House Style of the Future? Parametricism

Parametric Design in the 21st Century

Parametric Design of Hadid Residences, Milano, Italy
Parametric Design of Hadid Residences, Milano, Italy. Photo by Marek Stepan / Moment / Getty Images (cropped)

What will our houses look like in the 21st century? Will we revive traditional styles like Greek Revivals or Tudor Revivals? Or, will computers shape tomorrow's homes?

Pritzker Laureate Zaha Hadid and her longtime design partner Patrik Schumacher have pushed the boundaries of design for many years. Their residential building for CityLife Milano is curvaceous and,  some would say, outrageous. How did they do it?

Parametric Design:

Most everyone uses computers these days, but designing exclusively with computer programming tools has been a huge leap in the architecture profession. Architecture has moved from CAD to BIM—from simplified Computer Aided Design to its more complex progeny, Building Information Modeling. Digital architecture is created by manipulating information.

What information does a building have?

Buildings have measurable dimensions—height, width, and depth. Change the dimensions of these variables, and the object changes in size. Besides walls, floors, and roofing, buildings have doors and windows that can have either fixed dimensions or adjustable, variable dimensions. All of these building components, including the nails and screws, have relationships when they are put together. For example, a floor (whose width might be static or not) might be at a 90 degree angle to the wall, but the depth length may have a range of measurable dimensions, arcing to form a curve.

When you change all of these components and their relationships, the object changes form. Architecture is made up of many of these objects, put together with theoretically endless but measurable symmetry and proportion. Different designs in architecture come about by changing the variables and parameters that define them.

"Daniel Davis, a senior researcher at a BIM consultancy, defines parametric "within the context of digital architecture, as a type of geometric model whose geometry is a function of a finite set of parameters."

Parametric Modeling

Design ideas are visualized through models. Computer software using algorithmic steps can quickly manipulate design variables and parameters—and display / graphically model the resultant designs—faster and easier than humans can by hand drawings. To see how it's done, check out this YouTube video from sg2010, the 2010 Smart Geometry conference in Barcelona.

The best layman's explanation I've found comes from PC Magazine:

"...a parametric modeler is aware of the characteristics of components and the interactions between them. It maintains consistent relationships between elements as the model is manipulated. For example, in a parametric building modeler, if the pitch of the roof is changed, the walls automatically follow the revised roof line. A parametric mechanical modeler would ensure that two holes are always one inch apart or that one hole is always offset two inches from the edge or that one element is always half the size of another."—from Definition of: parametric modeling from PCMag Digital Group, accessed January 15, 2015


Patrik Schumacher, with Zaha Hadid Architects since 1988, coined the term parametricism to define this new type of architecture—designs arising from algorithms used to define shapes and forms. Schumacher says that "all elements of architecture are becoming parametrically malleable and thus adaptive to each other and to the context."

"Instead of aggregating a few platonic solids (cubes, cylinders etc.) into simple compositions - like all other architectural styles did for 5000 years – we are now working with inherently variable, adaptive forms that aggregate into continuously differentiated fields or systems. Multiple systems are correlated with each other and with the environment....Parametricism is the most potent movement and avant-garde style in architecture today."—2012, Patrik Schumacher, Interview On Parametricism

Some of the Software Used for Parametric Design:

Building the Single-Family Home:

Is all this parametric stuff too expensive for the typical consumer? Probably it is today, but not in the near future. As generations of designers pass through architecture schools, architects will know no other way to work than to use BIM software. This process has become affordable commercially because of its component inventory capabilities. The computer algorithm has to know the library of parts in order to manipulate them.

Computer Aided Design/Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) software keeps track of all building components and where they go. When the digital model is approved, the program lists the parts and where the builder can assemble them to create the real thing. Frank Gehry has been a pioneer with this technology and his 1997 Bilbao Museum and 2000 EMP are dramatic examples of CAD/CAM. Gehry's 2003 Disney Concert Hall was named one of the Ten Buildings That Changed America. What's the change? How buildings are designed AND built.

Criticism of Parametric Design:

Architect Neil Leach is troubled by Parametricism in that "It takes a computational and relates it to an aesthetic." So the question of the 21st century is this: Are designs that result in what some call blobitecture beautiful and aesthetically pleasing? The jury is out, but here are what people are saying:

  • "Although they look sci-fi futuristic, they are also curiously one-dimensional, for nothing ages faster than yesterday’s vision of the future. Just ask Jules Verne."—Witold Rybczynski, 2013
  • "Architecture is NOT ART although FORM is our specific contribution to the evolution of world society."—Patrik Schumacher, 2014
  • Federation Square in Melbourne, Australia—Named by The Telegraph (UK) as One of the World's 30 Ugliest Buildings (no. 14)
  • The Guardian described Zaha Hadid's proposed design for Tokyo's 2020 Olympic stadium as "looking like a gigantic bicycle helmet plonked down in the gardens" of the Meiji Shrine.
  • "Parametricism is ready to go mainstream. The style war has begun."—Patrik Schumacher, 2010

Confused? Maybe it's just too difficult even for architects to explain. "We believe that there are no parameters to design," say a group of architects calling their firm Design Parameters LLC. "No limitations. No boundaries. Our work over the past decade reflects this best....anything can be designed and built."

Many have questioned exactly this: just because anything CAN be designed and built, SHOULD it?

Learn More:

Read More:

  • The New Mathematics of Architecture by Jane Burry and Mark Burry, Thames & Hudson, 2012
    Buy on Amazon
  • The Autopoiesis of Architecture: A New Framework for Architecture by Patrik Schumacher, Wiley, 2010
    Buy on Amazon
  • The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Volume II: A New Agenda for Architecture by Patrik Schumacher, Wiley, 2012
    Buy on Amazon
  • Inside Smartgeometry: Expanding the Architectural Possibilities of Computational Design, Brady Peters and Terri Peters, eds., Wiley, 2013
    Buy on Amazon
  • Computation Works: The Building of Algorithmic Thought by Xavier De Kestelier and Brady Peters, eds., Architectural Design, Volume 83, Issue 2 (March/April 2013)
    Buy on Amazon
  • A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Oxford University Press, 1977
    Buy on Amazon
  • The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander, Oxford University Press, 1979
    Buy on Amazon
  • Elements of Parametric Design by Robert Woodbury, Routledge, 2010, and the companion website
    Buy on Amazon

Sources: On Parametricism - A Dialogue between Neil Leach and Patrik Schumacher, May 2012; Lost Amid the Algorithms by Witold Rybczynski, Architect, June 2013, Posted online July 11, 2013; A Total Makeover: Five Questions To Patrik Schumacher, March 23, 2014; Patrik Schumacher on parametricism, Architects Journal (AJ) Uk, May 6, 2010; Patrik Schumacher – Parametricism, Blog by Daniel Davis, September 25, 2010; Zaha Hadid's Tokyo Olympic stadium slammed as a 'monumental mistake' and a 'disgrace to future generations' by Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian, November 6, 2014; About, Design Parameters website [accessed January 15, 2015]