Parametric Design: a Brief History


Frederick Kiesler with model for “Endless House,” c. 1960, photograph by Irving Penn, © 2010 Austrian Frederick and Lillian Kiesler Private Foundation, Vienna

The form of the house is not amorphous, not a free for all form. On the contrary, its construction has strict boundaries according to the scale of your living. Its shape and form are determined by inherent life processes. —Frederick Kiesler.

Parametric design is not unfamiliar territory for architects. From ancient pyramids to contemporary institutions, buildings have been designed and constructed in relationship to a variety of changing forces, including climate, technology, use, character, setting, culture, and mood. The computer did not invent parametric design, nor did it redefine architecture or the profession; it did provide a valuable tool that has since enabled architects to design and construct innovative buildings with more exacting qualitative and quantitative conditions.

By the time of a conference held by the Boston Architectural Center in 1964, it had become clear that the electronic era would have a dramatic effect on building design. The aerospace industries were using computers to calculate complex warped surfaces and animated flight path simulations, which fascinated architects. [opposite page]

As UCLA student Raphael Roig predicted in his unpublished master’s thesis, The Continuous World of Frederick J. Kiesler, “It would only be a matter of time before computer technology would be able to reduce to constructible terms the inherent intricacies of forms similar to Kiesler’s multiple-warped surfaces.” [opposite page] Kiesler and other artists and architects—including Antonio Gaudi, Erich Mendelsohn, Frei Otto, Kiesler, and Kiyonori Kikutake—had conceived and modeled complex structures and forms with varying degrees of technical proficiency, and Roig in the 1960s recognized that new computer technologies could assist their design and construction.

It was not, however, until the 1980s that breakthroughs in parametric design became useful to architects. Advances in the quasi-scientific field of plant and animal morphology supported innovation that could be applied with ingenuity to tectonic practices.

Boeing Company, Computer Drawings, c. 1965

Nature had long since developed structural systems of nuanced complexity that architects and designers had applied to structure building shapes and urban organizational patterns. Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Sir Patrick Geddes, and others, were influenced by the morphological writings of Goethe (Metamorphosis of Plants. 1790), E.S. Russell (Form and Function, 1916), and R.H. Franc

Category: Architecture

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