Light Years – Discussing Parametricism with Patrik Schumacher

Light Years – Discussing Parametricism with Patrik Schumacher

What is Parametricism? The Director and Principal of Zaha Hadid Architects tells The Peak.

If you haven’t come across ‘Parametricism’ before, chances are you will very soon. Or perhaps you’ve already encountered Parametricism in practice if you have stepped foot in the London Aquatics Centre during the 2012 London Olympic Games or marvelled at the voluptuous curves of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul.

To Patrik Schumacher, the architect responsible for coining the term, Parametricism seems to be far more than a new global style for architecture and urban design. It is a way forward – the way forward – that delivers elegant solutions to the increasingly complex and dynamic problems of modern life, conjuring up landscapes, buildings and objects that shift and undulate, enabling a new era of interconnection and interactivity. Such is his dedication to avantgarde design that he’s even invented a perforated, sportswear-inspired Parametric tuxedo, which he occasionally models – though not, unfortunately, for The Peak’s photoshoot.

Perhaps we can expect no less from the Director and Principal of Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) – an architectural firm credited with redefining architecture for the 21st century, thanks to its breathtakingly inventive, ultra-sophisticated designs. Its first completed building – the Vitra Fire Station in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany – was what he calls “a manifesto for the future” as, indeed, all of the firm’s subsequent buildings and designs continue to be. But for the architectural firm that shapes the future, what sort of shape will its own future now take?


Flitting through Kuala Lumpur to speak at the Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival 2017 in July, Schumacher cuts a tall, streamlined figure at the Reimagining Architecture’ exhibition in Publika’s White Box, which provides an insight into 40 years of ZHA’s design innovation. It also heralds the firm’s new collaboration with Malaysian developer UEM Sunrise, which recently launched Mayfair – an elegant MYR1.1 billion luxury development in Melbourne offering 158 bespoke residences, including penthouse Zaha Signature Suites that are listed for up to MYR43 million.

Beside adding Mayfair’s sculpted silhouette to the skyline of Melbourne’s CBD, ZHA shows every sign of continuing to move forward at rapid speed. Its New York project, 520 West 28th Street – currently under construction, adjacent to the city’s High Line – was named Project of the Year in June by the Society of American Registered Architects, New York Council. The completion of the steel structure of Beijing’s new 313,000 sq m international airport passenger terminal, which forms the backbone of ZHA’s characteristic six-pier radial design, points towards the commencement of flight operations in 2019.

All these and more have taken place less than two years since the unexpected passing of Dame Zaha Hadid herself, whose death in early 2016 prompted a flood of tributes not just from the global architectural community, but the wider world too. From a video tribute featuring leading architects, such as Lord Norman Foster, Bjarke Ingels and Daniel Libeskind, to being immortalised in a Google Doodle, it was clear how much admiration and affection the Iraqi-born, Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning Hadid had inspired during her lifetime. But what of ZHA – the design studio she founded in 1979 – and Hadid’s architectural legacy?

“Her most outstanding quality was her sense of mission and ambition, and her passion for perfection – a nearly unhealthy perfectionism!” Schumacher recalls, having worked alongside Hadid since 1988. “There’d be a lot of very intense sharing and nights of creative searching, particularly when we worked on competitions towards short deadlines. Of course, there were those nice moments of sharing late dinners in the office, with that feeling of having achieved something. It wasn’t always conflict-free – there were all sorts of tensions and different ideas flying around during our work process, too.”

Hadid’s intuitive approach towards architecture, which earned her the moniker ‘Queen of the Curve’, made a decidedly fruitful partnership with Schumacher’s more theoretical mode of operating – even if she did occasionally interrupt his lectures when she disagreed with him. “She had a very dominant personality,” he says, smiling at the memory of being shouted down by Hadid more than once. “When I joined, I tried to earn respect by working hard – quietly and intensely – and slowly grew to be respected by her. Then I started to reveal that I also had a very strong personality and opinions, and I think she appreciated those counter-arguments.

“I helped her with computational design and investments, and realigned her away from an older deconstructivist guard to a newer, younger group of architects, into a movement that became Parametricism. That was very important, even if the groundwork had already been laid in her earlier work, because there were many directions the firm could have taken. It’s clear the deconstructivist route was a dead end – we made the right choice. It’s just that it’s something you find more easily in a dialogue than if you’re by yourself.”

If it was Hadid who pulled the firm forward, I suggest, then it was Schumacher who helped push. “It was very much so. She was an intuitive character striving for otherness and originality. I was someone interested in those ideas, trying to rationalise and explicate them, to make sense of them, and make them viable. It was an important dialogue between the two of us. Sometimes, I’d reflect that it was good for me to be pushed out of my corner. I could see my own limitations, just as she saw hers, so there was a complementarity to it – and we respected each other for this.”


Again comes the question: where to now for ZHA? With Schumacher – who, in the wake of Hadid’s death, was also named an executor of her will and a trustee of the Zaha Hadid Foundation – in the driver’s seat, it’s up to him to decide which direction the firm will take. “We have a very well-designed organisation of fantastic professionals – highly mature leaders, profit centres, various department heads and a board of directors – so, on the business side of things, it’s about professionalism, bringing in new work and promoting the firm,” he responds.

