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Parametric semiology: creating meaningful architectural spaces via human patterns of behaviour

Parametric semiology: creating meaningful architectural spaces via human patterns of behaviour

In his Parametric Semiology – The Design of Information Rich Environments (2013), Patrik Schumacher from Zaha Hadid Architects, creates a new type of value for human spaces. He states that designed spaces are spatial communications that frame and organize subsequent conversations. They organize the participants into precise constellations that correspond to the anticipated conversation circumstances. A spatial communication, like any other, may be accepted or refused, i.e. the space can be entered or exited. Thus, any type of design is communication design, a statement that once understood can elevate the quality of the message.

In this way, the designed-built environment orders social processes. This spells the unique, societal function of architecture: to order and frame communicative interaction.

The spatial organization of the human environment serves as both an immediate physical organizing mechanism that divides and links social actors and their activities, as well as a material substrate for the inscription of an external “societal memory.” These “inscriptions” may at first appear to be an unintentional consequence of the numerous actions.

Functional adaptations and refinements are made to spatial layouts. They are then highlighted and underlined with decorations to make them stand out. As a result, a spatio-morphological system of meaning gradually emerges. A semantically charged physical environment, providing a varied system of settings to assist social actors in orienting themselves in relation to the many communication circumstances that comprise society’s social life-process.

The framing of communicative interaction with this environment has several subtasks:
1/ Organisation of spatial elements and their pattern of linkages created via physical mechanisms (distancing, barring, connecting, etc.)
2/ Articulation of morphological identities, similitudes, and differences across the architectural elements to be organized. Articulation necessitates cognition. It engages the participant’s perception, facilitating the participant’s active orientation.
2.1/ Phenomenological articulation enlists users as cognitive agents, observing and deconstructing their surroundings in accordance with pattern-recognition or Gestalt-perception principles.
2.2/ Signification ( semiological articulation ) via a system of communication, language, interpretation, and semiological encodings that can only attach to the visually discernible features of the environment.

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.

Parametric Semiology: Semio-field, differentiation of public vs. private as parametric range. © Patrik Schumacher
Parametric Semiology: Semio-field, master-plan with program distribution. © Patrik Schumacher
Vienna University of Applied Arts, Masterclass Hadid, Parametric Semiology: Semio-field. Project authors: Magda Smolinska, Marius Cernica, and Monir Karimi. © Patrick Schumacher

Constructing this type of language for parametric semiology has axioms and heuristic principles that Patrik Schumacher formulates in The Autopoesis of Architecture. Oscillating between syntactical and semantic advances, they 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 language 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.

Dialectic Fields: Shell morphology as semiological system of distinctions: smooth vs creased vs faceted. © Patrik Schumacher
Dialectic Fields: Cluster of creased shells with semiologically distinctive surface articulation. © Patrik Schumacher
AADRL 2012 Parametric Semiology: Dialectic Fields. University campus designed as a system of signification, by Ganesh Nimmala, Leonid Krykhtin, Kwanphil Cho, and SharanSundar. © Patrik Schumacher

Designers can model and work on the signification relationship by scripting the agents’ unique behavioral dispositions in respect to certain spatial and/or morphological aspects of the planned environment. The domain of the signified – the patterns of social interaction envisaged within the specified territory – may therefore be incorporated into the design medium of architecture as one more subsystem in the collection of linked subsystems comprising the parametric model. As a result, it is feasible to simulate this life-process and include it in design speculation. 

The behavior of the agents may be scripted to correspond with the configurational and morphological aspects of the intended environment, resulting in programmed agents reacting to environmental cues. Furniture arrangements and other artifacts might be examples of such hints or triggers.

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The idea, then, is to build dynamic action-artefact networks.

Morphological characteristics, as well as colors and textures that, in conjunction with ambient factors (lighting conditions), define and describe a certain territory, might now affect the agent’s behavioral model. Because the meaning of an architectural space is the sort of (nuanced) event or social interaction to be expected inside its territory, these new tools enable the re-foundation of architectural semiology as parametric semiology.

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, Taylor and Francis, New York, 2013

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