Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    Live Blog: Patrik Schumacher

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Feb 9, '12 6:43 PM EST

    Hi Archinect!

    Patrik Schumacher, partner at Zaha Hadid Architects and founding director at the AA Design Research Lab, is in Piper tonight for a lecture on "Parametric Order: 21st century architectural order."

    [You can see the video online at the GSD's YouTube Channel.]

    6:36pm: PSC takes the podium to make introductions. "Rather than address his super-theory frontally, which surely would take too long--if I were even up to the task--I'd like to...reference an earlier argument by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock on the International Style." [...] "Schumacher says: 'Students today would rather have their hands fall off than draw a straight line. And this may be true; we'll see that for [Schumacher], curves are the first rule.'"

    "Like Johnson before, he has staked out a collective project. This is important, this is radical, and I look forward to hearing about it from Schumacher himself."

    6:41: PS begins.

    "This lecture will be an elaboration of my theoretical treatise, but I'm also a practicing architect, so as a reminder of that I will flip through some of my works, without discussing them." For him, it is a reminder that theory is an attempt to reflect on his own work.

    Complex Variegated Order: architecture's task now: organizing & articulating the societal complexity of post-fordist network society.

    OK, now several definitions and analyses, with the help of slides:

    6:53: PS says [I think] that the traditional architectural environment is not semiotically rich enough.

    If you go through the book, you can tell me if there are still questions left is a discourse analysis. ...I have a lot of respect for the accumulated evolution of discourse of our discipline, over decades and centuries...but also [my aim is] to select and turn normative out of this discourse that which [should take precedence].

    [Now a bunch of images, real fast, and a video of people moving about...]

    So he has a Unified Theory. "That's a longer work...these are the aspects I'm trying to cover."

    Quite a list.

    He mentions that he'll be talking at Yale on Saturday about the "Death of the Drawing."

    "All this implies that architectural theory must be embedded within an updated theory of society." Now he's quoting Marx, describing how in each time a mode of production (industrial stage) is combined with a mode of cooperation (social stage).

    "From the mid-90s I have been [drawing on Marxism]. But Marxism has suffered some blows with the disintegration of communism. I've discovered in the mid-90s a new powerful theory, of systems theory: Niklas Luhmann. I've been tying my work to Luhmann's social system theory of a 'modern, functionally differentiated society.' Luhmann is not only looking at the economy, like Marx, but modes of societal differentiation: segmentation, centre-periphery, stratification, functional differentiation."

    "In today's world, nothing gets built or produced that isn't influenced by the discourse we are in the last century, nothing gets built or produced that isn't influenced by the Bauhaus. Anything that is immediately recorded and published and posted to the web."

    Now he has an enormous chart that he has developed, called "Comparative Matrix of Societal Function Systems."

    He's walking us through the chart, a bit. For example: whereas the task of science is to distinguish between theory and evidence, architecture is charged with giving form to function. "These are fully autonomous discourses." He gives an example of law, and how it doesn't relate to politics or science [!?], and similarly, he claims that architecture, like every other field, works with these binary categories.

    For architecture, these binaries are something like:

    -not art, not engineering, not science

    -design decision

    -form vs. function

    -beautiful vs. ugly / useful vs. useless


    -representation (visual/geometric)

    -organization, articulation

    -framing (innovation of spatial frames)

    -architectural theory

    7:17: "I will now go back into the history and pre-history of architecture..."

    "And this is ubiquitous through all societies." Ornamental masks or fashion to engage in particular interactions, navigating social systems through a quick read of visual cues.

    "Like a...cell structure," he believes the system in the above plan develops because it is most efficient. A medieval walled town develops in terms of organs. Now he's showing Renaissance centralized plans.

    "For the first time, it is out of the self-built vernacular, into [the design by an architect on paper]. So you have drawing as a new medium. ...and to innovate, you need to write. So you have fully designed buildings and cities, visualized with perspectives, which had never happened before. That's why in my theory, architecture starts with the Renaissance; no Medieval cathedral has been fully designed before construction."

    Now we're in the Baroque. "I'm trying to understand what are the advantages, what is the superiority of the Baroque over the Renaissance. Why it is advance, tied into new demands made on architecture. The sequence of style is not just a...sequence of change."

    "This is the kind of analysis we should conduct in looking at epochal styles."

    "The next style, so congenial to a totally new era, is Modernism. In between the Baroque and Modernism we have the picturesque. Tafuri explains that the picturesque [has to do with early capitalism]."

