have some hint already if you look at the Mac operating systems: There are gradients, icons swell up and recede, when a window disappears you see where it goes etc. I mean, these features are already parametric interface design. So parametricism and parametric semiology encompasses all design disciplines.What I mean by design is everything that has to do with appearance, everything that has an interface. I’m not talking about engineering so much. That’s what it’s hidden, the technical function. I’m talking about what is visible and what becomes a communication. Fashion becomes a communication, the product becomes a communication, the screen, the interface of your website is a communication. That’s design, design has to do with the appearance of things, the visual appearance, with communication. In contrast engineering has to do with the technical functionality. There is of course a strong relation and dependency between design and engineering, but they are very different. We collaborate with engineers and we rely on them also using parametric tools, but they don’t think in terms of style, aesthetics, communicative power. They think in terms of efficient technical operation. However, they are using sometimes similar computational tools, e.g. topology optimization for structural engineering. They now also allow for gradients in their structural skeletons. We like that and we work with that, and we like it not only for reasons of efficiency, but for reasons of articulating the space, the structure, using the differentiated structure to give articulation and distinctive character to different spaces that should be semiologically distinguished. I call this utilization of technical morphologies for communicative purposes „tectonic articulation”.

I: You also argue that organization is one of the basic functions of architecture and you research user behaviour modeling techniques that can lead to complex forms of organization. Can you name one of these techniques and what did it lead to?

P.S.: What is nice is that there are some neat tools, like Softimage for instance, or some plug-ins from Maya like „My Army” which are developed for game modelling. In game modelling, you need to populate your scene with agents or with other creatures, and the game modellers don’t want to key-frame or animate every character. They need to script agents with different behaviors, so they’re roaming around autonomously. So these tools we can use and we use them to start simulating behavior. Then we want to make more articulated creatures, people, who are walking, sitting, moving, recognizing each other, using Softimage. And what we are modelling is little situations for instance, things like a workshop, things like a foyer and there are people moving around, maybe sitting down casually in a lounge area or they go to a reception desk. Or we’re doing social scenarios like a party: people come in, there’s a cocktail, there’s a stand up table, and maybe there’s a dining table, so they can settle at the table for a while, and then there’s a speech. The actors react to anything that’s there, so they recognize entrances, they recognize ceiling configurations. The objects in the distance may become attractive, or certain furniture around which they gather, or the guests gather in the center of the space. That’s up to the designer to speculate about and script. We can then test out how we could configure the crowd by means of the clues which a crowd is reacting to and the clues are actually what we are in the end designing as architects, we are designing the frame and we are watching what the crowds are doing, so it’s an indirect crowd management system. That’s the new understanding of design when we model like this and when we design like this, and that’s exactly what we should be thinking of. That’s the societal function or purpose of all design: the ordering and framing of communicative interaction. Design exists just for this, for this social purpose. It does not exist to be stared at and admired. Its purpose and task  is to facilitate rich, ordered panoply of relevant, productive social situations. Aesthetics and beauty plays its part by way of attracting relevant participants, those with compatible sensibilities, desires and expectations.

Photo credit © Magda Gheorghe Photography for Inspirationist

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