“Parametricism by its very formulation is controversial,” writes Helen Castle, head of RIBA’s professional programs, in Parametricism 2.0: Rethinking Architecture's Agenda for the 21st Century (2016, Architectural Design). Based on the process of parametric design, whereby algorithms are used to generate formal and spatial information, parametricism has become a style and a movement.
And while parametricism—a term coined by Patrik Shumacher, principal at Zaha Hadid Architects—has not been adopted broadly in architectural practice, it has exerted a measurable influence in the academy. Yet as design students become more familiar its corresponding algorithm-based digital tools, the initial allure of intricately scripted surfaces and twisting towers has begun to fade. A counter-movement has emerged—one that embraces parametric thinking while eschewing notions of style. Its proponents claim that the early infatuation with style has limited the potential of the technical components of parametric exploration.
This alternative view inspired the creation of “Drawing Codes: Experimental Protocols of Architectural Representation,” an exhibition that recently opened at the California College of the Arts (CCA) new Hubbell Street Galleries. Curated by CCA architecture faculty Andrew Kudless and Adam Marcus, AIA, with Clayton Muhleman, the show features 22 commissioned works that explore a broad range of possibilities enabled by computational tools without style constraints. In order to focus the effort on issues of representation, the curators stipulated that the works all be 2D and monochromatic. They also required that the works conform to at least one of four prompts regarding the use of code: as generative constraint, as language, as cipher, or as script.
For the curators, "Drawing Codes" was born out of discontent. "We have encountered a number of students who have confused parametricism—the style—with parametric thinking and techniques,” Kudless says. “I’ve actually had students say that they didn’t want to learn parametric tools because they don’t want to design wavy facades. Students were confusing the way that some have used parametric tools for being the only way that the tools could be used when their potential is much larger than any one style.” By prioritizing works that are made possible by parametric tools—whether generated via computation or not—the curators have attempted to broaden the discussion about parametric thinking and its role in architectural design and production.
Some of the works are aimed at providing thought-provoking critique about the current use of digital tools. An example is Andrew Heumann’s “The 11-House / 1.8%,” which explores the use of Autodesk Revit in automating the design process. Focusing on the “Revit Basic Sample Project” technology, a library of model templates, Heumann generated 11 possible models and then combined their data into a single set of representations. The striking result prompted Marcus to declare it “one of the most creative and bizarre—in a good way—commentaries on the role of automation in architecture that I’ve seen.”
Other works seek to demonstrate the untapped capabilities of parametric processes that may be unfamiliar to both fans and critics of parametricism. Kudless’ contribution “The Walled City (10-Mile Version)” demonstrates an unanticipated application of the Rhinoceros plug-in Grasshopper, which is typically employed to create complex 3D models. Kudless’ drawing depicts a roof plan of a hypothetical conurbation formed by a single, 10-mile-long “building” that meanders across a square site. The exercise shows the capacity of an algorithm to be a large-scale planning tool while simultaneously demonstrating rich detailing possibilities. Although Kudless’ work is intentionally hyperbolic, it highlights untested options for architectural production, including seemingly mundane representational tasks that typically require a lot of manual effort. “It demonstrates how scripts can be used to hatch shadows, draw landscaping, and even populate urban spaces with crowds of people,” Marcus says.
Another objective is the construction of a visual argument. The Open Workshop’s “Environment as Politics: From Identity to Density Politics” utilizes geographic data from the recent presidential election to demonstrate the degree to which political partisanship is linked to population density. The drawing depicts an isometric view of imagined parcels of land with population density expressed as vertical extrusions, akin to an inverted bar graph, resulting in meaningful insights. “Echoing studies from the 2012 election analysis, the tipping point between Democrat and Republican affiliation occurs at approximately 1.25 to 1.56 people per acre,” the designers write in their project statement. This novel depiction of partisanship as it relates to the physical environment conveys this connection far more effectively than conventional maps. “Building upon our findings, we propose a 'Valley of Density'—where the space between you and your neighbor plays a critical role in determining your politics,” write the designers. “If the spatial environment is the subject of the architect, this reminds us that architecture is always political.”
Also notable is the interest in experimenting with the “misuse” of new technologies to generate novel means of communication. One example is Erin Besler’s “100%,” which she describes as “a drawing of a drawing of a drawing” in her project statement. Presumably generated by a robot at high speed, the work is simultaneously precise and imprecise—a mass of manic ink brush strokes partially informed by an underlying series of parallel lines. “Here, the conventional role of a machine in reproducing near-perfect copies of originals is inverted and instead we are left with a far-from-perfect copy that has qualities that speak to the physicality of the machine,” Kudless says. Although such forms of misuse may seem gratuitous to some audiences, this kind of exploration can reveal the unexploited expressive potential of technology.
Despite the uniformity of these works’ black-and-white, 2D format—or perhaps because of it—“Drawing Codes” presents a surprisingly varied spectrum of ideas, questions, and explorations concerning the role of architectural representation today. “One of the things that I didn’t necessarily plan or expect is how that even with the focused and highly constrained call that we issued to the participants, the show represents a pretty compelling cross-section through contemporary architectural practice,” Marcus says. As the initial novelty of algorithmic software subsides, and the limitations of parametricism as a style and BIM software become apparent, designers have begun to think more instrumentally about the function of architectural representation. “One of the goals of this exhibition has been to reveal the productive capacity of drawing in a model-based paradigm,” Kudless says. “That is, if drawings are potentially no longer needed for production, can we discover, or rediscover, their important role in generating new methods of designing and representing architecture?”