Projecting a Regionalist Parametrics

by Tyler Survant and Mark Talbot. Edited by Emmett Zeifman. Published in Project, Issue 5 (Spring 2016).

Project Journal_2.jpg

What do the regional and the parametric in architecture have in common? Initially only the differences are apparent. While the parametric is associated with computation, complexity, and aesthetic novelty, the regional concerns itself with place, the vernacular, and folk architectural traditions. Where the parametric explores the virtual, the regional focuses on the material. The technologies associated with parametric design are digital, electronic, automated, and programmed. In contrast, the technologies of the regional are analog, manual, craft-oriented, and contextual. The parametricist interprets site vis-a-vis location, a physical matrix of quantitative data including sun angles, prevailing winds, or population flows. The regionalist understands site by way of place, a socio-cultural context of contingent networks including vernacular typology, material resources, labor and traditional building techniques. While the parametric is influential today both in practice and theory, most notably through Patrik Schumacher’s discourse of Parametricism, the regional has not had a prominent position in architectural thought since Alexander Tzonis, Liane Lefaivre, and Kenneth Frampton championed Critical Regionalism thirty years ago.

Above their differences, however, closer consideration reveals that the regional and the parametric share particular affinities. Both appeal to procedural design logic, valuing iteration and emergence over idiosyncratic form and authorship. Both reject master narratives, architectural homogeneity, and standardization, regionalism by promoting geo-cultural specificity, Parametricism by advancing formal variation. And both honor complexity, each in its own way. Regionalism and Parametricism engage multiple networks of influence in the design and production of buildings, considering diverse constraints such as climate, material systems, or history. In light of these affinities and given the divergent trends in the architectural media today--the primary movement toward the high-tech (computational, global, corporate) and its cultural antithesis (materialist, local, humanitarian)--one wonders about an architecture that is at once both parametric and regional. What would this architecture look like and how might it function? What does synthesis gain us?

The role of the avant-garde

Lefaivre and Tzonis’s foundational essay “Critical Regionalism” traces the history of regionalist architecture, from Vitruvius’ interpretation of regionalism (the pure classical canon subjected to climatic variables) through the “Picturesque Regionalism” of the seventeenth century and the “Romantic Regionalism” of the eighteenth, to Nazi Heimat and postwar regionalisms of a populist or commercial nature.[1] Their text suggests that until modernism, architectural history can be read as the migration of universalist aesthetic regimes across social and political borders and the subsequent resistance of localist alternatives that seek to preserve cultural identities: “From its earliest manifestation, regionalism has expressed aspirations of liberation from the brute force of an a priori typology imposed by a power perceived as foreign and illegitimate.”[2] Frampton elaborates this historical “tug-of-war” in terms of opposing avant-garde movements in architecture.[3] On one hand, the progressive avant-garde promoted modernization, valuing universal civilization and “instrumental reason,” a technological and scientific determination of collective society’s holistic improvement, indifferent to local heterogeneity. The historical avant-garde, by contrast, opposed modernization, pushing to maintain the values manifest in the aesthetic production of indigenous populations, their “specific expression,” such that these populations not forsake their identity in an advancing world. The debate centers on the supposedly conflicting values of civilization, representing the universal, global, and techno-scientific, and culture, representing the particular, autochthonous, and psycho-social.

Frampton’s reading of Critical Regionalism relates to the failure of the avant-gardist mechanism in society. He dates the historical avant-garde’s failure to the Art Nouveau movement, which, with its slogan “L’art pour l’art, proclaimed that art no longer had a responsibility to any specific cultural (moral or didactic) function. With rapid advancements of science, medicine and industry over the course of the past century, instrumental reason became more difficult to contest as a driver of human progress.[4] Despite the success of civilization, the progressive avant-garde failed as well, abandoning any social project as the West withdrew from projects of societal transformation in the wake of the political tension between socialism and capitalism. Capitalism became an unregulated global force. In light of this breakdown, architectural Postmodernism, touted as an avant-garde movement from the late 1960s onward, was interpreted by Critical Regionalists as a purely technical and scenographic style, an acquiescence to the entertainment and commodity culture of capitalism. In response, Critical Regionalism challenged the ubiquity of global capitalism by proposing a regionally contingent version of the modern project, revisiting the avant-garde’s dual functions and speculating that specific cultural expression and universal civilization’s instrumental reason were historically intertwined.

