Human, All Too Human: On Nature Fetishism in Contemporary Architecture

The term fractal was coined by Benoît Mandelbrot in 1975. Fractal geometry describes forms that are regular in their development, as crystals, clouds, organic structures and all other natural shapes, but are too irregular to be described by Euclidean geometry. In fractal geometry the shape of a leaf can be described by equations, like triangles, squares and other man-made forms can in classical geometry. “Parametricism”, in the words of one of his main theorists, “is the great new style after modernism.” A design style in which “buildings are developed using problem-solving as the driving force rather than by grouping together architectural objects.” We have seen this in recent years in the voluptuous shapes of Zaha Hadid studio’s computer-generated designs, in the sculptural iconicity of buildings as Rome’s Maxxi.

Wait a moment. “Problem-solving is the driving force.” This sounds quite similar to the old modernist tenet according to which “form follows function.” What is the difference?

According to Patrick Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects, author of the above quotation, the difference is in the direction of the design intervention. So far we have juxtaposed Eucledian structures in order to create space or harness portions of it into environments. The rationale of the design is in the concept that links these solids. The reader may be familiar with the house Ludwig Wittgenstein designed in Vienna in 1927 for his sister, today seat of the Bulgarian cultural institute. There is maybe this concept expressed at its best, mind you, by a non professional architect. Volumes in Wittgenstein House develop from each other in an orderly albeit ambitious manner, as in a logical deduction. Rather than created, space is acknowledged, as it happens when shedding light in the dark.

A later variation on this deductive way to building was dubbed “deconstructionism,” and consisted in disassembling these configuration of solids before they were even erected. Its purpose was to show the relations between the basic components in a more honest (and post-modern) fashion. The elements put on display were not only structural and material, but also ideological and symbolic. This approach was aimed at favouring inclusion: anyone was entitled to read and experience the building their own way.

Parametric design, on the contrary, is nothing about deduction. It is an attempt to let structures grow systematically, according to their relation with the environment, as a living organism would do in order to survive. Everything is interconnected, and to take into account everything, sophisticated softwares are necessary and do much of the work. Instead of “spaces”, Schumacher actually speaks of “fields”, which fluidly articulate themselves to accomodate the complexity of contemporary life.

Parametric design therefore bears a striking resemblance to organic forms. Curiously, it is visually very close also to surrealist decoration patterns. Both styles share an oblique, decadent appeal. This is because both styles took a great deal of inspiration from nature. Organic structures are economical: organisms – as also computers if they are so programmed – always try to find the shortest way between A and B. This is why living forms are usually curvilinear and not square, Cartesian or Euclidean. A parametric city would resemble a circulatory system, rather than a modernist grid. Every element would be interconnected and the complexity of functions would lead the growth of the system.

Transition and fluidity are greatly praised by Schumacher. This makes one remember of the “natura non facit saltus” (nature does not make sudden jumps) motto by Lucretius. Also Gaudì’s architectures were supposed to imitate nature – praising god’s magnificent design skills in the process. The Sagrada Familia, if designed today, would look a lot like a building by Zaha Hadid. Intriguingly enough, that decadent architecture was constructed according to principles that are very similar to the construction of organic matter. One ray of light descends from the sky and divides itself at each hub in four lines, which progressively multiply, one to four, until the structure touches the ground. Even if fluid, its architecture is stable and solid because based on four “legs,” as chairs, tables and horses. Also organic matter is physically built on the atom of carbon which combines with other atoms of carbon four by four, forming very stable, never-ending chains (a process known as catenation). We thought the dispute on whether art should or not imitate nature was finished two centuries ago, but it is clearly an ever-present motif in human psyche.

I like the idea of an architecture whose form develops according to fractal geometry (the geometry of leaves, plants, clouds and all natural structures) instead of being constrained by platonic solids. And yet, all this organic matter makes me feel like a virus, a parasite in a host body, as though I should not be walking along these circulatory systems. Or, in the best case scenario, I feel like a part of the system, inextricably linked to it and forced to give away some individuality.

I have taken some time to reflect upon this, and now I think the underlying reason for this awkward feeling is that this ideal biomimicry in architecture eventually eschews one crucial aspect of design I am otherwise used to. This is the confrontation between built space and human being, which is made necessary exactly of the artificiality of the constructed space. Parametric architecture is often soft, and gives way, thus making it difficult to recognise the boundaries between my individual perception of space and the built space that I find around me.

This is a structural confrontation in which one usually develops a critical, informed understanding of things. It may just be premature to say, but parametric architecture to me feels like being sucked back in an ideal utero, in which the spatial sense that characterizes human beings as a species is dimmed and left unripe. No wonder it is actually becoming the favourite style of iconic public buildings, airports and other non-spaces. Ultimately, parametricism can be very useful and exciting as a design method, but the designer should always somehow work against the methodology rather than let it take total control.