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CalArts symposium on “The Politics of Parametricism” addresses the relationship between Architecture and Politics

November 18, 2013

by Amelia Taylor-Hochberg

Parametric smackdown: Patrik Schumacher and Reinhold Martin debate at CalArts conference

CalArts two-day symposium on “The Politics of Parametricism” opened last Friday with a conversation between Reinhold Martin, associate professor at Columbia University’s GSAPP, and Patrik Schumacher, partner at Zaha Hadid Architects. Their debate, while at times tending more towards dysfunctional improv theater than academic discussion, revolved around the relationship between architecture and politics -- generally speaking, Martin sees the two as indelibly linked, while Schumacher idealizes their explicit separation. Their debate didn’t concern the visual aesthetics of parametric design, so much as argue about its utility in political systems.

As an event presented by CalArts’ MA Aesthetics & Politics program, the Martin-Schumacher debate did not explicitly discuss individual architecture projects, but tended more on the side of critical architectural theory. To introduce their debate, both Martin and Schumacher presented papers on their approach to parametric design, which I will try my darndest to make accessible. Martin took an intellectual historical angle, relating parametricism to linguistic theory and our construction of grammatical systems that determine “right” and “wrong” communication. Considering design based on the grammar of scripted parameters, the aesthetic outcome is simply an expression of that procedure, what Martin referred to as the “performativity of procedure”. The power to have a written code dictate the aesthetic terms of the architecture completely, and come to wholly define the architecture, is to Martin a “legitimation of power”. So if politics can generally be understood as a network of power systems, then parametricism is certainly in the political pocket.

Schumacher, who coined the term parametricism and has certainly taken flak for it before, took a much more divisive approach to defining the genre. He saw politics as best left to the “professionals”, and certainly not appropriate for architectural intervention, which could only make things worse. Because architecture has no power to affect political realities, it can only reinforce hegemony and can’t be counted on to resolve anything. When architecture is allowed to float on the whims of a liberal democracy, it produces a “garbage spill” of varied forms and styles within a city, leading to a dissonant and illegible, “white noise” urbanism. To fix this, Schumacher argues for a “private planning” city-building system: a free-market-driven collaboration between private development corporations and architects. These collaborators can then consistently apply their parametric designs to the city texture, increasing order and therefore, legibility. Read more.

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