It’s a concept of many names: whether you call it parametric, generative, associative, or responsive design, it’s all the rage these days among architects and urban designers, specifically within the emerging field of landscape urbanism. There are some small differences between all of these design tools and concepts, but I’ll refer to it as parametric design from here on out to avoid confusion.
In short, parametric design uses data to directly create form through algorithms or parametric equations. The resulting forms aim to be a precise result of real environmental data and are therefore justifiably suited to a specific site or place. For example, the shape of a building might be directly related to the input variable of sun direction, so a collection of vectors representing the sun’s rays throughout the year might directly correspond to the shape of the building’s facade. The parameters for the form are chosen and set up by the designer, and by their nature are a simplification of the true processes that they are attempting to model. Yet, this tool removes large chunks of the maker’s bias: rather than guessing at solutions based on cursory research or a preconceived notion of aesthetics, the designer is given a framework (the parameters) to adjust and work with.
This semester, I’m working with the Grasshopper3D and Rhino programs in order to better understand how parametric modeling fits in to landscape architectural design and theory. I’ve previously done a lot of thinking on landscape research, research on research and other things, and I think parametric modeling presents a fascinating opportunity for designers to work within a given framework rather than approaching site design as an impossibly imprecise, overly mystical practice in which art takes precedence over research. Too often, site conditions like wind patterns, erosion, human behavioral patterns, or drainage all come together in the designer’s brain but the eventual form only scratches the surface of all of the knowledge we have gained through that research. Parameters assigned to each of those factors (i.e.equations or groups of equations, yay math!) create a form as general pr precise as the designer wishes.
It seems that some of the detractors of parametric design are worried that by using equations and programs like Grasshopper to determine forms denies the inherent art of creating landscape, and takes the designer out of the equation. I would argue that it is the opposite situation. The programs create a spatial framework, and yes, that means they create form. But the seemingly sterile indeterminacy of parametric models makes the design smart, and designer’s agency (which was inherent in the design process from the start anyway) begins to take hold. The form’s details can also be parametric in nature, or they can be freeform and whimsical: the aim of parametric design is not to micromanage the architecture, it’s only to set the framework.
Smart (data-driven) form + designer’s agency is a winning combination.