“I run this firm as a strong collective, so my role has really become focused on design leadership, leading the field itself, and innovating and researching to find new inspirations and projects. That’s why I’m now doing a lot of teaching, working on computational design with younger architects in my research team, as well as with a group of PhD students – so, it’s on the exploratory side of things, along with lecturing and disseminating our work. It’s important to make and clarify the arguments behind our work. It’s not just about the presence of beauty – beauty should mean something.

“Lecturing is an important part of my role, besides stepping up into the media – I’ve done 22 lectures this year so far – communicating what we’re about. I’ve been doing it for quite a long time already, but this aspect of my role has now intensified.” Encouraging discussions on Parametricism and architectural theory is clearly something Schumacher enjoys – his enthusiasm for theoretical debates seems almost voracious (it’s also worth nothing that his Parametric Manifesto, which he first presented in 2008 remains, by turns, hotly contested, dissected and supported amongst the architectural community).

Over the course of one and a half hours, his keynote lecture for the Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival maps out an enticing image of a world constructed and informed by Parametricism – a synergistic, fluid landscape that presents an attractive alternative to today’s often unpalatable, sprawling urban spill. From the time he first saw Hadid’s explosively “courageous and outrageous” drawings in the 1980s, which manipulated and distorted shapes with coherent, calligraphic grace, he asserts: “I realised architecture was much more exciting than I originally thought. Her dynamism spoke to me – it shocked me out of my slumbers.”

Thoroughly wide awake and at the forefront of the movement, Schumacher – who is currently tenured Professor at Innsbruck University, and has taught at various architectural schools across Europe and the US – is determined to explore the myriad possibilities that Parametricism offers. “There’s a meilleur of sources of inspiration: I’ve been looking at natural processes and forms, and recently, vernacular mimetics and biomimetics. But I’m not interested in just novelty for the sake of novelty. For me, it’s not in this superficial sense of fashion, where each season must create interest with something new.

“In Parametrics, fashion – for me – should move across the next several decades and set principles with performance-driven designs. We need a kind of semiotics at play, where ways of expressing the moods and modes of interaction, of being in the world, won’t change by the season. It’s a criticism of those who get bored of one architectural form until they find another. I like this element of timelessness in architecture – not eternity, but the sustainment of buildings across decades or maybe even a century, even if certain units of society evolve and change.”

Providing Schumacher’s manifesto holds strong, ZHA’s creations of labyrinthine trajectories, flowing asymmetric frames and spectacularly energetic twists – take the famous Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, the MAXXI Museum in Rome, or the Chanel Mobile Art Pavilion, for instance – will continue to rise from landscapes looking like half-alien, half-organic mirages from light years away. As they make new appearances in Miami, Macau, Dubai and Riyadh, it seems it’s more a question of whether the world will be able to keep up as ZHA moves forward.


The biggest obstructions to Parametricism’s progress, it would appear, are what Schumacher considers restrictive planning regulations and the lack of a freely self-regulating market. At last year’s World Architecture Festival in Berlin, he unveiled an eight-point urban policy manifesto on how to deal with London’s housing crisis, which included privatising public space and doing away with social housing. It was not received warmly on all fronts, least of all by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.

“I’ve had a lifelong interest in understanding how society functions and what the conditions of human progress are – emancipation, freedom and prosperity,” says Schumacher. “The people who most radically and explicitly posited these questions were the Marxists, which was where I originally came from, because they were asking the right questions. What are the most productive social relations? Are social and political relations fetters on human development – in particular, productivity development? These questions remain the same, but I realise the answers coming from the socialist planning process were maybe viable in the 20th century, in the era of mechanical mass production.

“Those answers are no longer viable or feasible in the contemporary world. The older political process, which wants to plan and install rules on everything – across Europe, for instance – becomes a barrier on development. That lack of freedom and entrepreneurship means a lot of projects capable of happening do not happen. We end up having to move much more slowly,” he explains, outlining his frustrations at the fact that only a fraction of ZHA’s designs have been brought to life.

What Schumacher wants to see instead is “an environment where originality and experimental ideas are possible” – possibly one where architects are less likely to encounter the same difficulties that both he and Hadid had with unrealised projects, such as ZHA’s concept for the Cardiff Bay Opera House. “I’m getting very impatient. I want to have a few more decades to live, but I want new things to happen – the spread of prosperity, and the excitement of new technologies and new forms of life becoming available. The political process is playing it too safe. Protectionism is hampering progress, and the social costs are enormous.”

He is still, it seems, pushing – for a wider understanding of Parametricism, for a framework that allows for its realisation and even himself to become the figurehead that Hadid was, even as he acknowledges: “It will never be quite the same.” He points to the source of ZHA’s power to strategise, transform and endure: “It is exploring Zaha’s creative DNA, working with our research and emphasising new arenas.

“The development of corporate territories is an important area of work: we’re handling corporate headquarters in Wuhan and Guangzhou, and a major technology hub in Moscow. They’re highperformance morphologies and high-productivity environments that show off the style we’ve been talking about. As an admirer of Foster & Partners, I want to grow the company from 400 people to 800 or 1,000 in order to have more impact, draw more talent and invest more in research. My vision,” says Schumacher, “is one of expansion.” The more fashion-forward of us will just have to wait and see about those Parametric tuxedos.


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