Parametric Design for Architecture: Wassim Jabi

Parametric design is about generating forms with the change of parameters. It refers to a new set of tools developed in recent years.

With appearance of Grasshopper plugin for Rhino (initially released in 2007) it became more user friendly. These tools make it easier to build forms that were almost impossible in the past.

Wassim Jabi is Senior Lecturer at the Welsh School of Architecture (Cardiff University). He is a long time member of ACADIA (Association for Computer-Aided Design In Architecture) and he has published numerous papers refering to parametric design, digital fabrication, computer-aided visualization. His new book Parametric Design for Architecture will be published by Laurence King in October 2013. We made an interview with Wassim Jabi about his new book and parametric design.

AS: For whom is book Parametric Design for Architecture intended? What distinguishes this book from other books dealing with parametric design?

WJ: The book is intended for what I call in the preface the ‘advanced beginner’. That is, it is intended for anyone who has already started his or her journey of exploration into parametric design, but wants to start making tools (scripting) instead of just using parametric design. Advanced beginners are usually students and early-career practitioners.

parametric deisgn for architecture

AS: Which topics does it cover? Which software is included?

WJ: When I was invited to write this book, I wanted to write a companion to Robert Woodbury’s excellent book “Elements of Parametric Design.” I invited Rob, who is a friend and a colleague, to write the foreword to book. The book is divided into three main sections.

The first section is an introduction to algorithmic thinking. This section introduces the reader to the fundamentals of thinking of design as an explicit set of steps that have logic, repetition and patterns.

The second section includes a set of parametric patterns (e.g. tiling, branching, recursion, weaving). This section includes full script source code (using Processing and MAXScript) that is explained in detail.

The third section discusses future directions especially in the area of creating declarative and associative computer languages for parametric design. In this section, I also re-write and re-explain some of the tutorials using a new paradigm for parametric design using a Autodesk’s new DesignScript language.

AS: Which software/plugins (not mentioned in book) you also recommend for parametric design?

WJ: Although I use three specific software systems in the book, I do not particularly advocate one over the other. Many designers use Grasshopper which I think is a fantastic system for visual programming. Yet, it has its limitations when the problem at hand requires a complex solution. The visual representation becomes highly unreadable.

Sooner or later, I believe parametric design has to be explored through algorithmic thinking and that means that the designer needs to achieve a certain level of comfort with scripting languages. Once you learn the fundamentals of programming, the syntax becomes a far less difficult hurdle to overcome.

parametric design

AS: Will parametric design have been possible without advancements in design software and computer hardware?

WJ: That is a very good question. Obviously, the theoretical foundation does not rely on the implementation, but without advancements in software and hardware, parametric design would be an obscure field that would be of interest only to few academics. We would not have seen the amazing richness and variety of work that we see today. It is similar to the development of the internet. When I started using the world-wide web in the late 1990s, it was far more boring than it is now.

AS: Many architects think that parametric design is not about designing a buildable building (has no relevance to the real needs). What do you think about that? Why parametricist architecture?

WJ: As in any new technology, there will always be a period of awkward discovery. Designers will try to push the technology to its limit just to see what it can do. This inevitably creates a body of work that may or may not have relevance to buildable architecture. After this initial phase of play and discovery, the work matures and a more selective attitude to the technology emerges. I believe we are starting to see this trend develop in parametric design and I have included some of that work in my book.

I do not necessarily advocate a ‘parametricist architecture’. It is more interesting to see how parametric design was used in the service of a higher purpose. In the case of the of the Aviva stadium (a case study in my book), parametric design was used to continually explore architectural form as the project progressed. It was also used to maintain consistency with the information shared between the architects and the structural engineers. By specifying and maintaining the relationships between parameters, you specify a consistent language of design that ensures your design goals do not get violated at a later stage. Finally, during the construction phases of the stadium, parametric design facilitated the translation of the model into fabricated components. It is a simple, but powerful concept. I am far less interested in complexity of form due to parametric and generative ‘gymnastics’.

aviva stadium parametric design Aviva stadium © Populous

AS: Does good knowledge of parametric software and coding can make you a better designer?

WJ: Parametric design and coding are not magic bullets. Parametric design is a process that helps a designer define, encode and clarify the relationship between design intent and design response. So, instead of only relying on intuition and tacit knowledge, parametric design allows you to think about the design process more explicitly and perhaps discover solutions that would have been otherwise missed.

I believe parametric design makes good designers better at what they do. It usually does not transform a bad designer into a good one because, not surprisingly, parametric design needs good design sense. You need to create parameters and rules and associate them with each other in an elegant and thoughtful manner. If that process is flawed, the result is usually also flawed.

parametric design

AS: How parametric design software is influencing architecture today? Is a greater accessibility of parametric software to the average user a good thing for architecture?

WJ: The influence of parametric design is immense. For some architects, it is starting to define a genre or style of architecture. I am more interested, however, in the influence of parametric design in the early phases. It is allowing designers to think about the project in a more rigorous manner and link it to building performance analysis. So, rigour and creativity are again merging to create really exciting and thoughtful architectural projects. So, yes, I believe it is a good thing for architecture.


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