Architecture for the 21st Century: Postmodernism and Beyond

All architecture (and design) consists of nothing but communications. … Aesthetically it is the  elegance of  ordered complexity and the sense of seamless fluidity, akin to natural systems,  that is the hallmark of parametricism.

– Patrik Schumacher, Architecture’s Next Ontological Innovation (2012)

Looking back on recent postmodern architecture we discover a distinctive panoply of original thinkers: Robert Venturi, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind, Tadao Ando, Alvaro Siza, Nicholas Grimshaw, Aldo Rossi, Barbara Bielecka, Ricardo Bofill, John Burgee, Terry Farrell, Michael Graves, Helmut Jahn, Jon Jerde, Philip Johnson, Recardo Legorreta, Charles Moore, Boris Podrecca, César Pelli, Paolo Portoghesi, Siavash Teimouri, Antoine Predock, Tomás Taveira, Robert A.M. Stern, James Stirling, Mario Botta, Arata Isozaki and John C. Portman, Jr.. One could keep on going but this is enough for me.

Robert Venturi was at the forefront of this movement. His book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (published in 1966), was instrumental in opening readers eyes to new ways of thinking about buildings, as it drew from the entire history of architecture—both high-style and vernacular, both historic and modern—and lambasted overly simplistic Functional Modernism. The move away from modernism’s functionalism is well illustrated by Venturi’s adaptation of Mies van der Rohe’s famous maxim “Less is more” to “Less is a bore.” The book includes a number of the architect’s own designs in the back, including structures such as Guild House, in Philadelphia, that became major icons of postmodernism.

Yet, it was not until the computer came into play late in the 80’s of the last century that many of the underlying principles of both late capitalism and postmodernity fused in a complex post-structuralist aesthetic to produce strange new worlds from the architectural venue. At the forefront of this new strategy was Zaha Hadid. Often named as the most prominent contemporary female architect, or singled out for notice because of her Iraqi Arab background, Hadid is significant beyond these accidents of birth for her intellectual toughness, her refusal to compromise on her ideas even when very few of them were being realized in concrete and steel. For many years, her designs filled the pages of architecture periodicals but were dismissed as impractical or as too radical, and Hadid even thought about giving up architecture after she suffered a major rejection in her adopted homeland of Britain in 1995. Her star began to rise internationally when her design for Cincinnati, Ohio’s new Center for Contemporary Art was selected and built, earning worldwide acclaim. By the mid-2000s Hadid employed nearly 150 people in her London office and was working hard to keep up with new commissions that were coming in, offering her a chance to help reshape the world architectural landscape. (here and here)

Her Directors in this architectural world are themselves well known architects in their own right (here). But one in particular seems to have made an impact of recent philosophical speculation. That is, of course, the work and teachings of Patrik Schumacher. I have only recently begun reading his two volume architectural masterpiece and manifesto for a new style in architecture to surpass modernism forever with Parametricism, The Autopoiesis of Architecture: A New Framework for Architecture. His work is heavily influenced by complexity theory as well as Niklaus Luhman’s theories of society  and communication. As parametricism becomes a tool more designers turn toward it may slowly redefine the basic frameworks of our social spaces, offering a world where humans once again begin to intermingle and communicate rather than rush through the world like zombies on steroids.  In an effort to identify our architectural style to allow it to be recognized, Patrik Schumacher, a partner at Zaha Hadid, has communicated his beliefs in his Parametricist Manifesto. “As a style, parametricism is marked by its aims, ambitions, methodological principles, and evaluative criteria, as well as by its characteristic formal repertoire.”

Parametricism is a methodologically justified style that takes the concept of using parametric form design from the production of a one-off building and applying it to a cityscape. Architecture and urbanism should be tackled as a set of linked design criteria which form a complete “system” in a building, from urbanism down to the smallest details.  Parametric design links all this information in a way similar to a spreadsheet so that a change in one value creates a corresponding change in all other values. biological systems, organisms, from the microscopic to the macroscopic… these kinds of inputs stay in the repertoire. There’s also mathematics – new mathematics – topological patterns and also what is having a impact is new modeling tools and more recently parametric modeling, parametric fields and scripted fields, a new sensibility with respect to orders of iteration. Looking through these new tools there’s a kind of intricacy of overall arrangement with a very high degree of coherence. There’s a lot of internal laws of correlation; everything relates to everything else. It’s a continuous change but it all fits together. It’s not random or arbitrary.

The life process of society consists of a rich,  diversified panoply of institutions and communicative situations. In order to  communicate within specific situations, the relevant participants have to first  find each other and gather in particular settings, be brought into particular  spatial constellations, and be enveloped by specific atmospheres    that prime and prepare the participants  with respect to the appropriate moods and modes of communication to be  expected. This sorting, ordering, orienting, and framing is achieved by the  designed or built environment. To get a grasp of the importance of the ordering  capacity of a complex built environment, we might consider the following  thought experiment: imagine that the population of a metropolis like London is  thrown naked onto an undifferentiated tarmac surface. Nobody would know where  to go or what to do. Nobody would even know who they were anymore. What is  being erased is all the visible information about society’s order and  institutions. The built environment is society’s material memory. It functions  as a slowly evolving system of signification. (here)

While some disagree with the notion of categorizing work to fit into a style, Schumacher calls for a conceptual reconstruction, meaning that we must disregard style as a matter of appearance, and move to understand style as “a design research program conceived in the way that paradigms frame scientific research programs.”

