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How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built

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Buildings have often been studied 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.

256 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1994

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About the author

Stewart Brand

31 books245 followers
Stewart Brand was a pioneer in the environmental movement in the 60s – his Whole Earth Catalog became the Bible for sustainable living, selling more than 10 million copies worldwide. Brand is President of The Long Now Foundation and chairs the foundation's Seminars About Long-term Thinking.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 165 reviews
Profile Image for Amanda.
70 reviews27 followers
October 31, 2012
I was the nerdy little girl that checked out books of floor plans from the library - like 10 books at a time - and just went home and looked at them. Picked out features I liked in a plan, looked at how a person or a family would use a space in terms of both furniture and movement. Thought about elevation and sunlight.

And majored in English in college, mostly because the math required by architecture degrees was intimidating, and architecture students were intimidating. Also, I didn't want to MAKE buildings, I just wanted to TALK about them. Someone heard me talking about all of this and give the math excuse and said, "Frank Lloyd Wright was crappy at math too, you know." I'm sure they said other things, but I didn't hear them, because the thought, the mere mention of Prairie School will derail my brain and take it over.

This book was fabulous and made me regret for brief (but recurring) moments my path in higher ed. However, its very presence was encouraging that I can still be well-read and informed on the topic, that there is a place for everyone in the built environment to foster understanding and look with new eyes on the things we construct and inhabit (for many values of "construct" and "inhabit"). Huh, guess that lit degree wasn't useless after all?

The only reason this isn't 5 stars is because I didn't like the wide layout of the book. It was kind of floppy and hard to get my mitts around, and though it provided space for a LOT of photos and drawings.
Profile Image for Michael Burnam-Fink.
1,472 reviews220 followers
November 4, 2022
I'd make How Buildings Learn mandatory reading for everybody. It's that good.

We spend a lot of time in buildings, but the fact is many buildings are pretty awful. Expensive yet shoddily constructed, full of hidden decay, boring and monotonous, wasting space, and poorly adapted to the climate. Brand's approach to improving buildings is characteristically counter-intuitively Brand; look at the old buildings that have survived and try and find out why they've survived and why they're loved. He does so with clever insights and a succession of photographs taken from the same place over long periods of time to show how different buildings evolve.

McLoving It is McMandatory

Borrowing from architect Frank Duffy, Brand defines a building at several levels. Site is the location and the property lines, as close to permanent as anything humans can make. Structure is the basic frame, the trusses and pillars, which should be good for centuries. Skin separates the inside from the outside, and should last decades before weather and fashion demand major replacement. Services are the utilities, plumbing, electrical, and all the gadgets that make life livable, which tend to last several years. And finally, there's the interior partitions of the space plan and all the stuff of furniture and décor, which is easily modifiable by the inhabitants.

There are two major paths towards being a successful building. The obvious one is named the High Road, landmark structures like English country houses and the Boston Athenæum, where centuries of money and good taste under careful supervision have aided a grand journey towards beloved classic. The other option is the Low Road, structures so cheap and obviously shoddy that no one cares about what happens to them, so they're quickly suited to the needs of their occupants. Brand has a deep love for the hippie compound growing organically off of an initial trailer through accretion and connection of various sheds, or its commercial counterpart in the early 20th century light industrial space, where ample natural light and a solid yet sparse steel frame provide a useful starting ground for second and third acts as professional offices, high end retail, or trendy loft apartments.

One of the better section is a direct comparison of MIT's beloved Building 20, aka the Rad Lab, a WW2 era "temporary" structure which survived until the 1990s, against the trendy I.M Pei designed Media Lab building. Building 20 was long fingers of heavy wood construction, endlessly modifiable by its occupants, where the crudity of the structure created a convivial sense that this was where real work was done. The Media Lab is a modernist monster centered around an inhuman atrium, full of specialist spaces devoted to experiments ended before the building opened. It's impossible to meet anyone, competition for what useful space there is is fierce, and in a final screw you, the fluorescent lights are angled at 45 degrees to the walls, making it difficult to reshape the space.

Brand is savage towards the forces he believes are killing good buildings. He decries architects who designs buildings that play with form and space to make striking photographs, rather than humane and durable structures for their inhabitants. The failure of architects to make workable buildings has lead to the rise of paraprofessional construction managers and facilities managers, who patch up the bad ideas as best they can. Zoning and codes, which strangles construction in paperwork and a civic masterplan that is a bureaucratic utopia of rules, are a sure way to create buildings which are neither High Road nor Low Road, but simply mediocre.

