Parametric Semiology – The Design of Information Rich Environments
Patrik Schumacher, London 2012
Published in: Architecture In Formation – On the Nature of Information in Digital Architecture, edited by Pablo Lorenzo-Eiroa and Aaron Sprecher, Routledge, Taylr and Francis, New York, 2013
All design is communication design. The built environment, with its complex matrix of territorial distinctions, is a giant, navigable, information-rich interface of communication. Each territory is a communication. It gives potential social actors information about the communicative interactions to be expected within its bounds. It communicates an invitation to participate in the framed social situation. Designed spaces are spatial communications that frame and order further communications. They place the participants into specific constellations that are pertinent with respect to the anticipated communication situations. Like any communication, a spatial communication can be accepted or rejected, i.e. – the space can be entered or exited. Entry implies accepting the communication as the premise for all further communication taking place within its boundaries. Crossing a territorial threshold makes a difference in terms of behavioural dispositions. Entry implies submission to the specific rules of conduct that the type of social situation inscribed within the territory prescribes. In this way, the designed-built environment orders social processes. This spells the unique, societal function of architecture: to order and frame communicative interaction.1
The Built Environment as Societal Information Process
Society can only evolve with the simultaneous ordering of space. The elaboration of a built environment (however haphazard, precarious, and initially based on accident rather than purpose and intention) seems to be a necessary condition for the build-up of any stable social order. The gradual build-up of a social system must go hand in hand with the gradual build-up of an artificial spatial order; social order requires spatial order. The social process needs the built environment as a plane of inscription where it can leave traces that then serve to build-up and stabilize social structures, which in turn allow the further elaboration of more complex social processes. The evolution of society goes hand in hand with the evolution of its habitat – understood as an ordering frame. The spatial order of the human habitat is both an immediate physical organizing apparatus that separates and connects social actors and their activities, and a material substrate for the inscription of an external ”societal memory.” These ”inscriptions” might at first be an unintended side effect of the various activities. Spatial arrangements are functionally adapted and elaborated. They are then marked and underlined by ornaments, which make them more conspicuous. The result is the gradual build-up of a spatio-morphological system of signification. Thus, a semantically charged built environment emerges that provides a differentiated system of settings to help social actors orient themselves with respect to the different communicative situations constituting the social life-process of society. The system of social settings, as a system of distinctions and relations, uses both the positional identification of places (spatial position) and the morphological identification of places (ornamental marking) as props for the societal information process. Compelling demonstrations for this formative nexus between social and spatial structure can be found within social anthropology, attesting to the crucial importance of cross-generationally stable spatio-morphological settings for the initial emergence and stabilization of all societies. Only on this basis, with this new material substrate upon which the evolutionary mechanisms of mutation, selection, and reproduction could operate, was the evolution of mankind out of the animal kingdom, and all further cultural evolution, possible. Thus, the built environment, as the cross-generationally stable, material substrate of the cultural evolution, acts functionally equivalent to the DNA as the material substrate of the biological evolution.
Increasing the information Richness of the Built Environment
The importance of the built environment for ordering and framing society remains undiminished. However, what, in former times, was left to the slow evolutionary process of trial and error has, since the Renaissance, become more and more the domain of competency and responsibility of the specialized discourse and profession of the discipline of architecture. Now, more than ever, the critical issue for an ambitious architecture wanting to contribute to the next stage of our civilization is how a designed territory operates as sophisticated framing communication that gathers and orders relevant (socialized) participants for specific communicative interactions. Accordingly, I have grounded my theory of architecture in communication theory, with particular reference to Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory and theory of society. Communication-theory does, INDEED, provide a parsimonious, productive framework for architecture’s reflective self-description. The implication of embedding architectural theory within communication theory is that all architectural spaces are conceived and designed as communications.
A theory of society is a necessary framework for a comprehensive theory of architecture, starting with the explication of architecture’s societal function. Luhmann, for instance, proposes to conceptualize the life process of society as a communication process rather than as a material reproduction process. This is, of course, a radical abstraction. However, I think this is a rather pertinent and powerful abstraction. All problems of society are problems of communication. Both the problems and the solutions of mankind have to do with society’s self-generated complexity.
If all problems of society are problems of communication, then the focus on communication is a precondition for upgrading architecture’s social efficacy. Especially within the Post-Fordist network society (information society, knowledge economy), total social productivity increases with the density of communication. The life process of society is a communication process structured by an ever more complex and richly diversified matrix of institutions and communicative situations. A Post-Fordist network society demands that we CONTINUOUSLY browse and scan as much of the social world as possible, in order to remain continuously connected and informed. We cannot afford to withdraw and beaver away in isolation when innovation accelerates all around. We must continuously recalibrate what we are doing in line with what everybody else is doing. We must be networked all the time, so as to continuously ascertain the relevancy of our own efforts. Telecommunication only via mobile devices may help, but it does not suffice. Rapid and effective face-to-face communication remains a crucial component of our daily productivity. The whole built environment must become an interface of multi-modal communication, as the ability to navigate dense and complex urban environments has become a crucial aspect of today’s overall productivity.