Critique of Parametricism

Hindsight reveals that both Critical Regionalism and Parametricism share origins in the 1960s, when architects reacting to modernism’s slide into an anodyne style took different approaches forward, one toward the postmodern and the other toward the regional. Charles Jencks’ first timeline centers the Parametric on 1970 (notably, his revised timeline for the year 2000 eliminates this category, and the projects that would lead to Parametricism are grouped under the Biomorphic). Jencks’ parametric bubble contains such figures as John McHale, Lebbeus Woods and Christopher Alexander, and defines a field of architectural approaches based on the complexity of material and sociological networks. Schumacher’s Parametricism, with its emphasis on stylistic concerns, betrays these origins. Furthermore, as Eric Owen Moss reminds us, Parametricism has “homogenized the anomalous.”[5] It contradicts the specificity it aims to defend, by universalizing the particular and establishing itself as a formula.

Schumacher promotes parametric design as rational, systematic, and universal, and he markets it as an avant-garde movement, like Modernism before it. Yet Parametricism relates neither to the historical avant-garde and specific cultural expression nor to the progressive avant-garde and instrumental reason. Parametricism is not avant-gardist because it presupposes an avant-garde “without politics.”[6] It has forsaken any project of social reform. Modernism was bound up with technological developments related to urbanism and the housing of a new workforce for expanding industries.[7] Parametricism, on the other hand, is at risk of deploying software to mere stylistic ends to “represent post-Fordist network society”[8] rather than promoting technology as a driver of positive societal change in the tradition of the progressive avant-garde. This can result in a reductive architecture that favors looking complex over being complex.[9] It is obvious that the tools of the parametric embody great potential. Yet like Ingeborg Rocker we believe that for Parametricism to alter our thinking and habitation of the built environment, as its apologists intend, it will need to include non-formalist viewpoints.[10] The field of parameters must be expanded.

Critique of regionalism

Convinced that the avant-garde no longer possessed the power to guide society or to self-correct, Critical Regionalists proposed an alternative process. Critical Regionalism mediates the impact of universal civilization by incorporating place-defining regional elements “strangely.” The tactic emerged in response to “counterfeit settings in contemporary regionalism,” namely the proliferation of kitsch commercial regionalism for the benefit of tourism and entertainment and its romantic-regionalist aesthetic of “making familiar.”[11] Regionalism could no longer be based solely on autochthonous forms. Frampton names this approach “synthetic contradiction”[12] and Tzonis and Lefaivre describe it as “defamiliarization” or “making strange.”[13] They believe the tactic is complementary rather than contradictory in relation to trends toward higher technology, global economy and culture, and they observe that vernacular building typologies, local labor, techniques and materials can be fused with modern building principles to form architectural work of simultaneous local and global relevance.[14]

The production of regional counterfeits is today an industry of its own. Like Parametricism, regionalism too is a commodity. The market values the regional “look” as a stylistic signifier of authenticity or the exotic, which Frampton dismisses as “consumerist iconography masquerading as culture.”[15] Tzonis and Lefaivre describe commercial regionalism more bluntly, calling it “architectural pornography.”[16] As such, it is heir apparent to Postmodern architecture’s referentiality, for its use is now citational, communicative, self-conscious. Severed from its original objective—to resist the universal—contemporary regionalism might be better described as the specter (or the parody, perhaps) of critical regionalism. Reiser + Umemoto have coined another term to describe this condition. “Ultra-Regionalism,” to which The Atlas of Novel Tectonics devotes a chapter, defines contemporary regionalism as an emerging fundamentalist ideology where, paradoxically, local difference is manifested as an inherent universal structure.