“Although aesthetic appearance matters enormously in architecture and design, neither architecture as a whole nor its styles can be reduced to mere matters of appearance…The new style poses many new, systematically connected design problems that are being worked on competitively within a global network of design researchers. Over and above aesthetic comparability, it is this widespread, long-term consistency of shared design ambitions and problems that justifies declaring a style in the sense of an epochal phenomenon,” explains Schumacher.

Niklas Luhmann is a distinct influence on Schumacher. Luhmann was especially interested in systems which operate on the basis of “meaning,” in particular, systems of human communication. He regarded society not as a network of individuals united by shared beliefs, but rather as the totality of all communications. But in modern societies many kinds of communication were highly “differentiated,” which meant essentially they operated independently according to the specific functions they served. The bulk of Luhmann’s work consisted of systematic analyses of these kinds of communication (especially those organized in the form of full-fledged institutions, such as education and law) using a set of basic conceptual tools he developed beginning in the 1960s. Economic communication by means of money (rather than exchange in kind) was a case in point; it made possible interaction between buyers and sellers and laid the foundation for a whole economic system with its own specifically economic functions.

Like money, trust also served as a specific medium in modern societies, for example in interaction between professionals and laypersons: on some issues we had to accept the judgment of competent experts without checking its validity. Without some such trust, many social relationships would break down very quickly. Even love was now a specialized kind of communication, made possible by the passion exchanged between individuals who were supposed to treat each other as lovers without regard to their other social roles.

Like many social theorists before him, Luhmann analyzed the implications of the transition from traditional to modern society. In older, stratified societies the various functions that had to be performed were arranged in a hierarchy, from the aristocracy down to the peasantry. By contrast, modern societies have separated various social tasks in a “horizontal” fashion, a pattern Luhmann called functional differentiation. This had many advantages; for example, institutions handled more complex problems and individuals generally enjoyed greater opportunities. But it also raised new problems. Institutions (such as religious ones) that in the past played a broad role must now redefine and limit that role. Also, since all institutions now focused on their own function and performance, certain societal problems may be neglected because everyone can claim it was “none of their business” according to Luhmann, this was one source of the current environmental crisis. (more here)

Schumacher points out that the architecture of today is more of a world architecture, where every work is quickly compared or contrasted to other projects.  We experience this constantly as we compare a project to something another firm would have created and argue over which was more successful.  Schumacher explains that this “merely implies a consistency of principles, ambitions, and values to build upon so that different efforts compete constructively with each other and can establish the conditions for cumulative progress rather than pursue contradictory efforts.” As Theory against Theory explains it:

Schumacher’s view of architecture is Hegelian: evolutive stages of civilisation correspond to certain styles in architecture. He divided entire history of architecture in several dominant styles. In his system, not all recognised styles are epochal. Some of them, such as gothic style, represent merely a transitional stage, but not the big style with its articulated discourse. He claims that modernism still operates as the dominant paradigm, even though postmodernism has been exercised allot in the past few decades. By introducing parametricism as a new style and strongly claiming that it is inevitably going to become mainstream within the next twenty years, Schumacher is predicting the future. He is not only announcing the new style, he is also announcing the new epoch, a new stage in the evolution of the human kind: “When we analyse history, we can see that the built environment always had vital role in building societal order. Social order needs spatial order. Society can progress only within a built environment and the entire world of artefacts. That is why I put architecture and design in the same category.” (here)

What is exciting about this new style is that parametricism offers a flexible set of components to manipulate from simple algorithms, which leads to an infinite amount of variation in fluid dynamics.  While in the past, there was a strong allegiance for rigid geometrical figures, now, a conceptual definition of parametricism shows that “the new primitives are animate, dynamic, and interactive entities—splines, nurbs, and subdivs—that act as building blocks for dynamic systems.” (Above review: The Architect’s Newspaper) As Schumacher says:

“Twenty first century brought about drastic changes and we now live in the network society where communication is crucial. Architecture should increase interaction and information exchange, and can no longer insist on physical separation as it did until now. Moreover, we should not push people through passages like cattle, but make sure they navigate quick and easy. This allows them to self-organise in complex matrix of differentiated spaces and enables multiple communication scenarios. This is an ambitious project of ordering social processes in space. Each space is in fact a communication. It invites its visitors to participate and gives them clues on how they should behave, what to do. But people are no longer satisfied with simple ordering of space with rigid forms and strict compartmentalisation. They need to communicate with each other and move swiftly. This is why rooms should not be separated but rather interconnected. Spaces should be constructed in such a way that everyone can easily see, find and communicate with everyone else. Accordingly, the role of an architect should be understood in this sense: we are constantly making ever more complex matrixes for ever more complex social processes that unfold within. This is portrayed through free flow of lines, whether it is a parking space, library or a business company. The point is that wherever you are you see many different things going on. Many things are in view simultaneously because you don’t want to miss anything. As you move through space you have many options what to select next. Conversely, when running down the corridor where you see nothing, you know nothing and miss everything.”

