Interview: Patrik Schumacher

by | 01. May 2014


7-zaha hadid architects-soho galaxy exterior, photo by kevin holden platt.jpgZOHO Galaxy by Zaha Hadid Architects. Exterior view. Photo by Kevin Holden Platt

By Kevin Holden Platt

Zaha Hadid Architects’ director Patrik Schumacher talks about the global rise of parametric design, the advent of robotics in architecture, and the influence of ‘The Matrix’ on creating intelligent buildings.

On the global stage, Patrik Schumacher is recognized as the leading theorist on the rise of parametric design in architecture, and the main oracle predicting it will dominate the next phase of advances by the avant-garde. He famously declared in one manifesto: “There is a global convergence in recent avant-garde architecture that justifies its designation as a new style: parametricism.”

Building on techniques developed for digital animation and for computational design in architecture, parametricism, he said, “succeeds Modernism as the next long wave of systematic innovation.”

Over the course of an interview in Beijing, Mr. Schumacher, widely regarded as a messenger of the future in architectural trends, expounded on parametric design at Zaha Hadid Architects, experiments in robotic fabrication and robotic furniture, the influence of The Matrix on super-intelligent building design, and the London-based studio’s exploding popularity across urban China.

Director at ZHA, Schumacher has cooperated closely with Ms. Hadid in the design of most of the studio’s leading architecture projects. He co-designed the Regium Waterfront project, a luminous star-shaped cultural center to be built on the southern Italian coast, and the sculpture-like installation Arum presented at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale: Arum glows with the same mastery of engineering and design combined in the ancient Winged Nike of Samothrace carving of two millennia ago, and with the synergy of art and architecture that shone across classical Greece.

As co-founder of the leading-edge Design Research Laboratory at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, he explained the lab’s goals in an essay published on his website:

There is as yet no institutionalized form of research in architecture. Instead the task of innovation within architecture is left to the “avant-garde” segment of architectural practice on the one hand, and to post-graduate architectural education on the other hand.

This AA design lab, he added, focuses on parametric design in architecture and urbanism, and on the creation of computer-linked “responsive environments” featuring kinetic walls and robotic furniture; the lab he heads has already become an important node in the world-spanning drive to transform vanguard research into a series of architectural advances.


Interview with Patrik Schumacher

Arcspace: The design description for the Arum installation that Zaha Hadid Architects unveiled at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012 states the work continues the studio’s research into digital and analogue form-finding methods and experiments with curved surface geometries [see for example the Heydar Aliyev Center]. But the installation might also be viewed as a soaring sculpture that could be exhibited in one of the world’s leading museums for contemporary art. Is Arum a work of art or architecture, or some hybrid of these?

Patrik Schumacher: This is a form of architectural research; if you really want to innovate radically, you have to develop new geometry and new fabrication techniques. You need exhibitions and abstract installations to fund and focus on these aspects of research.

This can also exist in the art world – we work with gallerists and collectors – this is a way to see this Arum piece. We have been doing abstract spatial installations since the 1980s. Avant-garde firms enter competitions and create installations like Arum to push forward research. They are experiments that point to the potential beyond themselves. Therefore they can be looked at and treated as artworks by collectors.

1-zaha hadid architects-arum installation-venice biennale-photo by sergio pirrone.jpg
Arum installation by Zaha Hadid Architects at Venice Biennale. Photo by Sergio Pirrone

Cultural projects as architectural manifestos

Arcspace: You mentioned in one essay published on your website that boundary-pushing architectural research relies partly on avant-garde studios that have a greater measure of freedom to experiment mostly in just one area – the design of cultural projects. Could you please explain this in more depth?

Patrik Schumacher: Some cultural projects are manifestos in terms of innovative architecture. With a contemporary art center, which is all about creativity and innovation, architecture is a form of research. Cultural buildings are projects where societies and cities are investing in new forms of communication.

With cultural projects, you can issue new architectural manifestos and test the audience reaction. The audience is more willing to engage in something unusual with this type of project, which allows for a more radical, innovative, experimental approach. With manifesto projects, we are trying out a new style that could later be applied to other types of buildings. A new degree of complexity and dynamism can first be tested in these cultural projects.

2-zaha hadid architects-regium waterfront museum-italy01, image courtesy of zaha hadid.jpgRegium Waterfront Museum by ZHA. Rendering courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects.

4-zaha hadid architects-regium waterfront museum italy rendering02, image courtesy of zaha hadid.jpgRegium Waterfront Museum by ZHA. Rendering courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects.

The inspiration of The Matrix

Arcspace: About 15,000 architects, artists and other fans of Zaha Hadid Architects’ designs showed up for the opening of the SOHO Galaxy project in Beijing. Can you explain the wild popularity of the studio and its newest project in China?

