Parametric Thinking Theory

At this point in my development work I though it would be good to properly look into parametric design and it origins and write a brief report on my findings.

People have been designing objects and buildings using set parameters or a parametric methodology for centuries. One of the earliest examples is James Dana’s 1837 paper ‘On the Drawing of Figures of Crystals’ highlighted by Daniel Davies (2013) who said that “In the paper Dana explains the general steps for drawing a range of crystals and provisions for variations using language laced with parameters, variables, and ratios.”

If the plane to be introduced were 4P2 the parametric ratio of which is 4:2:1, we should in the same manner mark off 4 parts of e, 2 of ē and 1 of ë.
(Dana 1837, 42, cited Davies, 2013)

Moretti (1971, 207, cited Davis, 2013) may be one of the first to define the idea of parametric design writing extensively on “parametric architecture” explaining it as a study of architectural systems with an aim of “defining the relationships between the dimensions dependent upon the various parameters.”. Daniel Davis explains how Moretti uses the “design of a stadium as an example” and how “the stadium’s form can derive from nineteen parameters concerning things like viewing angles and the economic cost of concrete (Moretti 1971, 207).”. This highlights what parametric design is; essentially it is a design method whereby a form or design is defined by a list of set parameters.

Antonio Gaudi is another great example of early parametric methodology. In his design for the Church of Colònia Güell he created a model of strings weighted down with birdshot to create complex vaulted ceilings and arches. By adjusting the position of the weights or the length of the strings he could alter the shape of each arch and also see how this change influenced the arches connected to it. He placed a mirror on the bottom of the model to see how it should look upside-down. (1)

It is only in more recent years that the computational tools available have become more powerful and thus parametric design has been more widely utilised, with architecture at the forefront of the innovations . The AIACC (2012) expressed this stating that;

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.

Ivan Sunderland invented Sketchpad which was the first computer aided design tool. “Using a light pen, a designer could draw lines and arcs, which could then be related to one another with what Sutherland (1963, 18) called atomic constraints.” (Davis, 2013). Although Sunderland didn’t use the word parametric, the atomic constraints have all the properties of a parametric equations with each constraint having a “set of outcomes expressed as an explicit function of a number of independent parameters.” (Davis, 2013). Ever since this, as the AIACC (2012) highlighted, “The speed at which the architecture profession has been developing within the field of parametric design has been phenomenal.” Many new systems were brought out with parametric modelling capabilities such as Pro/ENGINEER, CATIA v4, Digital Project made as a result of Gehry Partners who where trying to realise geometrically challenging architecture projects like the Barcelona Fish. Digital Project “takes CATIAv5 and wraps it with tools tailored to architects, in particular architects trying to rationalise geometry as characteristically complicated as Gehry’s own.” (Davis, 2013). By this time much of the Architecture industry had replaced or accompanied their drawing pad with a personal computer. Revit hid parametric algorithms behind the interface allowing the designer to adjust the pitch of a roof say and Revit “in turn, will ‘revit’ (or revise instantly) all plans, elevations, sections, schedules, dimensions and other elements” (RTC 2001, cited Davis 2013). Grasshopper, developed by David Rutten, is based around graphs (mathematical type of flowchart) which maps “the flow of relations from parameters, through user-defined functions, concluding normally with the generation of geometry.” (Davis, 2013). Grasshopper is the parametric software that I have been using allowing me to visually write a scrip that generates form through a set of parameters defined by the planets.

Parametric design has not been accepted with love by all however and remains to divide opinion. In a conference at the BAC in 1965, Christopher Alexander warned that architects might “fatally distort the nature of design by restating design problems solely for the purpose of using the computer.” (AIACC, 2013). The AIACC also expressed that

Mathematical parametric and algorithmic procedures most often have proven far too rigid to productively engage the complex cultural, societal, economic, and political projects facing architects today. Designing buildings and cities using parametric and scripting design tools may often appear visually stunning, but for the most part these designs tend to incorporate far too many blind assumptions to be able to respond with nuance to real world situations.