Ultimately this new ontology follows a parametric semiology:

This implies that the  meaning of the architectural language can enter the design medium (digital  model). The semiological project implies that the design project systematizes  all form-function correlations into a coherent system of signification. A  system of signification is a system of mappings (correlations) that map  distinctions or manifolds defined within the domain of the signified (here the  domain of patterns of social interaction) onto distinctions or manifolds  defined within the domain of the signifier (here the domain of spatial  positions and morphological features defining and characterizing a given  territory) and vice versa.  The system of  signification works if the programmed social agents consistently respond to the  relevantly coded positional and morphological clues so that expected behaviors  can be read off the articulated environmental configuration. The meaning of  architecture, the prospective life processes it frames and sustains, is  modeled and assessed within the design process, thus becoming a direct object  of creative speculation and cumulative design elaboration

If as Le Corbusier suggested the “house is a machine for living,” then for Patrik Schumacher the house is a machine for communicating. Recently Graham Harman was at the The Architecture Exchange seminar series ‘Is there an Object Oriented Architecture?’ at the Swedenborg Society in London. Graham Harman, one of a group of contemporary philosophers arguing for an object oriented ontology spoke, answering criticism and questions posed to him by previous architectural speakers in the series. For an outline of the whole series go here or here. As Lindsay Bremner of Westminister and on the blog geoarchitecture remarks Harman opposed Schumacher’s use of Luhmanian communicative theory:

Harman turned to passing some remarks about Patrik Schumacher’s adaption of Luhmann to architecture. The problem he said, is that in Schumacher’s reading, Luhmann is all about communicative systems, not non-communicative ones; and therefore not about objects. Heidegger’s tool analysis is not a theory of tools and equipment, but of broken tools and equipment. We only know about objects when systems break down. Architectural objects, like any objects, are not parts of systems, but are anti-systems, what disturbs or disrupts the system. They are not about relations, but about non-relationality, unique places, singularities. (here)

As another critic Steve Parnell (here) comments on Schumacher’s polemic to let the style wars begin stating that Parametricism is ‘the great new style after Modernism’. As Parnell explains:

Prompted by Luhmann, Schumacher’s inspired move is to apply autopoiesis to the institution of architecture as a sociological entity. This would be a promising avenue of research for the theory, as architecture is forever trying to assert its institutional autonomy. However, its application here is confused by the obsession with Parametricism, as the book attempts to be an all-encompassing and unifying theoretical framework for the institution of architecture, and manifesto for this ‘great new style’ (Schumacher’s words). At 450 pages (and with only 18 images) it’s the first of a proposed two-volume work, making it surely the longest and, quite possibly, the most opaque manifesto in architectural historiography.

The theoretical framework and the manifesto are so closely intertwined that it is difficult to discuss one without the other. The link between the two is, of course, theory. Schumacher claims that ‘only theoretically informed building design constitutes architecture’. But he does not offer any definition of theory, or address what qualities a theory needs to qualify as the validator of architecture, only that innovation requires it and the status quo doesn’t. Instead we are subjected to a quasi-historical and confused account, which states that architectural theory began in the Renaissance – hence the beginnings of architecture at that point. Only three pages previously, however, Vitruvius’ treatise was cited as ‘the first emergence of architecture’ that ‘remains closely tied to religion and to the political order’. (see here)

Needless to say Schumacher does not fare well with either Harman or Parnell in the above. I haven’t had a chance to read through his essays completely, nor his two books on Parametricism and the new Architecture he proposes to replace modernism and postmodernism, but from a cursory reading of his essays I get a feeling that Schumacher is doing for architecture what others have done and are doing for philosophy, moving things forward into new zones of possibility.

Other reviews of Patrik Schumacher’s work:

Architectural Review: The Autopoiesis of Architecture dissected, discussed and decoded by Peter Buchanan Authorship in Algorithmic Architecture: from Peter Eisenman to Patrik Schumacher by Eleftherios Siamopoulos
Icon Magazine: Douglas Murray: here
The Guangzhou Opera House: An Architectural Review

Videos by Schumacher on Parametricism: here
Perltreees vids on Parametricism: here

5 thoughts on “Architecture for the 21st Century: Postmodernism and Beyond

  1. First of all, let me say hello, and thank you for this plethora of information. I am an art student, having just begun research on a thesis concerning the effect of post-modern architecture in urban sci-fi design, with Blade Runner as my primary case study.
    However, I find my self being somewhat lost, since I have no actual background in architecture. I am hoping that you might be able to suggest a starting point from which I could begin towards the right direction. A book title, or just a link to a relevant page of your blog, might be enough.
    I’ll be looking forward to your reply.

    Best regards,

    P.S. Sorry to ask for your help via comment, but I couldn’t find a better way to contact you.


  2. Pingback: Impossible Object(s) & Other Speculations from Dark Ecologies | Senselogi©

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