Patrik Schumacher: The Galaxy project is an advanced piece of everyday life, with hundreds of small units for small businesses and small start-up firms and new entrepreneurs. SOHO specializes in these urban hives of many small units. I call this a space of simultaneity – you can view many different things at one time. This design also reflects the condition of the networked society. This is a continuously evolving space: as you move through the project, the vistas change and new layers are revealed. Cities and societies are becoming hyper-communicative. Architecture has to distribute and order the myriad types of interaction situations that make up society by gathering participants into particular constellations.

Arcspace: This almost sounds like The Matrix?

Patrik Schumacher: The idea of The Matrix as a 3D information space has inspired our idea of the built environment. In the future, physical labor will be done by robots in factories that are empty of humans – we will be working via communication. All future productivity gains depend on the further intensification of communication. In this networked society, our architecture is all about facilitating urban communication by creating a dense, complex and dynamic matrix of communicative situations and events. This matrix must be transparent, legible and intuitively navigable.

Arcspace: Looking at the renderings of the Regium Waterfront project that Zaha Hadid Architects has designed for the southern coast of Italy, opposite Sicily, I got the impression that this could be the greatest cultural center ever designed by the studio. What type of 3D modeling software did you use in the design of the Regium Waterfront?

Patrik Schumacher: On the Regium Waterfront project, we initially used Maya software, which was originally developed for the film industry to simulate natural phenomena. Architecture aims to emulate the endless forms of nature with designs that are dynamic, curvilinear and diverse. At our studio, we mostly start with Maya to develop the design. For more precise and complex geometry, we use Gehry Technologies’ Digital Project, an adaptation of Catia software that was developed for the design of aircraft. Gehry Technologies software is used in the second stage of the project. [Note: Both Patrik Schumacher and Zaha Hadid are on the board of advisors at Gehry Technologies.]

5-zaha hadid architects-regium waterfront museum diagram, image courtesy of zaha hadid.jpg

The studio initially used Maya modeling software in the design of the Regium Waterfront Museum. Diagrams courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects

A matrix of software and scripting techniques

Arcspace: Which modeling software did you use in the design of the Arum installation that was exhibited in Venice?

Patrik Schumacher: With the design of Arum, we started with Maya but also developed our own software tools and scripting techniques. Arum was also inspired by origami in the sense of creating double curvature surfaces via pleating. However, in our case the lines along which the sheets are folded are curved rather than straight. This installation is super-light and super-thin, and through pleating Arum gains strength and elegance.

Arcspace: The design description for Arum mentions that Zaha Hadid Architects used robots for parts of the computer-guided fabrication of the installation – could you outline this section of the project?

Patrik Schumacher: We used robots to cut and score the elements and to bend the metal along the curved score lines. Two robot arms had to synchronize their moves during the folding action. Robots prepared all the panels – we by hand assembled the pieces. On this project we worked with RoboFold – a young UK firm.

6-zaha hadid architects-soho galaxy in black with white lines, photo by kevin holden platt.jpgZOHO Galaxy in black and white lines. Photo by Kevin Holden Platt

Architectural robots “like little drones”

Arcspace: With the development of increasingly sophisticated 3D modeling software and computer-controlled fabrication, will there be an expanding use of robotics in architecture in the future?

Patrik Schumacher: There have been progressive experiments with robotic construction with the development of complex geometry, and there has been a lot of research in robotics in architecture. In one project, small robotic quadrocopters are used to fly bricks in robotic construction – these look like little drones. Robotic spiders have been developed that can walk vertically up the surface of a fa├žade.

Our architecture is calling for robotic construction because of the complexity of the design. We have a lot of computer-fabricated elements that are put together by hand. This last step might in the future be taken up by robots too. We are also experimenting with intelligent building systems – buildings that have sensors and a computer brain that regulates the temperature by opening and closing windows automatically and adjusting blinds in response to the arc of the sun’s movement across the sky.

In the future buildings should be networked in the sense that buildings should adapt and react to each other’s presence and to the natural elements. These buildings should have the ability to modulate their behavior in response to surrounding conditions – a bit like a plant that will grow in the direction of sunlight and adapt to the soil.

8-zaha hadid architects-soho galaxy courtyard, v88, photo by kevin holden platt.jpgZOHO Galaxy by Zaha Hadid Architects. Courtyard. Photo by Kevin Holden Platt

Leading-edge advances at London’s Architectural Association

At the Architectural Association, the Design Research Laboratory has been conducting experiments in building responsive environments, in part by placing sensors around the environment.

Some sensor-actuator responsiveness is already commonplace, for example when you step into a room and the light goes on. We have been expanding on this to involve furniture moving around the room to where people are gathered and walls moving around the space in a rule-based dependency upon the user’s movements. We have also speculated about spontaneous, unscheduled robot behaviors that might stimulate users in unexpected ways. The user’s positive uptake, indifference or negative reaction is fed back to the robots’ learning curves.

There will be many more kinetic elements in the environment linked to patterns of movement and use by humans. Pressure sensors in the floor and cameras continuously feed data to the building’s computer, and robotic furniture responds to the movement of people, all the while engaging both robots and users in cycles of learning.