The Design Observer Group

Posted 09.09.09

Tim Love

Between Mission Statement and Parametric Model

Parametric model created with Catia software: Helios House. All images courtesy of Office dA.
A crisis in architectural education is brewing. I refer to the increasingly contentious divide between that cadre of junior faculty who espouse the gee-whiz form-making made possible by speculative parametric modeling and an Inconvenient Truth-influenced student body demanding design studios that prioritize social relevance and environmental stewardship. [1] The inherent tension between these cultural positions has not yet been fully registered by design faculties nor acted upon with specific curricular reform — yet it’s hard to miss.

On the one hand, the situation is generating strange, hybridized manifestations in design studios — notably the ubiquitous son-of-the-Yokohama Port Terminal proposal: an undulating green roofscape blanketing habitable space below. [2] On the other hand, many schools and departments are busy reforming their programs to better integrate sustainability criteria into studio exercises, often at the expense of other aspects of design thinking. But in this swing from decontextualized digital experimentation to heightened social responsibility, design education is being compromised. A generation of young architects is graduating into professional practice with scant ability to construe and elaborate an architectural agenda that begins with a set of a priori social and cultural intentions and ends with a constructed environment. Only by examining both the causes of this situation and current pedagogical tendencies can a better approach to design education emerge.

As William Menking editorialized in the May 20, 2009 edition of The Architect’s Newspaper, the focus on the formal possibilities of computer modeling is now ubiquitous in design schools. “The obsession with which many young faculty and their students now pursue digital research to the exclusion of all contextual and real-world issues (materiality, for example) is astonishing,” he says. “In some schools, the end-of-the-year exhibits feature project after project resembling nothing so much as extruded dinosaur vertebrae, often hung from the ceiling or set on a barren plinth, appearing as isolated — and irrelevant — as objects in a natural history museum.” As an expert witness of the influence of parametric modeling on certain East Coast architecture programs, I can confirm the truth of this observation. [3] 
Since the late 1990s the generative capabilities of parametric modeling, or digital scripting, programs have come to dominate design discourse at schools like Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Columbia, largely due to the increasing influence and leadership of mid-career professors and practitioners such as Greg Lynn, Preston Scott Cohen and Monica Ponce de Leon. This focus is being reinforced by the newest generation of assistant professors, who themselves learned design through the lens of scripting logics and who find methodologies for form-making mostly within the rationales of computer programming. [4] Despite the productive example of some practitioners — notably Office dA, the firm of Ponce de Leon and Nader Tehrani — it’s too often the case that the process of creating forms by inputting and manipulating data does not require that the designer develop a nuanced and comprehensive design strategy; and the process itself can produce a spurious and easy complexity that masks the absence of that more expansive approach. In some projects, for instance, specific cultural, social and physical contexts are deployed mainly as tactics for autonomous form making. In others the project brief itself — the client’s list of programs, project areas, functional adjacencies and so on — becomes the primary impetus for generating form; the Seattle Public Library, by Rem Koolhaas and OMA, is only the most notable and didactic example of this self-referential strategy.

At the opposite end of the ideological spectrum are those comprehensive studios that eschew formal experimentation (usually out of a kind of disciplinary guilt, or fear of fashion) and instead favor a metric-based emphasis on social and/or ecological relevance. Part of this phenomenon (and the attendant guilt) can be attributed to broader disciplinary hand-wringing about the architect’s proper cultural role in the international debate on global warming. Recently, for example, the American Institute of Architects has added “sustainable design” to the list of required topics for its continuing education credits, with a specific emphasis on the energy consumption of buildings. Reporter Robin Pogrebin noted this in a New York Times article of August 20, 2009, quoting from the AIA website: “The issue of climate change and the impact of buildings on carbon emissions [are creating] new expectation among clients and the public to look to the expertise of architects for solutions that can help them leave a greener footprint.” As a result architects are being challenged to become familiar with the kinds of building design metrics that have traditionally been the purview of sub-consultants such as lighting designers and mechanical and electrical engineers.

