The Parametricism Era Interview with Patrik Schumacher, Principal of Zaha Hadid Artcihtects

Feature Story

HKDI Gallery is honoured to present its flagship exhibition of the year, Zaha Hadid Architects: Vertical Urbanism, as part of its #EssenceofDesign programme. The exhibition showcases ZHA's innovations throughout the years with a fascinating collection of exhibited items. Audience can expect to see not only a display of past projects but also a variety of project documentation tools ranging from technical drawings and diagrams to architectural models and virtual reality experience. 

Following the late Zaha Hadid's vision, ZHA continues to investigate on urban fortifications and introduce ground-breaking works and ideas to the world. All ZHA-designed buildings eventually become local and global landmarks. One might be astounded by the boldly unique style of the firm, but speaking of its character defining feature, Patrik Schumacher believes it lies within the realisation of functionality. "Complexity originates from the social life process that needs to be accommodated, and our task is the articulation of this complex life process, to empower this life process by making it also transparent to itself." says the Principal of ZHA, "In this regard, one of our tasks is to maintain legibility in the face of complexity." 

The ZHA exhibition revolves around the high-rise typology. Historically, skyscrapers began to emerge in late 19th to early 20th century together with Modernist Architecture, also in line with the birth of Fordism, an era marked by Ford Motor Company's strategy of mass production and the social and economic influences thus followed. The first few generations of skyscrapers focused on reaching higher and creating hierarchy and exclusivity. Programs within a high-rise were standardised and accurately divided. "Separation in a strict and stable division of labour was the dominant mode of societal production," explains Schumacher, "The other key principle is the principle of uniformity, i.e. repetition, based on mechanical mass production. The modernist high-rise building is a perfect example and symbol for this principle." 

As society continues to advance, the typology has undergone waves of changes. Fordism is losing its prestige. In a post-Fordist era like now, architects are coming up with new types of designs that can best adapt to society's needs today. Zaha Hadid introduced a "new Modernism" to the world as she began her career in architecture. She described her work as being "layered in terms of ideas, in the same way that culture is layered." Since then, ZHA has been pushing creative and engineering boundaries and challenging the way we think about connectivity and communication within and between spaces. 

Parametricism is Schumacher's answer to a contemporary successor of Modernism. It is a style largely relying on the direction of computer programming and algorithms. "Both Fordism and Modernism are obsolete. It is high time to start the transformation of our cities in ways that are congenial to our era of post-Fordist network society." He says, "This is both a question of the dynamic collaborative social processes and a question of the underlying technologies that determine both general manufacturing and architectural design and construction." 

Throughout the years of working with Parametric designs, Schumacher realised that while the movement matured and its achievements became manifest in built works around the world, its dominance in the avant-garde discourse and academia started to recede in the years after 2008. "I attribute this to the general shift in priorities from questions of design to questions of social justice." He says, "However, this shift of attention is not sustainable, and eventually the discipline will have to engage with the question of style. In educated society at large the recognition of Parametricism has been slowly spreading, and the best results of Parametricism do indeed enjoy popularity." 

ZHA has always been addressing the need of vibrant and sustainable community-oriented space within dense urban conditions. "Maintaining legibility in the face of complexity" is an accurate description of many of its recent works. Panoramic elevators, interior voids and the introduction of a public square in the middle of skyscrapers are all manifestations of their effort. These dynamic and oftentimes dramatic designs are appealing to the audience and makes even greater social media contents. At the same time, however, Schumacher reminds us design is after all a tool to achieve social functionality. "Stylistic features or morphological characteristics are no end in themselves." He says, "The ethos of the designer should be to direct his/her design efforts to achieve social functionality with respect to the client institutions' purposes."

ZHA's recent works in Macau, Miami and Beijing are examples of Parametricism, delivering an enhanced user experience and social functionality. So, is the Parametric style the ultimate best fit for addressing programmatic complexity? "Most social functions in contemporary society benefit from increased complexity and from increased adaptation to complex site conditions. Parametricsim is the only architectural style attuned to the morphological implications of contemporary engineering optimisation." answers Schumacher, "Even with respect to regular forms, structural optimisation imposes a parametric differentiation of structural elements. The same is true with respect to environmental engineering like solar shading. This differentiation is further intensified when engineering optimisation is applied to programmatically differentiated architectural forms. That this is possible, and that construction can proceed via robotically aided manufacturing is an important fact of our advanced, computationally empowered civilisation. This fact implies that parametricism must indeed be regarded as the rational, congenial answer to our era and thereby the rightful epochal style of our era."

Speaking of Hong Kong's high-rise scene, Schumacher offers his point of view: "Hong Kong is a fantastic high-rise city, not so much due to the merit of individual landmarks, but due to the amazing density achieved here, and due to the network of bridges that integrate the central cluster of towers for pedestrians." Over the years, ZHA has also added quite a few works of their own to the Asian concrete jungle. "We are proud of our Innovation Tower for the design faculties of Hong Kong Polytechnic University." Schumacher mentions, "Here we offer features like a porous ground condition, and multiple atria, plus a series of generous terraces on various levels."

The Henderson, located in Central is one of the latest works in Hong Kong by ZHA. The largely porous ground creates civic plazas full of trees and plants, and even connects to adjacent public gardens and parks, offering a unique high-rise experience at the heart of one of the world's busiest cities. 

Not far from the Henderson stands a building that Schumacher loves and considers to be of historical architectural significance, the HSBC Building by Norman Foster. "Although it is designed within the (late) Modernist style," says Schumacher, "some of its features like the sophisticated visible structure, the atrium and the way it leaves the ground porous are still an inspiration for us today and could be integrated and further optimized under the auspices of Parametricism."