Semiotics of Parametricism

Zachary Cohen   

In his polemic “A Theory of Semiotics,” the semiotician Umberto Eco states: “codes provide rules which generate signs as concrete occurrences in communicative intercourse.”1 Here, Eco is pointing out that codes arise out of some necessity to explicate our everyday forms with a more structured signifier. Understood within the context of current architectural practice, this quote might be taken to suggest that computational design, i.e. the practice of creating architecture out of code, arose out of the necessity to express something that is beyond the conventionalized realm of architectural expression. The problem then lies in the explication of these new signs generated by parametric design. Specifically, how can we begin to understand the signification of these new, encrypted forms and spaces? How can we speak about, or within, an architecture created from a parametric system when the semiotics of parametric code is beyond the semiotics of our ordinary expression? The practice of parametric design is forcing a reinvention of our everyday expression of space, and it is necessary that we formulate a new semiotic method to explicate this new expression. To do this we must consider the nature and necessity of abstraction in parametric design and recognize that a new semiotic system is needed to demystify the inherent encryption of parametric architecture.

In its earliest conception, in the beginning of the twentieth century, semiotics was characterized by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure as the relationship between signifier and signified. In particular, Saussurean semiotics argued that our perception of signs is a dualistic process comprised of an internalized “psychological” concept, the signified, and the “sound image,” or sign, with which we associate the concept.2 For example, the sign “chair” is comprised of the auditory perception of the word “chair” and the internalized concept of what a chair is, namely something to sit on. However, Saussure also stated that language is only one system of semiology, though the most popular, and that all linguistic signs are arbitrary.3 How, then, is an exploration of semiotics relevant to the practice of contemporary architecture?

Language is a system with an inherent structural logic and an inherent intention to communicate an understanding. Similarly, architecture also has an intention to communicate, at least in so far as it communicates its own function, and also has a tendency to govern itself by a system of paradigmatic rules.4 As the architect Bernard Tschumi stated in his essay “Six Concepts”(1991), post-structuralists challenged the “idea of a single, set of images, the idea of certainty, and of course, of an identifiable language.” Here, Tschumi presupposes not only the existence of an architectural language, but the existence of an architectural language that is communicable and identifiable. Therefore, just as our understanding of conventional language is enhanced by semiotic investigations, our understanding of the logic and intention of contemporary architecture is also enhanced by inquiries into its underpinning, semiotic principles.

So now, in this world of post-structural, post-modern, and generally post-ism thought, at the dawn of a new architectural movement characterized by the increasing accessibility of information, we must ask ourselves again what the characteristic linguistic system of architecture is becoming. It would appear that in the age of digital media and information, with the advent of still more design technologies and reappropriated computer algorithms, the paradigmatic system is becoming one of code and computation. So how can we use a semiotic theory of architecture to aid us in the understanding of this new parametric language? And more importantly: what does this signify?

Architecture is not without its own stake in the practice and evolution of semiotic theory. It is not purely coincidence that just when semiotics began to gain reputability in the early twentieth century, architecture was beginning to reformulate itself as a Modernist practice; both movements considered questions of function and understanding in their respective languages, and both movements were responding to the beginning of a globalization catalyzed by new industrialization. Eco says that “semiotics is primarily a structuralism which rests upon the binary opposition of form and content”; a definition that proponents of functionalism might have also used in reference to architecture in the early developments of Modernism.5 Interestingly enough, when Eco speaks of architecture, he says that “an architectural sign is a sign-vehicle whose denoted meaning is the function it makes possible.”6 For Eco, a stair denotes the possibility of going up; we recognize a stair when we see one and we know how to use it. However, the possibility is all that the sign stair signifies; a virtual possibility that only becomes actualized by our comprehension of its signification. But now, when a stair can first be signified by a parametric code before it is signified by its physical manifestation, we must become skeptical of the extent of our encoding and its implications on our linguistic syntax, architectural or otherwise. For if our comprehension of virtual code, e.g. systems of signs, precedes our comprehension of the physical world, e.g. the stair, then we will surely fall out of touch with the reality and real functions of our physical environment.