What makes the contradictions especially complicated is that both tendencies often operate at the same time in the same place. Certainly this schizophrenia was on display at this year’s spring thesis reviews at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where both agendas were often combined in a single project. In most cases, the sustainability agenda was framed in a slickly produced slide presentation, the product of a research-based course in thesis preparation. The presentations were well researched and the narratives galloped along at a pace and with a conviction that would have made Al Gore proud. Yet too often the mix of earnest advocacy and formal ambition resulted in strange misadventures of execution. This was the case in a proposal for a hybrid urban farm/high-rise condominium adjacent to the newly opened High Line in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. The project pitch consisted of a compelling narrative of global food shortages and the high costs of food distribution; sophisticated information graphics were used to argue for the benefits of vertical farming. As in professional projects by the Copenhagen-based BIG or the Rotterdam-based MVRDV, the build-up of data points and facts was meant to give the still-undisclosed proposal the authority of retroactive inevitability. Perhaps it was not surprising that after a 20-minute lecture that might have served to launch a mission-driven NGO, the architectural proposal itself was implausible — whether considered technically, socially or environmentally. The reason? Early in the design process the student had been waylaid by a computer-generated formal strategy based on lifting and rotating the floor plates in order to twist the building away from the street grid to an orientation partly rationalized by solar angles. The idea didn’t really work, yet the design was force-marched by a scripting program that turned the project into a twisting taffy of form.

One of the least sensible consequences of the proposal was the gigantic air-conditioned atrium that was necessary to post-justify the deep floor plates — and the sheer volume of the building that resulted — of the outside-in-conceived form. The project also didn’t much consider the crews of low-wage farm workers that would be needed to plant and harvest the crops of the ambitious vertical farm; presumably these crews would share elevators and stairwells with the residents of the market-rate condos above. Clearly this was not a version of the earnest community garden that has cropped up in so many smaller-scale student projects, but an enormous collective farm, presented with perspective renderings that had more than a whiff of soviet-style social realism. Was that an upscale retiree keeping busy in his active-leisure development by picking strawberries? Or a migrant farmer who had taken the No. 1 train down from the Bronx?

The contradictions of contemporary education were also evident this spring at the Yale School of Architecture. Known for the diversity of its studio options since the 1980s, when James Stirling, Aldo Rossi and Robert Venturi all taught there, Yale has become yet more pluralistic under the deanship of Robert Stern, with a dizzying range of approaches to practice and theory. Visiting professor Demetri Porphyios asked his students to design a luxury spa in Morocco by starting with an analysis of classical Roman and Mediterranean public baths. Another visiting professor, William Sharples, of SHoP, had his studio design a spaceport for commercial space travel. The studio led by Liza Fior and Katherine Clarke, from Muf, in London, focused on the future reuse of the London 2012 Olympics site; that of faculty member Keith Krumweide designed sustainable multifamily housing in Houston. And Greg Lynn, progenitor of “blob architecture,” and also visiting at Yale last spring, was back to test the limits of advanced digital modeling, this time with a studio problem for the “missing” third arm of Bernini’s arcade at the Piazza San Pietro in Rome. Given this constellation of critics, it’s not surprising that some students used parametric modeling to create sexy, shapely designs — again, fantastic roof structures or elaborate topographies were much in evidence — while others deployed more rearguard (read: orthogonal) design languages that no doubt owe to the ongoing influence of Dutch design (by way of Mies and Le Corbusier) and Spanish architecture (by way of Louis Kahn and Giuseppe Terragni). [5]

Questions about the cultural relevance and political correctness of complicated forms enabled by digital modeling have become especially pointed lately, as recession has taken hold. In a review published in October 2008, the New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff sharply criticized Zaha Hadid’s temporary pavilion for Chanel in Central Park, more for political than formal reasons. Ouroussoff questioned the wisdom of constructing, as the economy was crashing, a molded fiberglass folly intended to celebrate luxury couture within the proudly democratic spaces of Central Park. Yet dissatisfaction with formal fetishization was being voiced even before the crash. An important manifestation of a growing campaign to promote public-interest design in the academy is Structures for Inclusion, a nationwide series of symposia started in 2000 by the non-profit Design Corps. I caught up with SFI when it made a stop at Harvard in spring 2008. Participants included Public Architecture, a non-profit design collective based in San Francisco; Teddy Cruz, a San Diego architect and leading standard-bearer for social responsibility; and the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, renowned for cardboard-tube columns used in the construction of refugee shelter. Now in its ninth year — this year’s conference was held in Dallas — SFI is raising necessary questions about the need for more socially relevant models of design practice; through its viral influence, it has been the single most influential catalyst for the soft student activism now influencing curricula across the country.
Yet just as unsatisfying as unbridled formal experimentation is an overemphasis on research-based outcomes that can reduce design to an easy illustration of good intentions, and in the process neglect the equally meaningful goals of creating pleasurable and compelling physical environments. A case in point was suggested by a public lecture this past spring at Yale by Cameron Sinclair, cofounder and chief spokesperson of Architecture for Humanity. Sinclair will need little introduction to Places’ readers. In the past few years he’s become ubiquitous on the conference circuit — one of those figures whose name practically self-populates the field for “socially responsible practitioner.” That night in New Haven, Sinclair gave a version of his pitch for humanitarian design. Yet he never substantiated the talking points with any well-worked-out disciplinary agenda or even with much information about the actual projects and their presumably measurable impacts. The young faculty and students who crowded the hall wanting to hear the details about how architecture can work to catalyze social improvement heard instead about the exponential expansion of AFH’s globe-trotting organization, with its Amway-like network of franchises. Sinclair’s presentation left me, and many of the students I talked with afterward, unsatisfied, convinced that admirable intentions in themselves aren’t enough to rescue architectural discourse and progressive practice from the increasingly empty gestures of parametric modeling.