Information Density via Parametric Design
Everything must resonate with everything else. This should result in an overall intensification of relations, which gives the urban field a performative density, informational richness, and cognitive coherence that makes for quick navigation and effective participation in a complex social arena. Our increasing ability to SCAN an ever-increasing simultaneity of events, and to move through a rapid succession of communicative encounters, constitutes the essential, contemporary form of cultural advancement. Further advancement of this vital capacity requires a new built environment with an unprecedented level of complexity, a complexity that is organized and articulated into a complex, variegated order of the kind we admire in natural, self-organized systems.
The more free and the more complex a society, the more it must spatially order and orient its participants via perceived thresholds and semiotic clues – rather than via physical barriers and channels. The city is a complex text and a permanent broadcast. Therefore, our ambition as architects and urban designers must be to spatially unfold more simultaneous choices of communicative situations in dense, perceptually palpable, and legible arrangements. The visual field must be dense with offerings and information about what lies behind the immediate field of vision. The parametricist logics of rule-based variation, differentiation, and correlation establish order within the built environment, giving those who must navigate it the crucial possibility of making inferences. Employing associative logics correlates the different urban and architectural subsystems in ways that make them representations of each other. Everything communicates with everything. This is not a metaphysical assertion about the world, but a heuristic principle for parametric design under the auspices of parametricism. The rule-based design processes that inform all forms on the basis of informational transcoding imply the possibility of information retrieval through the user, as long as human cognitive capacities are reflected.
Organisation, Articulation, Signification
The three terms of this section title spell out how architecture’s societal function – the framing of communicative interaction – can be broken down and concretized into three related subtasks. Organization is based on the distribution of positions for spatial elements and their pattern of linkages. Articulation is based upon the constitution of morphological identities, similitudes, and differences across the architectural elements to be organized. Organization is instituted via the physical means of distancing, barring, and connecting via circulatory channelling. These physical mechanisms can, in theory, operate independently of all nuanced perception and comprehension, and can thus, in principle, succeed without the efforts of articulation. However, the restriction to mere organization without articulation, and without facilitating the participants’ active navigation, severely constrains the level of complexity possible in the pattern of social communication thus framed. Articulation presupposes cognition. It enlists the participant’s perception and comprehension, and thereby facilitates the participants’ active orientation. The distinction of organization versus articulation is then based on the difference between handling passive bodies and enlisting active, cognitive agents. These twoREGISTERS relate in this way: articulation builds upon, and reveals, organization. It makes the organization of functions2 apparent. In so doing, it elevates organization into order.
The dimension of articulation includes two distinct sub-tasks: phenomenological and semiological articulation (signification). Their distinction is between the enlistment of BEHAVIORAL responses from cognitive agents, on the one hand, and the communicative engagement of socialized actors, on the other. The phenomenological project enlists users as cognitive agents, perceiving and decomposing their environment along the lines of the principles of pattern-recognition or Gestalt-perception. It makes organizational arrangements perceptually legible by making important points conspicuous, avoiding the visual overcrowding of the scene, and so on. This is a necessary precondition for all semiological encodings that can only attach to the visually discernible features of the environment. In other words, users can only read, interpret, or comprehend what they can discern. However, the comprehension of a social situation involves more than the distinction of conspicuous features. It is an act of interpretation that presupposes socialization. It is an act of reading a communication: namely,the reading of space as both framing communication and the premise for all further communications to be expected within its ambit. (These framing communications are attributed to the institutions hosting the respective communicative events, i.e. – they are attributed to the clients, rather than to the architects or designers.) Communication presupposes language, that is, a system of signification. The built environment spontaneously evolves into such a (more or less vague and unreliable) system of signification. The task of architectural semiology as design agenda, therefore, is to go beyond this spontaneous semiosis (that every talented designer navigates intuitively), and build up a more complex and precise system of signification.
Figure 1. Parametric Semiology: Semio-field, differentiation of public vs. private as parametric range.
Figure 2. Parametric Semiology: Semio-field, master-plan with program distribution.
Figure 3. Vienna University of Applied Arts, Masterclass Hadid, Parametric Semiology: Semio-field. Project authors: Magda Smolinska, Marius Cernica, and Monir Karimi.
