“What is suggested here is a new dimension—architects maturing from being just artists of space to artists of time.”
—Stewart Brand, “How Buildings Learn”
We think of buildings as some of our most immutable creations. Throughout their lifespan, their basic shape, their room distribution, and their purpose, remains mostly constant over time. They may last for centuries if built properly. Now and then they suffer some additions or renovations –an extra room here, a wider door there–, but these once-in-a-while changes do not detract from our perception of buildings as solid, permanent, inert structures.
This is because we see life with a short-term, day-to-day lens. Just like we fail to perceive the cumulative growth of a child we see often, we miss the slow changes in the world around us. Not even the constellations stay put, but you won’t notice unless you pay close attention to them. What happens if we cast a long-term view on our seemingly immutable creations –on our buildings? Do they change? How? Why?
This is what Stewart Brand sets out to study in “How Buildings Learn”, an eye-opener of a book that shocks the reader with its detailed comparisons of archival photographies and the reasons behind many building modifications. His long-term view transforms buildings into quasi-living entities that learn from their inhabitants and constantly evolve to suit their needs. Looking at some of the book’s photographs of the same building throughout the decades is like watching the ever-shifting clouds in the sky: You can tell it is the same cloud you saw a minute ago, it feels the same, and yet you can barely recognize it now.
Brand charges against most of modern architecture, which likes to produce disposable buildings to be torn down in about 30 years. He accuses architects of obsessing with striking looks and neglecting the needs of their tenants, most of which hate the buildings they must occupy.
Instead of focusing on looks, Brand proposes to focus on functionality, and on giving a building enough flexibility to adapt to the needs of its users easily. Buildings will change, he says, so let’s design them so as to facilitate their changes. And he does not stop there: he wants to modify not just buildings, but the way they are designed: Greater customer involvement, iterative development, scenario-based analysis, documentation for users.
It’s a very enjoyable book, and relevant not only to architecture but to any design field. As an Amazon commenter pointed out, simply substituting “building” for “software” in the text gives you an excellent essay on software development. I can imagine it offering the same benefits for many other professions.