The demand for the regional spans both ends of the global market, from luxury vacation homes in Aspen to charity-funded public housing in Africa. Despite its impotence in a Western context, the production of regional architecture may still have a certain political potential in the Global South, for the developing world may be the only constituency left for whom the “modern” holds any real meaning. We in the West have been at various points in our history ancient, modern, postmodern, and post-postmodern. Certain scholars even suggest, polemically, that we have never been modern at all.[17] Development discourse in the Global South, on the other hand, continues to be defined by a pre-modern/modern axis. Admittedly, a hemispheric reorientation takes critical regionalism far from its original context. The “modern” critiqued by the Critical Regionalists is not the same “modern” of Mali or Bolivia, though they are a part of the same historical process. Yet the modern retains power in the social imaginary of the Global South, and its effects are apparent in a kind of consumerist iconography that references architectural modernism without sharing its functionalism or production logic. An example is East Africa’s regionally-produced window units, whose steel frames mimic industrial, standardized products but whose dimensions are all subtly (and aggravatingly) different owing to their handmade production.[18]

In this context of the developing world, an uncritical regionalism is convenient for clients who seek to modernize without forsaking visual continuity with local architectural tradition, and whose resources may be limited to the local by economic necessity. But we must recognize that a referential regionalism is not a vital regionalism and acknowledge the irony that surrounds ultra-regionalism: historically, regionalism’s purpose was to oppose universal styles rather than become one itself.

Analog parametrics

Is there a new hybrid to be found? Perhaps the regional and parametric have always been unwittingly allied? As early as 1964, the mathematician-turned-architect Christopher Alexander wrote in Notes on the Synthesis of Form about opposing methods of architectural design that link the two.[19] The “self-conscious process” is a virtual system of explicit and teachable rules, whose outcome is not the building itself but its representation. Thus complexity is limited by legibility. With the self-conscious process, building is the provenance of the architect and master craftsman who trade in representations, a side effect being the estrangement of local populations from building traditions. The “unselfconscious process,” by contrast, is unprofessional and non-representational. The design and construction process are one and the same, developing through real-time feedback and iteration. Inhabitants themselves modify their dwellings over time, and building skills are passed down informally through generations.

To illustrate the unselfconscious process, Alexander cites the Mousgoum hut built by tribesmen in northern Cameroon. As if by evolution, the hut was developed over centuries via an iterative process of incremental technique-honing and form-finding. Because of the influence of multiple generations, patterns of building operation, daily life, and maintenance, as well as contextual constraints, are fused into the building’s form.[20] The unselfconscious process is a process of optimization, as it were. As the Mousgoum hut shows, Alexander’s parametrics has a social and regional valence. He depicts the vernacular as a virtual process enacted through an analog medium with implicit parameters: material techniques, physical constraints, regional availability, and human labor. Like contemporary parametric design methods, feedback and iteration are central to its evolution.

Regionalist parametrics

Peggy Deamer has advocated for a synthesis, under the general banner of “Parametrics,” between stylistic Parametricism and its Building Information Modeling (BIM) counterpart.[21] While acknowledging that certain practices already operate in a middle ground, Deamer calls attention to the operative stereotypes of two opposing camps within the discourse on and production of the digital in architecture today, stereotypes that continue to influence our architectural imaginary. On one hand there are the digital aesthetes and script-savvy students, whose object is algorithmic systems and iconic form, and whose audience is global media culture. On the other are the production-oriented professionals and corporate managers, whose object is functional systems and the processing of information, whose audience is corporate clients and real estate developers.