The Refoundation of Architectural Semiology within Parametricism
After the failed attempts of the 1970s and 1980s, architectural semiology can now be effectively theorized and operationalized as parametric semiology. It is important to note that a semiotic system can neither be reduced to syntax nor to semantics. This was the mistake of the attempts in the 1970s. Eisenman’s work had no sematic dimension, and Jencks had no syntax. The postmodern architects tried to build on the spontaneous semiosis of architectural history and were thus restricted to the recycling of clichés, and without the chance to build up a more complex syntax. Instead the refoundation of architectural semiology promoted here suggests a radical severance from all historical semiotic material, promoting the construction of a new, artificial spatio-visual language in analogy to the creation of artificial programming languages, taking full advantage of the radical arbitrariness of all languages. The construction of this language must proceed step by step, oscillating between syntactical and semantic advances. This is made possible via parametric agen-based modelling that realizes the signifying relations as associative functions that systematically make agent behaviours dependent on architectural features. At the same time the pragmatic layer is anticipated as the (never fully predictable) social appropriation process that commences when the design spaces are finally utilized and re-utilized.3
In the second volume of my treatise, The Autopoiesis of Architecture,4 a set of axioms and heuristic principles are formulated that outline strategies for semiological projects conceived as complex architectural designs – for instance, the design of a university campus – as the design of a coherent visual languager system of signification. The first axiom restricts the domain of architecture’s signified to the social events that are expected to happen within the respective buildings or spaces, defined along the three dimensions of function type, social type and location type. The second axiom states that the relevant unit of architectural communication, the architectural sign, is the designed/designated territory (just like the sentence is the minimal relevant unit of speech). Territorial thresholds mark differences that make a difference in terms of social situation. These differences in use constitute the meaning of architectural signs/communications.
Figure 4. Dialectic Fields: Shell morphology as semiological system of distinctions: smooth vs creased vs faceted.
Figure 5. Dialectic Fields: Cluster of creased shells with semiologically distinctive surface articulation.
Figure 6. AADRL 2012 Parametric Semiology: Dialectic Fields. University campus designed as a system of signification, by
Ganesh Nimmala, Leonid Krykhtin, Kwanphil Cho, and SharanSundar.
My most recent academic design-research, at the AADRL and elsewhere, shows how architectural semiology can be operationalized via agent-based crowd modelling. The scripting of the agents’ specific behavioural dispositions, in relation to specific spatial and/or morphological features of the designed environment, allows designers to model and work on the signification relation. The domain of the signified – the patterns of social interaction expected within designed territories, can thus be brought into architecture’s design medium as one more subsystem (the crucial subsystem) in the set of correlated subsystems constituting the parametric model.It therefore becomes possible, for the first time in the history of architecture, to model this life-process, thus incorporating it into design speculation. This was made possible by the use of computational crowd modelling techniques, via agent-based models. General tools like “Processing”, or specific tools like “MiArmy” and “AI.implant” (available as plugins for Maya), and “Massive” now make behavioural modelling within designed environments accessible to architects. Agent modelling should not be limited to crowd circulation flows, but should encompass all patterns of occupation and social interaction in space. The agents’ behaviour might be scripted so as to correlate with the configurational and morphological features of the designed environment, i.e. – programmed agents responding to environmental clues. Such clues or triggers might include furniture configurations, as well as other artefacts. The idea, then, is to build dynamic action-artefact networks.
Morphological features, as well as colours and textures that, together with ambient parameters (lighting conditions), constitute and characterize a certain territory can now influence the behavioural mode of the agent. Since the ‘meaning’ of an architectural space is the (nuanced) type of event or social interaction to be expected within its territory, these new tools allow for the re-foundation of architectural semiology as parametric semiology. The semiological project therefore implies that the design project systematizes all form-function correlations into a coherent system of signification. A system of signification, in turn, is a system of mappings (correlations) that map distinctions or manifolds, defined within the domain of the signified (here the domain of patterns of social interaction), onto the distinctions or manifolds, which are defined within the domain of the signifier (here, the domain of spatial positions and morphological features defining and characterizing a given territory) and vice-versa. This system of signification works if the programmed social agents consistently respond to the relevantly coded positional and morphological clues in such a way that expected behaviours can be read off the articulated environmental configuration. However, rather than modelling scenarios frame by frame, agent based modelling works by defining the agents’ behavioural dispositions and biases relative to environmental features. The event itself then becomes an emergent global pattern resulting from the local interactions of agents with each other inside the environment. If this succeeds, architecture will have done its job of ordering the event scenario. That is, the meaning of architecture, the prospective life processes it frames and sustains, will have been modelled and assessed within the design process as an object of direct creative speculation and cumulative design elaboration. In this way, architectural semiology can finally be operationalized; in this way, it will have a real chance of succeeding as a promising, rigorous design-research project.
2 According to the functional heuristics of parametricism, the functions of spaces are conceived in terms of dynamic patterns of social interactions/communications, i.e.– as parametrically variable, dynamic event scenarios, rather than static schedules of accommodation that list functional stereotypes. See: Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Volume 2: A New Agenda for Architecture. London: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2012. See Chapter 11.2.2:Operational Definition of Parametricism: The Defining Heuristics of Parametricism.
4Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Volume 2: A New Agenda for Architecture. London: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2012.