This is one of the main criticism of parametric design in Architecture. It can be argued that parametric design takes the designer away from the actual design of the building and its performance. Renzo Piano told Architectural Record that “Computers are getting so clever that they seem a bit like those pianos where you push a button and it plays the cha-cha and then a rumba. You may play very badly, but you feel like a great pianist.” (Witold Rybczynski, 2013). The criticisms of parametric design go hand-in-hand with criticisms of building simulations which focus on simulating one factor rather than the building as a whole with all factors and parameters are interlinked; “current building simulations treat environmental domains such as heating, air conditioning, ventilation, and daylighting separately, rather than as integrated wholes.” (Witold Rybczynski, 2013). Richard Coyne (2014) stated that “There are parametric definitions of crowds, swarms and mobs, but as yet nothing that models human sociability and responses to environments in total — the stuff of architecture.”. This all highlights a potential alienation to the building itself when utilising parametric design. Using parametric modelling can also lead to a typical and arguably slightly cliche aesthetic, see below for images of parametric architecture.

A spin off from parametric design which is interesting to also note is generative design. Autodesk define generative design as follows;

Generative design mimics nature’s evolutionary approach to design. Designers or engineers input design goals into generative design software, along with parameters such as materials, manufacturing methods, and cost constraints. Then, using cloud computing, the software explores all the possible permutations of a solution, quickly generating design alternatives. It tests and learns from each iteration what works and what doesn’t.

With generative design, there is no single solution; instead, there are potentially thousands of great solutions. You choose the design that best fits your needs.

The computer uses fixed parameters to define the optimum design for the designer. It is responsible for some of the futuristic-looking buildings by Zaha Hadid Architects, MAD Architects and more. In an interview with Dezeen, Kowalski said that he believes that the new age of generative design will alter the relationship between designer and computer;”Our role in generative design as a user, as a designer, changes from this directive relationship with the computer – ‘here do this, put this line here, make this wall here, make this hole in the part here’ – to more of a curator,” (Kowalski 2017, cited Howarth, 2017).

As my project heavily relies on the parametric methodology which runs through all the mentions design approaches, it is important that I understand its history and where it is headed in the future along with its criticisms and cliches.

My work is about how form can be dictated by external entities. It is not about the parameters of each form or even about the data itself, but it is about where that data has come from, why it is significant and how that data reflects the entity which then builds the resulting form through the data it generates. Parametric design is simply a interesting tool for me to translate entity characteristics into a visual representation of it character. I separate my work from that of parametric architecture and generative designed products, rather my work is about not trying to define a form from ones mind, but using a direct source of inspiration to define the form creating something that goes beyond and object of just human creation into a object created by an dialogue between nature and the machine, human and the computer. So whilst I appreciate the beautiful forms that parametric design can produce, I am also aware of the relevant criticisms of the design method which I plan to avoid by reinforcing and focusing on the concepts of my pieces. I will stay aware of the potential to get too drawn into the computational tools alongside and try to stay away from cliches parametric aesthetics.


AIACC (2012) Parametric Design: A Brief History. Available at: (Accessed: 11 February 2017).

Autodesk (no date) What is Generative design. Available at: (Accessed: 11 February 2017).

Coyne, R. (2014) What’s wrong with parametricism. Available at: (Accessed: 11 February 2017).

Davis, D. (2017) A history of parametric. Available at: (Accessed: 11 February 2017).

Howarth, D. (2017) Generative design software will give designers ‘superpowers’. Available at: (Accessed: 11 February 2017).

(1) Parametric design (2017) in Wikipedia. Available at: (Accessed: 11 February 2017).

Rybczynski, W. (2013) Parametric design: What’s gotten lost amid the Algorithms. Available at: (Accessed: 11 February 2017).

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