In my line of work I realized there is a lot of confusion about the term parametric design. The main confusion comes from the broadness of the term and I want to show that there are many completely different professions (mine included) put into that same drawer, although they do not really belong there. This is a subject for an entire book, but I will try to make this post relatively short…
“Parametric” means algorithmic, programmed, automated…by changing couple of simple parameters, through a series of algorithms (functions) a complex entity (geometry) is generated. If you visualize a mathematical function, by changing variables you can generate different graph curves. Voilà! Parametric! (I guess you all remember parametric equations from high-school). Similarly, by changing couple of parameters you can generate an entire architectural structure…that is the shortest possible explanation.
Parametric people of the first kind
There are people that actually use these techniques to design. They move sliders, write interesting algorithms, experiment, until they get the final architectural form (or the form of a product, when used in the industrial design)….right? Well, not really. Do not misunderstand me. There are many architectural objects designed (even built) using these type of processes…but from my experience that represents a ridiculously small percentage of the objects that are claimed to have been designed parametrically. What actually happens is that people try, and try, and try, until time runs out (and we all know how precious time is in the construction business) and then they give up and design something manually. Very often the final design is inspired by the parametric experiments, but much more often than not, the limitations of parametric software are way too constraining on the architectural creativity. So after hours and hours of playing with slider values, inspired by infinite parametric possibilities, we get our architectural sculptures.
Many people do this. It became almost an art movement, an occupation on its own. However, I think that software we have is not on the level needed for real, ubiquitous, parametric design. Although some of us are working on the development of new type of software, based on AI (artificial intelligence), we still have a lot ahead of us. That is why parametric design is not what I usually do, or want to do.
What I do comes usually after the design phase is over. The form is there, the idea is clear and now the geometry needs to be generated, technical drawings have to be made and elements (structure, facade,…) have to be produced and connected. This is where the real programming is done. No pretty pictures. We are talking about micrometer precision, automatically generated geometry and technical drawings, screws and bolts, as well as automated CNC production. Sometimes the involvement starts in the design phase, when we use different AI algorithms to statically or geometrically optimize the form…but this goes much beyond what is perceived as parametric design today. That is why I don’t like calling it like that. For now it is programming architecture, and very soon it will be AI in architecture.
The reason for this post is just to point out that there is a difference between those who produce pretty pictures and those who write software trying to generate and produce precise architectural and structural elements. Just google parametric design or parametric architecture, go to Images and count how many pretty visualizations and how many actually built architectural objects you see…and you will get my point….not to mention that those architectural objects that are built usually don`t belong in the parametric design category. However, making no difference between free form architecture and parametric design is a subject for another post…