By way of critique, Deamer groups these camps into a common but factious enterprise analogous to the schizophrenic, a single body hosting competing identities. In addition to a shared technocratic, even techno-utopian, orientation toward the future that fetishizes software and virtuality, the factions share an obsession with “neo-liberalism’s values of promoting consumption and production.”[22] Where BIM adherents appeal to capitalism’s base, the realm of power and money, Parametricists target capitalism’s global superstructure, “that realm of ritual, institutional, and intellectual dissemination.”[23] Their respective audiences turn out to be one and the same beast. The result? In short, an abdication of the social and the political in architecture. The synthetic “Parametrics” that Deamer imagines as an alternative to these contemporary practices would “serve a rebalancing of production and consumption, to align market needs with social and environmental needs.”[24]

We share Deamer’s vision for a shift within architectural production away from image consumption towards a reinvestment in the actuality of building. The question is, can Deamer’s proposed “rebalancing” be achieved through Parametrics alone? We expand the call for synthesis and bring into the fold the regional (of the “critical” rather than “ultra” persuasion). The regional can provide grounds for a cultural resistance (via specific expression) to global market forces by engaging labor through craft and localized production. Our thought experiment, regionalist parametrics, explores unexamined affinities between vernacular building practices and universal technology, and builds a conceptual bridge between regionalist goals for the built environment and contemporary design technology. Rather than reading the regional and the parametric as oppositional forces, constructing a false dichotomy on the basis of their recent histories, we seek a common ground on which these two can meet. Neither “Regional Parametricism” nor “Parametric Regionalism” represent the possibilities of a “regionalist parametrics.” By dropping the –ism from both regionalism and Parametricism, we abandon the ideologies associated with each, thus freeing the regional from essentialist interpretations and reopening the parametric to the social dimension of architectural production. Employing “regionalist” in the Tzonis and Lefaivre sense, rather than simply “regional,” denotes a critical stance toward universalizing architectural movements, the key ingredient that inhibits regional design from lapsing into superficial commercial or revivalist applications.

Regionalist parametrics in practice

Several contemporary scholars and practices have already begun exploring this fertile territory. The following examples are limited to sub-Saharan Africa, though it is important to acknowledge that, for better or worse, all are of Western origin. The American cyberneticist and ethnomathematician Ron Eglash has written for years about the connection between computation and indigenous practices. His website features a section “Culturally-Situated Design Tools” that provides the history of various cultural designs--from the Native American to African traditions such as the transformational geometry of Mangbetu art or kente cloth algorithms--as well as open-source applets for simulating the computational logic of each.[25] His book on African fractals cites architectural examples of indigenous algorithmic design ranging in scale from the urban morphology of villages to the recursive tectonics of windscreen construction.[26]

MOS Architects unbuilt 2008 proposal for a Uganda Community Structure, or “Pavilion No. 6,” was developed along regionalist parametric lines. Though the project does not draw strictly from cultural references, it focuses on local material and appropriate technology. MOS utilizes the technique of corbelling to produce an enclosure that transforms from undulations at the ground level to a capstone that is almost branch-like. In order to construct the form, the architects designed several distinctive block types (to be built of compressed earth) at different angles to negotiate the loft. They also designed a tool to be built on site to help hoist the blocks to the correct angle and place. Parametric techniques, with their desire to suppress tectonic hierarchy, find common ground with traditional aggregative construction logics (building components such as mud brick, compressed earth block, bamboo, etc.). The tectonic of compressed earth blocks is an appropriate technology for East Africa. Soil is free on site and, unlike clay bricks, the production of compressed earth blocks does not require any heat (beyond sunlight), nor mortar, nor particularly skilled labor. But in contrast to the typical design of earth block structures in the region--rectilinear structures constructed of a running bond of uniform units--MOS’s structure is curvilinear, with a variegated coursing pattern optimized using parametric tools, and with apertures that were digitally determined based on solar orientation parameters.