But perhaps our multiple layers of encoding are beneficial to our understanding and explication of the architectural language. Working in code allows for more permutability not only in the design process but, by consequence, in its physical output as well. The parameters actually provide a new flexibility. As the art theorist Patricia Search states: “New forms of creative expression codify, form, space, action, and time into diverse levels of abstraction.”7 Our nascent methods of codification grant us an abstraction that is easier to work within than the constraints of our traditionally accepted architectural language. For, not unlike Euclid, who abstracted perception and experience into geometric axioms in order to better understand the physical world, architects are abstracting space into code to better understand how they can manipulate and form it to necessary functions. After all, much of architectural practice already takes place in the realm of representation and deals with the concretization of abstract concepts into the physical world. So then what is the difference when we speak about parametric design?

The difference is that the new language is in code, an obviously cryptic and exclusive form of communication, and therefore we cannot speak about parametric design as we have about pre-parametric architecture. In the early developments of Modernism, the architects of the De Stijl movement wrestled with similar issues of expression by limiting their architectural palette to only pure forms of geometric abstraction. And as the founder of the De Stijl movement, Theo van Doesburg, suggested “artists do not write about art, but from within art.”8 Then how do we speak from within parametric design if the design’s expression has been encrypted? Certainly one could argue that parametric design does just the opposite. That is, instead of adding exclusivity and encryption to architecture, it universalizes not only the process but also the output by constructing it out of code, which is something that all can learn if they so choose. This is a valid assertion, however it only serves to prove that contemporary architecture necessitates a new language that can explicate new methods of design. It is possible that this new language is a language of parametrics. However, the contemporary architect should recognize that a system of layered codification, which is currently how one might describe the current relationship between architecture, code, and semiotics, is only isolating the inhabitants of our architectural space and perhaps even isolating ourselves from the space we proclaim to be designing. For parametric architecture, to this point, exists largely in the theoretical realm, yet somehow has been slow to enter the realm of architectural theory and barely exists in the realm of the built environment. With a new language, and transitively a new system of semiotics, the discourse and experience of parametric design will be facilitated and perhaps even streamlined into contemporary architectural practice.

Architecture, with its constant re-appropriation of commonly used signifiers, has been searching for a new language to describe and express the complexities of spatial design; yearning to break free from what might appear to be antiquated forms of everyday communication or conversation. However that same profession, i.e. architecture, which has excluded others from its discourse with its excessive use of jargon, must then be prepared to universalize its discourse with the use of parametric code. For if future architectural discourse is conducted in coded forms, e.g. computation, scripting, and the feedback in between, then it will be accessible to anyone with digital literacy.

We are restructuring the information normally conveyed through architecture with our implementation of parametric systems. And perhaps, with the advent of the “Information Age,” we must necessarily restructure. Is parametric design going to be the new information system that will allow us to do so? It is important to recognize that restructuring spatial information will also necessarily restructure our perception and experience of space, and architects must ask themselves if this information overhaul is worth its ontological implications. When architects input codes into machines, they must necessarily ask themselves: am I inputting the code for the sake of the machine or for the sake of myself? If the answer is the latter, then it must be apparent that the true communication cannot be between the architect and the machine, but between the architect and the space.

Saussure’s original conception of semiotics was necessarily dependent upon human psychology and perception, whereas his contemporary counterpart, Eco, has defined a sign merely “as something standing for something else.”9 It is no coincidence that architecture has undergone a similar dehumanization from relying on the principles of the Vitruvian man to relying on the principles of algorithmic computation. And maybe, as the great anti-humanist once suggested, we are merely fulfilling the ideal condition of modern man as someone “who creates over and beyond himself and, in so doing, perishes.”10 But before we speak about our obsolescence, we should speak about and within the realm of parametric design. And we should recognize that to do so we need to understand that parametric processes are semiotic systems. We might even learn to speak parametrics itself.

1. Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), p. 49.
2. Ferdinand De Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Ballye and Albert Sechehaye, trans. Albert Riedlinger (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966), p. 15.
3. Ibid., 67.
4. C.F. Munro, “Semiotics, Aesthetics, and Architecture.” British Journal of Aesthetics 27, no. 2 (1987): 121.
5. Munro, 127.
6. Neil Leach, ed., “Function and Sign: The Semiotics of Architecture,” in Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 176.
7. Patricia Search, “The Semiotics of the Digital Image.” Leonardo 28, no. 4 (1995): 312
8. Theo van Doesburg, essay in Architectuur en Verbeelding.
9. Eco, 16.
10. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 82.