Saturday, June 4, 2011

Sustainability and Parametrics

[Draft for an argument:]

5-10 years ago when architects would talk about digital design, the conversation would revolve around the box and the blob. Always the characterization was of the box buiding with substance and the blob building (as all computer assisted design was labelled) with a misguided play of libido/branding/ and consumerism masquerading in a field where people once dealt with serious problems. Also the argument was that digital design inherently unsustainable.

Today, this generation is 5-10 years older and has been forced to swallow the previously unimaginable conclusion that software tools have actually changed the way that people operate and function (beyond just architecture). Within architecture, too many buildings have actually been constructed using digital methodologies, for the old arguments to be convincing.

These days, the old professors and practitioners solve their moral dilemma by associating the digital with the efficient and the optimized in terms of sustainability. They say things like 'parametricism at its best can produce buildings that are more efficient in their use of resources and better adapted to their environment.' By at last acknowleding a narrow utility for digital tools, and invoking the quasi-mystical binding agent of greenness they seek to escape the inherent stupidity of their position. They need to stop saying it and actually do it if this is what they think. It would help them to be much more specific and credible.
What would we get from them if they were to actually get their hands dirty with software?  More or less, we would be looking at Norman Foster's practice. Foster's office is one of the more competent practices at articulating the mainstream modern position of this generation through built projects and pursuing an agenda of sustainability as the discipline of architecture conventionally understands it. What they are doing is building optimized buildings and using technology to pursue calculated high performance. Foster is an effective and credible architect, but his buildings look like they were designed by a corporate boardroom - all differences are smoothed over into a completely integrated system which normalizes moments of differentiation. Any articulation is highly systematic. If anything is excessive, it is the overall expenditure of resources and a much higher than normal quotient of engineering prowess. So sometimes the results are attractive, but are seldom of much interest unless you are analyzing them with a spreadsheet. This normalization of difference -even if it is accomplished using computers effectively - is no longer relevant as a desirable goal for today's culture.


Parametrics are tools, they are technique, maybe they imply methods. But tools, techniques, and even methodologies ultimately they depend on decisions, on what they are asked to do, on the skill of the craftsmen wielding them and how they interact with the resistance and possibilities of the raw materials on which they are employed.

Sustainability discourse in architecture should not be some sort of golden standard: it should be an expected basic competency - for instance we are expected not to use lead paint or asbestos or other materials that would poison the occupants of our buildings. Similarly we should be expected to understand how to design environments that use energy and resources efficiently. Before air-conditioning, it was an expected basic competency.

Environmental parametric tools can help us, and should be used to expose potential -especially at the schematic stages, but a new skyscraper built with the latest technologies will not necessarily be a critical object or a good use of resources. Yes, we can optimize a solution within a scenario. But a poorly chosen solution that is optimized in a sophisticated way- in the end becomes an very belabored expression of stupidity and inelegance. Sophistication needs to be achieved at the schematic stage. Part of the problem is that it is very hard for an architect to turn down the economic gain (for themselves) of a ground-up project, when the response should actually be to re-use, convert, or re-purpose an existing assemblage of resources.

We are wasting our time with critical attacks or allowances for parametrics. They are just tools. The tools of the time and place. Anyone with any talent that is coming of age right now must master these. But we have to separately master the art of argumentation and critical decision-making. This involves a very different self-criticism. We must use these tools and become familiar with them personally if we are to understand how to ask them to do more interesting things.

Sustainability happened to be the way that the digital was explained to people without the capacity to understand how the digital operates.


Much more interesting is how we can use parametricism to build correlations between a population of decisions that are tied together into a project. By building in layers and layers of decision-making and analyses where in each stage we process, and further post process  the previous decisions, a project can take on an elegance and a momentum that exceeds what we already knew or the capacities that we could manually describe through traditional operations. We can be critical of process and of an ecology of decisions and explicitly defined correlations between inputs, the interpretation and organization of a scheme and its evolution and transition into physical assembly, crafting, instantiation.

Parametrics includes issues of environmental adaptation, but this adaptation is not the point of digital tooling. It doesnt make much sense to ask if the computer is good or bad or if it is a silver bullet for the ecological crises (it is not - though it will certainly be part of any proposed moves in that field). It makes more sense to evaluate the talents of the designer in the situation into which they are thrown, and the situations into which they throw themselves. Digital tooling is already an irresistible attraction for our generation because it is part of the general resurgence of interest in our broader society with the sciences and with using technology to interact with the world. The critiques of technological modernity still apply - but the postmodern was never an end of modernity - it was the acceleration of its effects. Where design (digital or otherwise) becomes relevant is when it takes on messy situations - sometimes where it is completely overwhelmed - and takes pleasure in responding to the situation. There is absolutely nothing wrong for instance with the grossly irresponsible Hernan Diaz Alonso. He is not trying to create followers. He is trying to ask his students to articulate an meaningful argument beyond their tools. Its hard to see the point of talking shit on a new technique if you are not going to try it - just do what you do and shut up. But if you are going to be part of the broader conversation, then first use the tools, and with that basis, criticize them.. I wouldnt want to convert followers for Patrick Schumacher, or even to convince people to read him: he is purposefully dry as hell and repeats himself incessently and with the utmost bluntness  and dogmatism in his manner. But if he is not a good writer, he is still absolutely correct that the digital style is here to stay - and that it is interesting beyond its  mere fashionability.

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