The book is full of useful adages and asides. There's a mea culpa on domes from the Whole Earth Catalog era. Domes are impossible to seal against rain and waste space in innumerable ways. Buildings are destroyed by water, markets, and money. Keep the first two away, and feed the latter in small amounts. The Mediterranean courtyard house is a classic design, but another useful model is the northern European three corridor house, with a large central nave and smaller private rooms under the eaves. Stick to rectangular forms, because they're easy to modify and extend. Overbuild Structure and make Services accessible, because at some point you'll have to get at the pipes and wires, and later occupants may want to add another story. When in doubt, you can always use more storage. To build for the long term, trust in stone, brick, and stout hardwood. Use local materials, and be suspicious of new plastics. A good material will tell you that it needs attention before it fails. Take photographs of the studs, plumbing, and wiring before putting up drywall, because it'll help you later. And for the love of all that is holy, get a good roof, because water will destroy your house in a single season. Simple angled designs shed rain, where flat roofs cause constant problems.

This book isn't flawless. Brand elides the useful role of codes in having buildings that don't catch routinely fire, or not putting an explosive fertilizer factory next to to an elementary school. He is more favorable to the historic preservation movement than I am after decades of weaponized NIMBYism. But there is a lot of pragmatic advice, and the 1990s "End of History" optimism has aged to become its own charming relic. My only wish is that at 25 years on we could get an updated bibliography, but I'm sure that many of Brand's choices are actual classics, and worthy of their own reads.
72 reviews13 followers
January 30, 2009
You will love this book if, like me, you think that modern and postmodern architecture has gone terribly, terribly wrong. (Conversely, if you worship Frank Gehry, I. M. Pei, and their ilk, you will probably be offended.) Stewart Brand argues convincingly that the buildings that survive are those that can be flexible enough to adapt to the changing needs and tastes successive generations of inhabitants. He is particularly trenchant in his criticism of the overprogrammed, over-designed, sculptural architectural buildings (he calls them "magazine architecture") that are often obsolete before they are completed, and he points out that, Frank Lloyd Wright's opinion notwithstanding, it is not in fact a sign of architectural success if the roof leaks!

Also be sure to check out his very original comments on "low-road" buildings, those whose designs are so throwaway that successive inhabitants can and do feel utterly free to knock down walls, cut through floors, and otherwise jerry-rig them to adapt to current needs. It's a brilliant exploration of an often neglected but probably ubiquitous subset of buildings.
Profile Image for edh.
176 reviews8 followers
December 23, 2009
This is my reading reaction I posted to my blog: http://schoolingdotus.blogspot.com

From my last post - this was the only book referred to in the New South Wales matrix that I hadn't yet read. So I set out to grab a copy of How Buildings Learn and discover more about its metaphor for a potential library future.

I think I have always been interested in architecture - take me to any city and I am perfectly happy wandering around to see what I can see in the streetscapes. I knew why I had this interest after a 1997 college guest lecture by James Howard Kunstler. As deeply ashamed as I was at the audience, some of whom booed his talk and belligerently challenged both his ideas and authority in the field, I had a growing sense of excitement and identification. Kunstler was my kind of guy - someone who had figured out that people's relationships with their surroundings profoundly affect their sense of development as a people. "Is this a place worth caring about?" he shouted, showing slides of all-too-familiar suburban landscapes where big box stores held dominion over the horizon and token landscaping replaced once thriving & complex ecosystems. It's no wonder young people feel alienated and isolated, he claimed, pointing to the lack of sidewalks in housing developments and the proliferation of bland "places" that resemble nowhere in particular.

His ideas resonated with me and I was grateful to find the words for things I sensed but was not able to articulate. I found this to be true of Brand's book as well: although one can read this book through the photographs, illustrations, and captions alone, the narrative Brand created is a good one indeed. My favorite reading "moments:"

He quotes from Jane Jacobs on the costs of new construction: "Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must come from old buildings." (p. 28) This quote faces two photos - one of the carriage-style garage where Hewlett-Packard took shape in 1939, and the modest interior of a 1970s garage in Palo Alto where Steves Jobs & Wozniak invented the Apple computer.

In a strange way, libraries are always old buildings because we store the past - we are the metaphoric "old building" that provides a foundation for today's thinkers to build upon.

On p. 188, Brand points out the difference in philosophy of an architect who thinks of a building as a way to manipulate the power structure of those who inhabit it, and the actual inhabitants who will inevitably shape it the way their lives evolve: "A building is not something you finish. A building is something you start."

Libraries are changing organisms just as our users are changing organisms. Our future depends on being flexible, modular, and providing the raw space in which change can flourish.

"Anticipate greater connectivity always."

Beyond being an excellent example of Strunk & White style, this simple declarative sentence is what we should do for our institution as a whole and for the learners that come through our doors. Brand uses this as an introduction to a paragraph on the Berkeley's Wurster Hall conduits, built into the fabric of the building anticipating lots of lovely coaxial cable for television in every classroom. Instead, it proved to be a great way to network computers as the Internet revolution arose. What else could it have connected? Had this empty, "useless" space not been provided, there would have been no opportunity to help the building keep evolving with its inhabitants.

