07 February 2009

The Life and Death of Parametric Design

The apparent wizardry of much of the software available in the design and engineering fields is now widely understood to be the paragon of a certain design genius. Such practicing luminaries of these tools, and even great talent, as Zaha Hadid or Gage/Clemenceau, have served up such seductive images, that it is easy to forget that there was a time when this form of parametric design was almost impossible to deliver and very time consuming to produce.
Scaled drawings, individually punched-in attributes and modified geometries took days to number crunch and to visualize the resulting design. Then this would all start over, with a single modified parameter. In today’s case, it has become so easy to shift each and every parameter of a design, or a form, that the constraints in testing them are almost absent: in complete reversal of how parametric design first developed – think of the complex forms of the Sidney Opera House roofs by the late engineer Peter Rice – a step-by-step optimization of a form or a structure defined in two, then three coordinates, that is now possible by simply sliding a cursor any which way on a mouse pad.
But the apparent loss of constraints is not always liberating, not always good for art. The Nouveau Roman championed by Alain Robbe-Grillet, or Films by Jean-Luc Goddard, not to mention more contemporary artistic practices by Rachel Whiteread, Anish Kapoor, Do Ho Suh, show us constraints that are voluntarily meshed with the practice itself and the work is stronger on account of it. This cannot be said for much of the hyper-dexterous forms that Maya and Rhino provide for designers when, if ever, they are built. Only in very deft hands – among them Hadid who has long proven her ground now, with such seductive works as the Alpine railway stations in Innsbruck and her bridge in Zarazoga; and Ben Van Berkel in his exceptional Mercedes Building in Stuttgart or more modestly his Changing Room at the Venice Biennale; or in Thom Mayne’s up-coming Cooper Union Building clad in a warping perforated skin – have we seen the promise of late blooming parametric design at its best. In less thoughtful or experienced practices, those that have jettisoned constraints for the pure seduction of form giving, we find ourselves wanting. In any case, many of these projects remain un-built. As practicing architects, but also as a citizens of our public spaces, we can only give an inchoate praise to these attempts and hope many of the finer or younger practices will come back to what the profession needs today, what our cities need and the public demands: parametric design that integrates the changing parameters not of whimsical forms, but of the complexities of life, energy and program. The software to respond to the needs of “just-in-time” building practice – efficient, low embedded energy and as green as possible - that steps beyond the stulifying apothegms of the blob design world as we know it, has not been created. And for good cause: it is found only in the unique, epistemic structure of the human mind, where all great parametric thought takes place.

Post Script: Drawing on our background working with engineer Henry Bardsely at RFR in Paris, founded by Peter Rice – the long time collaborator of Piano – I hold on to some of my earlier experiences in parametric design; on other aspects I have had to re-think their validity. Clearly time, materials and energy were at their least effective in the early years of optimized structural design, structural glass, fink structures, cable-net spans and such; But in the development of genuinely handsome and efficient projects that relied on novel approaches to enclosure, spanning material, bearing nodes, well, here standard practice physical models, silly-putty forms and wax castings came in handy and fine projects built as a result. I was fortunate to have had to pick-up, where Pete Rice had left off, for the detailed design stages and building of his last posthumous work for the glass structures of the MUDAM. The structural cast nodes on this project, and how they work as part of a two-way sparse truss with unique star-burst cable tie backs, and water-cooled shading screen, were developed in the old school of parametric design, and they have still yet to be matched 10 years later.