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The Constrained Future and Infinitely Variable Past of Parametricism

Charles Rosenblum

Charles Rosenblum, Ph.D, is a historian and critic of the built environment and visual arts. Rosenblum previously taught in the Schools of Art and Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University.

The future is the same as it always was, especially if you consider Patrik Schumacher’s Autopoiesis of Architecture. Architecture, he insists, will become unified by a single style. It will be based on a hermetic system of formal manipulation with its roots in functional technology. It will rise above concerns about environment, economics, and social justice to serve as a unifying force among architects who will toil creatively, yes, but never far from the considerable shadow of their august leader. It could almost be Philip Johnson anointing the Olympian slabmeister Mies van der Rohe to his rightful position as World’s Leading Architect, perhaps leaving Frederick Kiesler and Bruce Goff to vie for supremacy on other planets. But no, Schumacher aims to consolidate the software-driven forms of parametricism with the obstinately hermetic methodology of autopoiesis once and for all. Almost incidentally, the resulting shapes will be delightfully, almost infinitely undulating, but isn’t such continuity just another permutation of Giedion’s Space Time? Sure, Giedion’s Modernism was a party to which Expressionism, in all of its obstreperous non-conformity, was not invited. But everyone knows that guests don’t make a party fun, exclusivity does. Schumacher’s future is eerily familiar. Zaha Hadid is as good a form-maker as any.

And that sameness is too bad, because, while Schumacher shows how tiresome, predictable, and constraining novelty itself can be, he misses out on the real fun of architectural theory: rearranging the past. Mies van der Rohe? Not so long ago, Stanley Tigerman assured us, with a collage more memorable than any actual building, that Crown Hall was sinking, taking all of Modernism with it faster than you could say synecdoche. Of course, two curiously regularized decades later, the slab was back as Supermodernism. (Did it come with a cape this time, the sort that architects love so much? Or just larger fries and a drink?) Crown Hall, observers would note at that time, was actually ascendant, consistency of meaning in Tigerman’s image be damned. No longer an icon of eternal architectural probity, Crown Hall really displayed a hemline’s ability to rise and fall with prevailing fashion, which is what the past does.

If there is any doubt, simply consider the Baroque. Like any artistic movement worth its salt, it has a name that is a pejorative repurposed as badge of honor. Tellingly, disdain is a much more powerful driving force in artistic meaning than self-congratulation ever was. The Baroque, in all of its id-driven exceptionalism, is really Randle Patrick McMurphy to the Renaissance’s Nurse Ratched. Rules are invariably a means of arbitrary authoritarian constraint, designed to relabel genius as insanity. Some indication of the versatility of the Baroque is its ability to reemerge from the wine cellar in similarly intoxicating fashion but with utterly different notes depending on the era of the tasting. Even Giedion gave the Baroque something of an air kiss, predicating his Modernistic space on the axiality of Le Nôtre and the theatricality of Bernini. Careful though, because otherwise, revivalism was for zombies, expressionism was for outpatients, and ornament really was crime.

Then came Venturi. Where Giedion had carved his single pork chop from the Baroque, Venturi, by contrast, was eager to consume all sorts of chitluns and sweetbreads, parts of the movement that the Modernists had viewed as absolutely inedible. Non-functioning signs? Terrific! Ironic references? Swell! Historical revival? Bring it on! Venturi’s Rome Prize was well-deserved intellectually, but seemingly useless. He may or may not have seen these buildings in person. Instead, he seemed to clip elements of them from books and magazines only to paste gleefully mis-scaled versions of them ever so flimsily to the facades of his early works.

So, do we blame Venturi for the next season’s stigmatization of the Baroque? Certainly, the Postmodern movement that accompanied this particular revival is still, for the moment, widely viewed as a terrible embarrassment among many, Schumacher certainly among them (though not Venturi revivalists Fashion Architecture Taste), as if architecture itself, after some rather questionable carousing, woke up generally jaundiced in color, with certain parts alarmingly pink and swollen. Will some sort of shot, perhaps some pure formalism, make this go away? Yes and no.

A strong argument states that architecture may never have recovered from its prejudice against non-Modern history or certain varieties of engagement with it. Post-modern architecture? For all of the dozens of things that the term may mean, it is invariably relegated to the dust-bin of design. Indeed, bricolage, like pastiche and collage, maybe even assemblage, has never quite recovered from its negative status. And, as the architectural equivalent of “bitch,” bricolage will seem like a compliment only to a sassy few. But mostly, it is received as an insult.

Why? When Levi-Strauss opined that bricolage was made from discarded scraps and pieces, he seemed to mean it disdainfully; somehow the historical process of transforming it into an honorific is still incomplete. Granted, bricolage is just the sort of approach to delight the Post Modernist, but it is an insistence also that your bitch is a mutt of uncertain lineage. Or worse, a variety of architecture to which something must be added. That’s not Crown Hall sinking, that’s Mies rising from his grave.