Perhaps the most salient example of regionalist parametrics to date is the 2008 Museum World Heritage Site of Mapungubwe, South Africa by Peter Rich Architects. Acknowledging the immediate limitations on construction brought to bear by the project’s rural location, Rich brought together a team of experts in brick vaulting in order to bridge between his formal aspirations for the project and these realities. The team, composed of John Oschendorf (Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at M.I.T.), Michael H. Rammage (Senior University Lecturer in Architecture at Cambridge University) and Phillipe Block (Associate Professor at the E.T.H.), combined stabilized earth tiles fabricated on (and from) the site with a 600-year-old Mediterranean tile vaulting construction system. To test the vault’s spans and optimize the design, they employed principles of graphic statics developed through computer simulations. The result is a building composed of a series of compression vaults that, in the words of the architect, “draw from indigenous forms and ordering principles that are adapted to meet contemporary physical needs and aspirations. The diaphanous vaults establish a rhythm that speaks of the geological formations and of the earliest regional dwellings.”[27] The building’s construction was performed by unskilled labor through the project’s poverty relief program, which employed locals and trained them in new building techniques. The construction of Mapungubwe suggests a new paradigm, the use of advanced software with input parameters for local material and techniques in order to virtually simulate and conceptualize a hybrid building typology for the Global South.

Conclusions

Schumacher has stated that traditional cultures are dead and the only remaining regional specificity is climatic difference.[28] Statements like these hinge on an underlying question: is the regional even relevant anymore? This doubt haunts all contemporary discussions of regionalism, summoning its past associations with romanticism. Schumacher’s view is glib but it is also accessible. However, in spite of the collapse of spatial barriers to trade, travel, and communication that have accompanied globalization—a historical process that Peter Sloterdijk refers to as spatial compression—the relationship between the global and local is decidedly asymmetrical toward the local.[29] The “local” is frequently employed abstractly as an antonym to the global. Yet in psychological, social, cultural, linguistic, and political terms this formulation is false, as the persistently irreversible relation between strangers and locals suggests. Politics itself is an in situ construct, rooted in localism: “If I am unable to have provincial feelings, politics is not a suitable profession for me. The res publica can only function as a parliament of local spirits.”[30] Global politics, Sloterdijk reminds us, is anchored in the topopolitical, a politics of places.

From the decline of Critical Regionalism into Ultra-Regionalism, we observe that the staid dichotomies on which regionalism has depended (civilization versus culture, the local versus the global, the vernacular versus the modern) turn out to be false dilemmas. As Alan Colquhoun concludes in his rebuttals to Critical Regionalism, localism and traditionalism are not essential qualities but rather “universal potentials always lurking on the reverse face of modernization and rationalization.”[31] Like Tzonis and Lefaivre’s notion of complementarity, today we can overwrite Frampton’s “synthetic contradiction” as a synthesis without contradiction. Universal and localist concerns coexist.

In order for parametrics to overcome mere aesthetic conceit or ecological mannerism, we must expand the field of design parameters to include the social, the historical, the cultural, and the anthropological. Building information technologies remove many of the barriers to the types of architectural complexity that Alexander outlined in the construction of the Mousgoum hut. Today’s digital modeling represents architecture three-dimensionally and at full scale, commonly using differential calculus rather than the early modern numeracy that was best at measuring things that are parallel, perpendicular and discrete.[32] BIM technology contributes a fourth and fifth dimension, the interaction among three-dimensional components over time and the correlation of these components with construction costs and other logistical variables. The promise of these advancements in representation is the dissolution of the dichotomy between the self-conscious and unselfconscious processes and the convergence of the virtual and the regional on parametric grounds. By operating virtually, the speed of the feedback in the formally iterative approach, through processes of self-selection and emergence or empirical form-finding, allows for many potential buildings to be analyzed and vetted before they are built. Add to that an “open-source” ethos and participatory design model that is also enabled by the digital--a form of socio-aesthetic indeterminacy that Mario Carpo calls the “Wikipedic style of many hands”[33]--and regionalist parametrics could animate a non-authorial design process analogous to the vernaculars of the premoderns. ■


Notes

[1]  Tzonis, Alexander and Leane Lefaivre. "Critical Regionalism", Critical Regionalism: The Pomona Meeting Proceedings, edited by S. Amourgis,  pp. 3–23. Pomona: College of Environmental Design, California state Polytechnic University, 1991.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Frampton, Kenneth. (1983) Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of  Resistance. In, Foster, H. (ed). Postmodern Culture. London; Pluto Press. pp.16-30. pg.18

[4] Ibid., 19.

