An Introduction to Parametric Design

Architecture is not limited to Gothic churches and ornate baroque constructions, this article on parametric design illustrates how the 20th century was not a rest period for architecture. Since the inception of design software on computer systems in the 1940’s, great revolutions in design have taken place. Even today innovations in the evolving field of Architecture are using parametric design.

The most important feature of parametric design, as you can tell from it’s name, is to do with it’s application of parameters. The seminal conception of parametric design actually has nothing at all to do with parametric processes. Internationally the industrial boom was affecting the architectural scene, modules were the vogue. However modules were ineffective, they didn’t make the most of the space that they had, they were not very adaptable, monotonous and were considered a fast, budget conscious way of housing people. In response to this a more fluid form evolved that deviated from the square rigidity of modular design. Antoni Gaudi may be an early precursor to this innovation as he moved architecture towards organic forms, even considering how natural light would enter the building. However Gaudi did not create parametric buildings, only after the introduction of computer aided design (CAD) would such design be possible.

CAD programs made it possible to design without draftsmen, and drafts were infinitely adaptable. Computers allowed designers to calculate areas and spaces in a way that would be otherwise impossible to calculate. Buildings no longer needed to be boxes, they could be created to fit spaces, to respond to the local environment and to natural elements. In collaboration with computer numerical control machines (CNCs), which custom cuts unique pieces for construction one by one, architecture was and has been revolutionised.

Cutting with the CNC makes economical use of available resources and reduces the amount of waste created. The CNC cutter is precise and ranges from small iron car parts to huge curved wooden ceiling beams. Architects typically use the Rhinocerous design program, along with the Grasshopper plug-in to design for the CNC. This software is designed to calculate intelligently how an architectural construction might be built whilst retaining maximum efficiency. Parameters that are determined by the architect or designer ultimately determine the possible forms of the end design.

The first bureau to implement this system did so without all of this knowledge, they were Frank O. Gehry & Partners. After winning the Guggenheim Museum commission in Bilbao with their curvy model, they started looking for ways of making the design a reality. Realising that existing architectural design programs would not suffice, they turned to software (CATIA) intended for the airplane and automotive industry. This unusual methodology was an unprecedented success, the building was finished before the settled deadline and with less money spent than expected.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

This represents the beginning of an era, however it was not without problems. Frank O’Gehry’s designs required heavy duty structures in order to sustain their grand facades. Later this trend would evolve and the structure and façade began to share roles, the structure even doubling as the buildings façade. Today, architects are challenged to innovate ways of making the best use of space and location. Better control of the interior climate of the space is preferable, less air-conditioning equipment will be needed and less energy will be consumed. Parametric design can be used for making sure that the space within a building is being used at it’s maximum capacity. The new category of buildings that have their structure working as the facade include Jacques Herzog, de Meuron and Li Xinggang‘s The Bird’s Nest.

The Birds Nest (China's National Stadium, Beijing)
The Birds Nest (China's National Stadium, Beijing)

The purpose of building using parametric design is to warrant sustainability. The better it is designed for use, the longer it ought to be inhabited and preserved. Similarly, buildings consume energy and create pollution during their life cycle as well as during their construction. If this is reduced and is manageable then it will be more valuable to the people who inhabit and use it.

Kartal Pendik Masterplan © Zaha Hadid Architects from Zaha Hadid Architects

A pioneer in the uses of parametric design is Zaha Hadid although she is not alone. Buildings of a parametric nature are already widely spread (British Museum Courtyard, London, UK by Foster and PartnersMetropol Parasol, Seville by Jürgen Mayer HOrdos Museum, Ordos, Inner Mongolia by MAD) and propositions for parametric cities (read a damned good article by Patrik Schumacher) have also been made (and see video below). The most intriguing property of parametric design is it’s diverse applications, it is a technology that can be used in any design field and designers have exploited it to create furniture and even shoes.

Mojito by Julian Hakes
Mojito by Julian Hakes

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