    "And then [in modernism], you have this kind of order: separation of functions, specialization (not unified, not stuffed into the symmetrical Baroque palace), and their incomplete reconstitution. These are the principles of modernism from the 1920s through the high-tech of the 1970s." The same principles in a modern machine, or in a modern city (example: ville radieuse), industrial design, and modern bureaucratic organization.

    "This is an architecture congenial to the principles of a Fordist society, unprecedented in world history." [Most people] have a quality of life higher than that of Louis XIV [!].

    7:30: He is still going. He is now in post-modernism. Deconstructivism: interpenetration instead of separation.

    "We in Columbia University in 1993, took up collaging these layers, trying to see if these layers up into a texture that has more order and coherence." And this gave us the "first glimpses of parametric order...[albeit] as yet undigested."

    7:40: "Everything needs to communicate with everything else." He's showing projects from his office, Zaha Hadid Architects. "In today's post-Fordist network society, we cannot afford to...go down a corridor and isolate ourselves and beaver away...we have to continuously worry about our relevancy and [keep up to date with what others are doing] and there is an intensity of communication on many levels."

    "So this is where we are, in retrospect going from unconscious [!] medieval evolution, through the Renaissance, Baroque, Modernism..."

    "When I grew up and started architecture in the early 80s, I was faced with shifting agendas; brought up as a hard-core modernist, then post-modernist, then seemed that every two or three years, a new style was operating. But since the mid 90s, we have been totally stable...just asking new questions [within the same paradigm]." 

    .."All subsystems of society [today] are absorbing [the parametric] into their subsystems."

    7:47: A definition of parametricism: an "ontological shift" from "ideal rigid/hermetic geometric figures" to "new primitives: splines, blobs, nurbs, particles..." "Instead of drawing inert lines with a ruler on paper, we are setting up [parametric] systems."

    "Surfaces are no longer flat inert planes...deformation becomes information...they become pliant and can accumulate information." "You have a genotype which differentiates and you have radically different types within a field."

    "How do you work in this manner? What do you avoid...and push?"

    "It is important to avoid falling back! We have to deny a lack of variety and not fall back! "No pure difference (no collage of undifferentiated elements!"

    "The crisis of modernism meant that there is no longer primitives, repetition." But there is also "no pure difference" (No collaging of form against form.) "I call it the garbage spill...lack of order produces chaos."

    "Where we are going is...self-organizing complexity of differentiated order. Not inventing form but finding form or letting it organize on rule-based setup."

    "This is what this stuff looks like." [He's flipping through slides of his work, literally at about 5 slides per second.] "Malleable forms are intelligent!"

    7:55: Formal principles of parametricism. "More degrees of freedom, more differentiation. The differentiation can be [intelligent], it can [relate to amount of sun on your building envelope]." "Articulation and the core competency of architecture. We can also apply this to urbanism."

    "Every action has a reaction." Example of correlated subsystems in the skin of a tower. "You can use software to drive datasets...[for the differentiation]."

    8:00: He is still talking super fast.

    "Parametricism is real."

    8:03: More slides, approx 5 slides per second, sometimes more. I am trying not to look because it is making me nauseous.

    "Delivering, I believe, high performance results in all domains. This work is real, I believe, no longer in the stage of a manifesto."

    "I am not sure another style could deliver such a...compelling...and richly embedded..event space. ...So you can participate in multiple scenarios and make multiple choices."

    8:07: Now he is showing a museum currently under construction at the leisurely pace of about 2 slides per second.

    8:09: "Thanks."

    Question from a student: What digital programs do you firm use?

    PS: ...Maya, Grasshopper, various scripts embedded in different projects, posted via a Wiki. Processing, Digital Project, Revit, etc.

    Preston Scott Cohen: "Patrik, a couple of things. I understand the virtues of the new style. I wanted to ask you about a few things that seem to be holdbacks that you can't surmount. Let's take the towers: you showed us a tower in which all the floors are a different shape. But they are still flat, still accessed through the same straight elevator, and same doors. It is a collage of Fordism with parametricism. That property of flatness never changes."

    "The other is--you talked about the garbage heap--but how do you answer for the fact that for all the variation you introduce, it is always relentlessly the same characteristics that are differentiated?"

    PS agrees a bit, equivocates a bit. "...I do believe the tower is still a viable model..." "Pushing differentiaton for the sake of differentation is unmotivated...I want to avoid random the same time I want to [have a certain amount of differentiation. But I am not fazed by what you said."

    PSC: ..."the only difference are cloaking the tower differently, but the interior is the same. The skyscraper has fundamentally not changed." [They continue to argue about this, with reference to Koolhaas' reading of the Athletic Club.]

    PS: "I find it disconcerting that you can't see the difference between what we are doing and [the modernist tower]."