So where are we? What do we need to do to synthesize the powerful formal possibilities of parametric modeling with the need to realign disciplinary priorities? This is a large question, which I’ll explore in future articles. For now I’ll suggest that one approach is to better understand the complexities and pressures of mainstream practice. How do existing professional power structures, working with real clients and regulatory frameworks, encourage certain kinds of design production and inhibit others? Why does the DNA of almost every office building in North America — maybe the world — consist of the same center-core diagram with the same ungainly and clumsily dimensioned floor plan, no matter how sophisticated the skin? Why are the majority of new public school buildings soulless and isolated object-buildings surrounded by acres of parking lots and sports fields? Why do super-sized arterial roads, and the retail big boxes that line them, continue to be developed when the landscapes that result are so banal, and widely reviled as such? My hunch is that if design pedagogy began to engage these everyday conditions, whether in the market-driven economy or through the mechanism of public funding (or a combination of the two), then a new design-focused pedagogy would emerge, one that would gain intellectual weight through the relevance of the problems. Such a context might inspire designers to use sophisticated professional tools — including parametric modeling — to produce truly new and meaningful paradigms.


1. Parametric modeling is a design technique that uses smart, three-dimensional modeling software to help guide and track the design of complex projects. Modeling software — such as Catia, Revit, ArchiCad and Digital Project — is eclipsing conventional CAD software in most commercial architecture firms, largely due to its ability to manage and coordinate information throughout design and construction. In design studios, parametric modeling is used to create patterns, spaces and forms through the input of specific criteria and operational parameters. The resulting contours of patterns, spaces and forms are not designed by the gesture of a hand on paper, but rather controlled indirectly by the design of software that controls inputted information.

The emerging ideological divide I refer to is reminiscent of the division between back-to-nature environmentalists and postmodern formalists in the late 1970s and early ’80s. With a crucial difference: Postmodern formalism was a reaction to what were perceived to be deterministic design methodologies focused on social or environmental science. Today the situation is reversed: Both sustainable design and mission-driven design practices are reactions to the perceived formal autonomy of projects designed with the aid of parametric modeling. We may be seeing the conclusion of an historical arc that began in the early ’70s and that has been bracketed by global energy crises.

2. The Yokohama Port Terminal, designed by Foreign Office Architects, was completed in 2002.

3. I taught in the architecture department of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design from 1997 until 2003, when I accepted a position at Northeastern University in Boston. Since then I have been a regular guest critic at MIT, Yale and Columbia, in addition to the GSD. In spring 2009 I taught a studio at Yale as visiting associate professor.

4. Some background: early on, two approaches to parametric modeling were especially influential. One approach, centered in the studios at Columbia, mixed a tendency to the metaphorical filtered through quasi-scientific analyses: for instance, the movement patterns of flocks of birds, schools of fish, and the like might be mapped as inspiration for complex forms. A second approach, initiated by Monica Ponce de Leon and Nader Tehrani at the Harvard GSD, focused on the complex repetitions of cladding patterns. Ponce de Leon and Tehrani’s interest in the full capabilities of parametric modeling, from form generation through fabrication, profoundly influenced the trajectory of their firm, Office dA, and more recently it has influenced the reform of MIT’s foundation design program under Tehrani’s leadership. Through their work and teaching, and in collaboration with students and colleagues, Ponce de Leon and Tehrani discovered a strategic platform that allowed them to test and maximize the performative aspects of their architectural designs. Even an early work such as Casa La Roc (1995), which forecasts the formal obsessions enabled by future software advances, explores the changing function as much as the elegant pattern of the house’s masonry walls.

5. One benefit of Stern’s inclusive approach is to reduce the likelihood that there will develop a small number of competing factions, thus empowering students to make highly personal decisions about their priorities and preoccupations. Which raises a real and somewhat ironic possibility: that what might be described as the radically ecumenical approach of Stern the educator — as distinct from Stern the traditionalist practitioner — might encourage meaningful approaches as students negotiate the divides between dominant ideologies.