Today’s architects and urbanists increasingly design and understand the form of buildings and cities through the lens of the parameter. Broadly defined as a variable within a system whose change affects other aspects of that system, parameters, or “parametricism”, are controlling or inspiring the design of everything from façade details to large-scale developments. Some architects have even proclaimed parametricism to be the future means by which all architectural and urban design will be executed. Underlying this somewhat bombastic and as yet undemonstrated proclamation is the fundamental change that computation has brought to architectural design in the past twenty or so years. While the underlying digital revolution is real and permanent, whether parametricism is merely a form of digital fetishism or the future of architectural design remains to be seen.
Parametric urbanism is of great interest for reasons that are both technical and theoretical. Technically, the parameter offers the opportunity for the computer to analyze urban data and perhaps discover new relationships between the form of the city and its performance. This ability in turn tempts the theoretically inclined urban designer to question whether parametric urbanism might not be the key to revealing new urban form ideals, or perhaps even of identifying an ideal form for the city itself. Given that the search for ideal city form is almost as old as the city itself, parametricism’s combination of technical and theoretical potentials makes it a rewarding area of investigation for the ambitious urbanist.
The Spring 2013 Urban Design Ideals and Action seminar, taught by Professor Brent D. Ryan since 2010 at MIT, provided the forum for investigating parametric urbanism, while the island nation and city of Singapore provided the site. A January 2013 workshop organized and sponsored in partnership with Professor Andres Sevtsuk of the Singapore University of Technology and Design permitted a group of 11 MIT graduate students in urban design and planning to visit Singapore and generate preliminary design proposals based on parametric variables for two Singapore neighborhoods, Bugis and Punggol. As the world’s only independent city-state, Singapore is a particularly design and technology-oriented nation where urban design and planning are paramount elements in shaping the future. Singapore’s commitment to progressive urbanism makes it a particularly appropriate site for parametric investigations, and it is the investigators’ hopes that the Spring 2013 workshop will be only the first of series of such investigations into the future of urban design.