A discussion using Patrik Schumacher’s Autopoieses of Architecture and Peter Buchanan’s article Empty Gestures.
Arguably the most dominant style of architecture today is parametricism. This is a form of design which uses computer algroithms to generate vast, complex, curving forms and has been made famous by architects such as Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry. Patrik Schumacher proposes this to be the future of architecture and Peter Buchanan disagrees, I will discuss this question through their respective arguments.
I will first note that Schumacher suffers from a particularly insidious case of the ailment that is present in much of the academic community that, hitherto, architecture as a discipline has largely been spared. This being a writing style so stodgy and long-winded that reading it constitutes a sensation not unlike attempting to eat toilet paper. This is a very serious problem with most academic writing that renders many of the most important questions in life, as discussed by philosophers, completely inaccessible to the people that actually need to learn about it, i.e. everybody. If academia is to be relevant and academics given appropriate salaries for their work then it is fundamental that they learn to write intelligibly. But I digress.
As a result, I will not put anybody through unnecessary pain by quoting Schumacher directly; his argument in Volume 1, Chapter 5.4, is broadly as follows:
Modernism set apart spaces to follow function, which worked in the 1920-50s, however functions then became variegated and the modernist repertoire failed to house them all. Minimalism tries to cope by stripping back to very little to give order in simplicity, but this reduction is antithetical to the realities of modern life.
Parametricism, the generation of grids and forms using algorithms on computers, gives us the tools necessary to give form to our now more complex functions.
In ‘Empty Gestures’, Buchanan starts by sharing Schumacher’s criticism of the reductive nature of Modernist functionalism:
“Functionalism… focused on human action as objectively observed, so ignoring (even denying) the subjective dimensions of the psyche and thus denigrating a key part of our fundamental humanity.”
–> A functionalist analysis of the way humans act fails to take into consideration the enormous quantity of subjective, emotional and intellectual responses that people have to their built environment. These constitute a significantly greater part of who we are than just our actions which are only the tip of the iceberg to a complete person. Functionalism attempts to use rules formed by observing the tips and apply them to enormous numbers of icebergs that are actually all sorts of unexpected shapes and sizes when you look underwater. Essentially people are more than just the sum of their visible actions. A person could spend their whole life acting the same way whether they did their accounting in a 1960s anonymous monolithic office block or in a shed in their garden but that definitely does not mean their experience would be the same.
However, Buchanan goes on to argue that parametricism is not the solution to this but instead a ‘sunset effect’ as the most depraved manifestation of the failings of Modernism expressed in a particularly decadent, exaggerated form:
“This formal posturing was both spurred on and rendered realisable by the power of the computer… But nobody thought to ask the obvious question as to which of these forms might be relevant to architecture, and not only in terms of functionality, which tolerantly accommodates itself to almost anything… Which forms elicit relationships – with us humans, both perceptually and psychologically, as well as with other buildings and external space – and so can aggregate into a satisfactory urban fabric in which we can feel at home.
Parametricism cannot become the long-term successor to Modernism because, like nearly all starchitecture, it ignores and exasperates the urgent challenges of our time, such as the environmental crisis and the need to reintegrate ruptures urban fabric.
Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry… both arrogantly flaunt their refusal to defer to local context and its codes (implicit as well as explicit), announcing instead that the supposed right to ego-expression of a starchitect trounces all such decencies.”
–> On balance, I agree with Buchanan here. I think that where Schumacher misses the point is in seeing parametricism as a very different alternative to modernism. In reality, it follows a similar cognitive framework and produces results that, whilst being at times visually different, are still stuck with the same problems that modernism suffers from. He concludes by calling for a shaking up of architectural journalism to prompt the shaking of practice that is needed:
“We need to move on from the adolescent search for momentary excitement and spectacle to a more mature architecture of synthesis and subtlety that reveals its understated riches over time. But that would entail architectural academe and media developing a much more searchingly critical attitude to architecture and how it is assessed so as to help us move forward to an architecture relevant and adequate to the manifold challenges of our time.”
–> Buchanan is right again, however, I would say that striking, eye-catching architecture is not always bad, there is a time and a place for it. And, if architecture is to be a reflection of our era, then the instant eye-catching architecture is a much more appropriate reflection of our high-speed, tech-driven, short attention-span age than a modest, calm, slow architecture is. Though perhaps architecture should embody what we want to be and not merely what we already are, in which case, I’d advocate the latter.
Peter Buchanan’s article, Empty Gestures can be found on the Architectural Review here
Patrik Schumacher’s Autopoesis of Architecture Volume 1 can be found here… although I seriously wouldn’t recommend trying to read it.
I’m always interested to hear other people’s thoughts on any subject so please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.