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How Buildings Learn: What Happens After…

How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built (original 1994; edition 1995)

by Stewart Brand

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Title:How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built
Authors:Stewart Brand
Info:Penguin (Non-Classics) (1995), Paperback, 256 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:architecture, evolution, progress, society, nonfiction

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How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built by Stewart Brand (1994)



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My approach is to examine buildings as a whole -- not just whole in space, but whole in time. Some buildings are designed and managed as a spatial whole, none as a temporal whole. In the absence of theory or standard practice in the matter, we can begin by investigating: What happens anyway in buildings over time? [2]

Brand posits a view of buildings as defined by 6 distinct layers (adding to 4 from Frank Duffy). Duffy counseled: Imagine not a monolithic edifice, instead four layers of 'built components' with each layer aging at a different rate. Over time, they will shear apart unless they are able to adapt to both external pressures and internal stresses. [12-13] It is a design imperative to separate the layers to allow for adaptive change, for instance ensuring simple upgrades to conduits and plumbing. [20] It is sensible to think about the nature of these external and internal forces, whether changing real estate or neighbourhood standards or an expanding family, and accommodate them.

• Site
• Structure (Duffy = Shell)
• Skin
• Services (Duffy)
• Space Plan (Duffy = Scenery)
• Stuff (Duffy = Set, primarily furniture)

Added to this outlook is Brand's preference for buildings which succeed either by meeting a specialised purpose through long-term adaptation, becoming ever more suited to that purpose (High Road); or, which succeed by prioritising function and flexibility over any preset design, aesthetic, or even purpose (Low Road). Primarily he looks to vernacular designs. Perhaps this focus indicates an ultimate preference for Low Road, and an intention to redress the imbalance exemplified in such cultural icons as Architectural Digest.

The above outlook seemingly condensed into the 3L rule, introduced in 1972 by Alex Gordon: Long life, loose fit, low energy. [57] Brand also refers multiple times to the Pattern Language of Christopher Alexander and his colleagues, and notes the affinities with preservation efforts and regular, mindful maintenance. At one point, Brand draws a parallel between successful building adaptation and Batesonian cybernetics. [167]

It seems to me that the best designs are those which accommodate the most contradiction. Looked at the other way, the most boring design is that which is directed at a simple, well-defined future. A lot of New Age music exemplifies this, as does, for me, Le Corbusier. They are both addressed to simple world pictures, and to simple ideas about how humans behave and what they want. [189, quoting Brian Eno]


Brand's appreciation for vernacular and hybrid design now informs my outlook in keeping up my home, and not merely as a measure by which to evaluate buildings I see around me. Later chapters discuss strategies for builders and architects as well as owner-occupants: scenario planning, financing alternatives to conventional mortgages, adopting methods most suitable for later adaptation and changing.

More broadly, Brand's general outlook underpins my take on architecture, to some extent in articulating a sensibility already held but not closely examined, and partly in introducing new concepts. A commonplace of architecture, I thought, was the ideal of melding function and beauty. It's interesting to read that Modernism receives a good amount of criticism if not outright scorn for jettisoning utility (buildings leak, can't maintain a livable environment, feature layouts which impede occupants), when a plebeian criticism was that Modernist buildings are all function and no beauty.


The wide format is well suited to the content, which features a great many diagrams and photos, but not easily read except at table, nor easily notated in margins or back pages as my custom. There exists a six-part BBC Television series hosted by Brand, as well. ( )
  elenchus | Sep 21, 2015 |
"How Buildings Learn" is a seminal work on the life of buildings after they've been built and is then subject to the whims of its inhabitants, the weather, changes in technology and changes in architectural styles. Throughout various examples, Brand advocates for evolutionary-not-visionary design for buildings.

Brand is an incredible writer; he manages to make a complex topic simple, and litters the book with profound yet easy to digest insights. "How Buildings Learn" also benefits from great design itself; the text is often accompanied by many great photo case studies of how a building changes and adapts through the centuries.

Published in 1994, "How Buildings Learn" is still as relevant today as it was twenty years ago. Highly recommended. ( )
3 vote jasonli | Sep 16, 2014 |
A really interesting way to look at buildings and how to make them useful for a long time. ( )
  castiron | May 10, 2013 |
I bought this book while i was in Engineering school on my way to study Architecture. Never went that direction, but finally read the book. A great book on buildings alone, but concepts it has go beyond buildings and into many areas of applied design, including websites and computer software. ( )
1 vote Murdocke23 | Jan 31, 2010 |
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Buildings have often been studies whole in space, but never before have they been studied whole in time. How Buildings Learn is a masterful new synthesis that proposes that buildings adapt best when constantly refined and reshaped by their occupants, and that architects can mature from being artists of space to becoming artists of time. From the connected farmhouses of New England to I.M. Pei's Media Lab, from "satisficing" to "form follows funding," from the evolution of bungalows to the invention of Santa Fe Style, from Low Road military surplus buildings to a High Road English classic like Chatsworth -- this is a far-ranging survey of unexplored essential territory. More than any other human artifacts, buildings improve with time -- if they're allowed to. How Buildings Learn shows how to work with time rather than against it. - Publisher.… (more)

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