September 9th, 2012 — 11:09am
hawaii unparametric
Na Pali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii, 2012 (Photo by Ian Gold)
Church of the Holy Cross, Josef Lehmbrock, Düsseldorf, 1957-58 (source)


To travel across the islands of Hawaii from Southeast to Northwest—Hawaii, Maui, Oahu, Kauai—is to travel backwards in geological time. The islands, born of molten lava, formed in a linear sequence as the Pacific Plate slowly shifted across a stationary hotspot in the Earth’s mantle. As the islands distanced themselves from this hotspot, a few inches per year, their fiery volcanic growth eventually halted (the hotspot currently resides under the island of Hawaii, which remains volcanically active and continues to grow in size). Over time, harsh winds and waves tugged at the islands loose ends, while the cooling of their rocky masses dragged the islands sluggishly back into the dark depths of the Pacific Ocean.


The life cycle of the Hawaiian Islands is clearly diagrammed on cartographic maps as the islands increase in size as they near the hotspot. It is also readily apparent visually from the silhouettes of the island’s mountain chains. The 400,000 year old island of Hawaii, which is soft and conical in mass, contrasts sharply with the 5 million year old island of Kauai with its jagged gravity defying cliffs and canyons.


The agedness of these islands coincides with their commercial specialization. As the youngest and therefore tallest island, Hawaii supports significant astronomical infrastructure, including technologically advanced NASA telescopes trawling deep space. The primordial visual aesthetic of Kauai has landed the island in dozens of Hollywood films, and garnered it the nickname of ‘Hollywood’s tropical back lot’. Memorably, Stephen Spielberg’s 1993 adaptation of Jurassic Park, relied on the time worn silhouettes of Kauai’s mountains to convincingly transport his audience into an ancient land… more


“Instead of being the threshold to the future, the first ten years of the twenty-first century turned out to be the ‘Re’ Decade.”

—Simon Reynolds, Retromania



While the above quotation refers to current trends in pop culture, it is equally apt at describing contemporary architectural practice and its theoretical discourse.


As architects, while attempting to define a formal vocabulary for this ‘threshold to the future’, the 21st century, with the aid of new tools and processes such as parametric coding that allow for mass customization (Grasshopper and the like), we have invariably recycled a formal vocabulary belonging to past decades—a vocabulary associated with optimism in scientific progress that relied on cues from mathematics, physics, microbiology, and other natural sciences.


Parametric architecture, while conceptually tied to ideas of evolution, optimization, adaption and systematic complexity, exhibits none of these traits after its built implementation and while the underlying 3D-models might be parametric, the buildings themselves are not. In its current state, parametric architecture is not at all parametric in its physical performance—‘parametric’ merely describes an aesthetic while the architecture itself remains inert and representational, if not metaphorical.


There are many past forms that could have been produced with today’s technologies, including built structures that pioneer the aesthetics of incremental and complex geometry—many of which are more than 50 years old.


E. Sean Bailey



Viviane Hülsmeier


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