    Cameron Wu: "Why are you unwilling to accept [the realities of infrastructure, real estate, etc.]? You should like the garbage spill but you reject it." [I missed most of this question but it is a follow-up to Scott's question, extending the issue out to include externalities.]

    Question from Faye Antonia Hays: "I sympathize with this almost megalomaniacal desire to map out all the systems in the world [in order to create a whole theory]...but, as the Bombay mafia-lord in Shantaram suggests, you might possibly do the wrong things for the right reasons. ...You both diagnose the direction of the world's processes and say we should act within it, whereas I would agree with your diagnosis but question whether architecture should be complicit. Where would difference--as a space that allows for criticality--lie in a world of parametricism where differentiation occurs within a dependent system? ...Or, let's say if Deleuze hadn't already killed himself, should he do so tonight?"

    PS: "...[Our work is] theory-led, not client led...It is closed [in order to have a more expert response]. It is openness through closure." [He talks for perhaps ten minutes. I cannot, or perhaps I simply will not, type all of it. Near the end he accuses his interlocutor of "fetishizing difference."]

    Question from a student: "I came to your lecture interested in parametricism, maybe interested in emulating it...but your whole project is...kind of totalitarian. You have curves that never vary, according to mathematical formulas you have already determined." [etc.]

    PS: "I get that criticism a lot." [Long answer. I believe the talk is being recorded and you can watch the video if you want to see it.] At one point, he defends his process because it's difficult, because you have to work to incorporate difference, instead of "simply adding another element."  "If you design something with only straight lines and corners, and I design something with curves...and I remind you that a straight line is only a curve with an infinite [radius]. And there is a superiority of curves."

    The student is heckling him now. "It's like a video game."

    PSC wraps things up.

    And thank you for reading, Archinect.



    • Janosh

      Wow... thank you for memorializing this.  Schumacher (accidentally) demonstrates that it is possible to be rigorous without being meaningful.

      Feb 10, 12 1:13 am  · 

      On a totally random note, it's remarkable how much he looks like Gordon Deitrich (Steven Fry) from V for Vendetta.

      Feb 10, 12 3:08 am  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      Did your elementary school have an anti-smoking workshop? We had one, in which someone who had a laryngectomy (they smoked, got cancer, had an operation which resulted in them having to breathe out of a hole in the front of their neck) came to "talk" with us, to warn us against smoking. I feel like this was in part the spirit of this event: "Kids: don't wish that everything could be smooth and algorithmically defined, or else your work will end up like this..."



      Feb 10, 12 10:28 am  · 

      the question and answer section of this post is definitely the most interesting part.

      Feb 10, 12 12:37 pm  · 

      also: "...[Our work is] theory-led, not client led...It is closed [in order to have a more expert response]. It is openness through closure."


      Feb 10, 12 12:42 pm  · 

      "This work is real, I believe, no longer in the stage of a manifesto."


      At least a manifesto is brief, i can't imagine what it would be to read a 500+ pages book all fill up with bullshits like these!

      Feb 10, 12 1:02 pm  · 

      Why are the words on Patrik's visual aids written in straight horizontal lines?  Where's the parametric text?

      Feb 10, 12 4:28 pm  · 

      Having seen PS both lecture and completely take over the commentary section of other lectures and presentations at the AA, I am comforted to see similar reactions at other high-level institutions around the world.. thanks for posting!

      Feb 10, 12 4:41 pm  · 

      Oooh, spaceman, nice one.

      Feb 10, 12 8:33 pm  · 

      Always enjoy reading your live blogs Lian, thank for the summary!

      Feb 11, 12 10:20 am  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      One comment that I found revealing was when Schumacher defended his firm's work by saying that it is more difficult--as if this were a video game or a figure skating competition with "degree of difficulty" points. This seems to imply that the work is more about his performance rather than the effects of the work on the world.

      Yes, it's a bit unfair of me to call him out for this one comment. But I think this is an important distinction to make in general, so this isn't just about him:

      Most of us probably fall into this trap once in a while. Naturally, we feel proud when we achieve something difficult! But we should think about why a difficult thing is worth doing in the first place, rather than feel smug whenever we figure out an ass-backward way of doing something.

      Feb 14, 12 8:24 am  · 

      If Patrick wasn't so confident/assertive maybe there wouldn't be such a reaction against what he is trying to do, in academia at least. I'm somewhat bothered by some of the reactions against him on archinect, because they seem to stem from ignorance,laziness, or desire to remain moderate.

      I think, that aside from his totalitarianism, Patrick's other problem is that he is not using his tools in unique ways.

      nevertheless people are gravitating towards him.

      Feb 14, 12 10:03 am  · 

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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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