[5] Moss, Eric Owen. “Parametricism and Pied Piperism: Responding to Patrik Schumacher.” Log, Winter 2011, p. 83.

[6] Hatherley, Owen. “Zaha Hadid Architects and the Neoliberal Avant-Garde.” Mute. 26 October 2010. http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/zaha-hadid-architects-and-neoliberal-avant-garde.

[7] Rocker, Ingeborg. Apropos Parametricism If In What Style Should We Build, Log 21 pg.90

[8] Schumacher, Patrik. “Parametricism as Style - Parametricist Manifesto.” (Presentation, Dark Side Club, 11th Architecture Biennale, Venice 2008.)

[9] Rocker, Ingeborg. Apropos Parametricism If In What Style Should We Build, Log 21 pg.97

[10] Ibid., pg.99

[11] Tzonis, Alexander and Leane Lefaivre. "Critical Regionalism", Critical Regionalism: The Pomona Meeting Proceedings, edited by S. Amourgis,  pp. 3–23. Pomona: College of Environmental Design, California state Polytechnic University, 1991. pg. 19

[12] Frampton, Kenneth. (1983) Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of  Resistance. In, Foster, H. (ed).  Postmodern Culture. London; Pluto Press. pp.16-30. pg.18

[13] Tzonis, Alexander and Leane Lefaivre. "Critical Regionalism", Critical Regionalism: The Pomona Meeting Proceedings, edited by S. Amourgis,  pp. 3–23. Pomona: College of Environmental Design, California state Polytechnic University, 1991. pg. 19

[14] Ibid., 23.

[15]  Frampton, Kenneth. “Prospects for a Critical Regionalism.” Perspecta, Vol. 20. (1983): 149. Print.

[16] Tzonis, Alexander and Leane Lefaivre. "Critical Regionalism", Critical Regionalism: The Pomona Meeting Proceedings, edited by S. Amourgis,  pp. 3–23. Pomona: College of Environmental Design, California state Polytechnic University, 1991.

[17]  Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

[18] Sho, Yutaka. “Looking Like Developed: Aesthetics and Ethics in Rwandan Housing Projects.” Journal of Architectural Education. Vol. 68, Iss. 2, 2014.

[19] Alexander, Christopher. Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Harvard University Press, 1964. pgs 55-70.

[20] Ibid., pg.30

[21] Deamer, Peggy. “Parametricism, The Commons, & Social Representation.” Conference lecture, The Politics of Parametricism: Digital Technologies and the Future(s) of Sociality. California Institute for the Arts, Los Angeles. November 16, 2013.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Culturally Situated Design Tools.” Accessed July 10, 2015. http://csdt.rpi.edu/

[26] Eglash, Ron. African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design. Rutgers University Press, 1999.

[27] Holcim Awards application HA08-QFITR - Mapungubwe National Park Interpretive Center

[28] Patrik Schumacher, interview by Angel Tenorio. The Impact of Parametricism on Architecture and Society. London, March 2014.

[29] Sloterdijk, Peter. In the World Interior of Capital. Trans. Wieland Hoban. Cambridge, 2013. 249-264.

[30] Ibid., 261.

[31] Colquhoun, Alan. “The Concept of Regionalism,” in Postcolonial Space(s), Nalbantoglu & Thai, editors. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997), 20.

[32] Carpo, Mario. Drawing with Numbers: Geometry and Numeracy in Early Modern Architectural Design. The Journal of the Society of Architectural   Historians, Vol.62, No.4. (Dec., 2003), pg. 465

[33] Carpo, Mario. “Digital Darwinism: Form and Indeterminacy in Contemporary Digital Design Theory.” (Lecture at The Bartlett, London, 2012-2013 Lecture Series.) https://vimeo.com/5844953


Cite

Tyler Survant and Mark Talbot, “Projecting a Regionalist Parametrics,” Project, no. 5 (2016): 36-45.