Oddly, the Baroque emerges yet again, never too old to appear, like the Betty White of architectural styles, in still another generation’s architectural sit-com. Folds, anyone? Just when the Deleuzian exegesis on the fold seemed too elusively complex and emphatically abstract as a philosophical allegory actually to implement as meaningful architecture, we bring in key characters. First, Peter Eisenman assures us that if the building is complex enough, its inability to correspond materially to an elusive allegory can be viewed as an ironic commentary on the unmotivated sign, and not simply a failure of architecture. Then, Greg Lynn, announces that the true power of the Baroque revival, this one, is that Leibniz’s calculus, combined with the contemporaneity of computing power, will be the real force in the continuing avant-garde, the squid-like appearance of certain of his proposed works notwithstanding. Preston Scott Cohen gave a convincingly formal, reassuringly hermetic, derivation of unabashedly contemporary work (at least it was contemporary earlier today), from a suitably typical yet obscure Baroque Church. We should have known by now that a strategy very similar to the one in Eisenman’s “Futility of Objects” would be absolutely instrumental in using objects to create even more objects.

Elevated on the crest of this increasingly parametric wave, the Baroque gained even more currency in the hands of Farshid Moussavi, in whose pages Guarini rises from the dead with such forcefulness that no shroud is necessary. Indeed, the real miracle of Moussavi’s work is that under the guise of a parametric avant garde of which Schumacher is surely proud, ornament, having apparently recovered from the virus of postmodernism, effloresces yet again, its finicky complexity legitimized by embracing code and shunning representation. Perhaps Tigerman should collage Guarini’s Capella della Santissima Sindone ascending, not to the heavens, but from the waters of lake Michigan to stage an epic naval battle with Mies.

One need only consider René Thom and the mathematics of
catastrophe influencing earlier parametric work to be reminded that architecture, this most ancient of arts, still takes great delight in destroying its own ancestors. Modernism may ebb and flow cyclically, but architecture’s perpetual will toward patricide will subcontract to the hitman known as capitalism what can’t actually be accomplished at the drafting board, the CADD station, or in Rhino.

Behind the desire to dismiss postmodern architecture is an accompanying unease, not with citing some great abstract principle of an historic building, as Colin Rowe did from such a safe distance (is Mathematics of the Ideal Villa an ancestor of parametricism?), but with looking a bit too much like one. Post Modern architecture is pastiche, a superfluous dessert that should be gobbled either shamefully, or, even better, in total denial. Current neoclassical architecture is reactionary (this may be true). And any historical building that does not fit neatly into a preconceived stepping stone of the history of the avant garde is “transitional” – not worth classifying. Even Kenneth Frampton, whose writing on Critical Regionalism is flush with the notion that Modernism could be responsive to context without compromising its moral authority, quickly undermined his own term by declaring it “arrière garde.”

The truth is that no matter how hard Mies van der Rohe or Patrik Schumacher try to cross names off of their list of acceptable antecedents – Schumacher nixes the always-versatile Gothic for its lack of a sufficient medieval literary pedigree – the relationship of the avant garde to its predecessors will always be more fluid than demarcated. Indeed, if we could just call Zaha’s work New Horizontal Gothic, it could be viewed as historically-based (or a well-named band).

And here lies much of the promise of parametricism in relation to historic architecture. A design approach that insists upon vector fields with point-by-point responsiveness to fields of conditions ought to be similarly responsive to the many stimuli of history, instead of the outdated Manichaen notion that historical form is either in or out. Indeed, Charles Jencks, who determines his unfolding taxonomy of style based on gradations between opposites in semiotic space, sets up just such a model for movements as a whole. Reiser and Umemoto, quoting Manuel Delanda quoting Ernst Meyer, suggest that such a model of variability is already established by a populationist view as opposed to a typological one.

Imagine, an infinite gradient of possibilities between pure catenary and fully molded ogee, or between Sol LeWitt-like grid and fully articulated classical colonnade, all available at the manipulation of a slider in Grasshopper at every scale and element of project design. Isn’t this the relationship to history that parametricism promises? Of course there is a danger here that, like the laboratory in Alien Resurrection that housed all the failed, hideous hybrids of Ripley and the monster before the perfect synthesis emerged, such variability could be a breeding ground for the grotesque, though the extreme does have proud predecessors in Renaissance gardens and elsewhere.

But Viollet-le-Duc himself designed a fair amount of graceless architecture while developing theories whose great legacy was to see in archaic buildings the rules for a principled and progressive future. And parametricism gives us a similar historical moment. Maybe this whole notion is an achingly Hegelian rehash of thesis and antithesis, yearning to represent Manuel Delanda’s historical models without succumbing to the obvious inability of some recent avant-garde movements to represent some overly ambitious and unrepresentable theory. Or maybe DeLanda is architectural history’s own drop of alien blood, energizing a heroine, once thought to be expired, for a battle that could still be fought, like Ripley’s sequel, 200 years into the future.