Buildings shift like clouds

How Buildings Learn cover

“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.


About Jorge Aranda

I'm currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the SEGAL and CHISEL labs in the Department of Computer Science of the University of Victoria.
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5 Responses to Buildings shift like clouds

  1. Jorge says:

    I should say about half of my readings are Greg’s recommendations, and they’re consistently on target:

    I don’t think I’ll ever catch up with him.

  2. Pingback: The Destruction of Memory « Left with Brain, Right with Heart

  3. Neil says:

    Great recommendation from … one of you. How do you feel about the new ROM? I toured the inside and the elements of it sound great – a chamber of souls or something in the middle, criss-crossed with bridges, large galleries, dramatic presence on a key Toronto intersection.

    However, hanging museum art on slanted walls? How much attention gets paid to ‘function’ when the central motif was, from what I hear, conceived and drawn on a cocktail napkin?

    But the form is maybe the only way to sell the idea to investors and donors.

  4. Jorge says:

    I guess the makeover of the ROM would be dismissed by Brand because it inhibits future changes and (as you point out) seems to forget its function and presents itself as a work of art instead.

    Myself, I don’t understand Toronto’s trend of boldly contrasting old and new architectural styles. I really liked the old ROM (I barely got here before construction of the new stuff started); the new crystal feels too extravagant and noisy in comparison, and it shuts up the old area instead of enhancing it. I can’t help but think they wanted to imitate the Louvre, when they should have learned from the failure of its pyramid instead.

    On the other hand, I haven’t toured the new areas, and I’ve heard that they feel spacious and that are generally worth it. I’ll visit soon and let you know –there’s this Inca exhibition I really want to check out.

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