Architecture turns out to have a lot in common with libraries. We deal on a human scale, and help people create places worth caring about, worth inhabiting, and worth growing.
Profile Image for Gretchen Rubin.
Author 43 books83.9k followers
March 18, 2019
Very intriguing look at buildings, cities, and how time changes a place. Loved the illustrations.
Profile Image for Michael.
Author 7 books593 followers
February 2, 2014
A great book about architecture, construction and (a little) interior design. This book, while not about computing, can serve as a reference for ho to (and not) build software that can evolve. Brand's book is a wonderful companion to Christopher Alexander's classic books on architecture and pattern languages.
Profile Image for Dale.
536 reviews59 followers
May 16, 2015
Stewart Brand's thinking about architecture seems to have two basic elements: a strong influence from the design patterns approach of Christopher Alexander, and Brand's own interest in the time dimension. Much of the book is infused with deep contempt for the practice of architecture as it has become in the past century. He reserves special scorn for Frank Lloyd Wright and for contemporary 'magazine architects'. Brand's view, hardly controversial, is that architects should focus on designing buildings that work instead of buildings that merely photograph well. Part of making a building that works is designing it in such a way that it can evolve over time as the occupants' needs change, or the occupants themselves are replaced.

Don't get me wrong: this is not a 'negative' book. It is filled with insight, ideas, and suggestions. And many of the photographs are fascinating, showing buildings at various times in their history, evolving, always growing, sprouting new facades, new floors, new rooflines.

I wish that I had read this book when I was much younger. It might have saved me from a couple major real-estate mistakes. Now that the housing market is in such disarray, reading and understanding this book at a deep level might be very beneficial for those young enough to benefit from buildings that will last a lifetime or more.
Profile Image for Anson Cassel Mills.
562 reviews8 followers
May 13, 2019
What non-architect can dislike a book that so wittily exposes the follies of Frank Lloyd Wright, I. M. Pei, and Buckminster Fuller? Furthermore, as the owner of an unusually shaped structure myself, I can give personal testimony to the validity of Brand’s thesis that the best buildings are those that incorporate simple designs, easily maintained and easily modified. (Ironically, Brand spends some pages describing his own conversion of a tugboat into a houseboat—the result a charming but screamingly cramped living space with eternal maintenance.) The illustrations and their captions are themselves worth the price of the book; I several times returned fascinated to the many fine photos of buildings as they had been modified through the years. No wonder the BBC was able to make a six-part series from this book.
Profile Image for Du.
1,786 reviews11 followers
October 23, 2011
This book had a lot of potential. I don't know why, but I couldn't enjoy the text. The illustrations and images were great, and the landscape orientation was very useful for review the evolution of structures, but the words on the page were useless. The idea behind the book, the evolution of buildings, is really cool and I would like to read more on the subject. I wonder if I have have read too many books about buildings and how the built environment affects people that this was too basic for me.

Overall, not peeved that I read it, but happy that it was a lazy Sunday in front of the wood stove, and not some overly complex read, that didn't satisfy.
Profile Image for Hannah.
100 reviews2 followers
June 22, 2019
This book gets 4 stars for ideas and 2 stars for actual writing. He could have used a better editor. But also, this book was written in 1995!

As a professional in the buildings industry, I am constantly running into the unique contexts each operator finds herself in whether the building is on day 2 of operations or day 2000. Lots of good things to talk about and to consider both at work and in my home renovation journey. Glad I found this book!
Profile Image for Eric.
98 reviews
October 19, 2014
Santiago Calatrava has not read this book.

"If it hold water, it's craft. If it leaks, it's art." -old potters' line
Profile Image for Jeff Greason.
237 reviews10 followers
April 6, 2020
From time to time I happen to read just the right book, at just the right moment, to really make a mark on my thinking. This was one such time, and book. I got it because of my interest in space and planetary habitats and wanted a different perspective on how to design the structures to be useful over time rather than disposable. But the entire outlook of the book, on how the future is not just unanticipated, but beyond anticipation -- and yet, we are not helpless in the face of that realization -- is something I have struggled time and again to put in to words and communicate to audiences. The beginning of wisdom is in appreciating what cannot be predicted; in leaving room for future inhabitants to make their own decisions, and yet be glad you built what you did, how you did, in a way that the investment endured, but also in a way that allowed that investment to adapt and be adapted. In planning, not a brittle future that breaks when the unanticipated happens, as it always does, but a robust, flexible one which minimizes regret in a range of future scenarios. This is a book I'm bound to recommend to people in fields far from architecture, because of how well it illuminates planning in the face of what you know can't be planned for, but must still be built for.
Profile Image for Luis.
194 reviews20 followers
October 10, 2022
The rare book relevant to both my YIMBY work and open community work. MediaWiki is very much a building that has learned; I hope the next generation of Wikipedians can keep that alive. XKCD’s “guy in Nebraska” is also a part of a structure that learns, but precariously and with less provision for systemic, cross-ecosystem learning than Wikipedia. On the flip side, we’re never going to build what Brand calls “low” buildings in SF again; at best we’ll get some ADUs but mostly we’ll get a lot of big buildings. That’s good and needed but they’ll never be great buildings in the way our Edwardians are.
Profile Image for Alja.
95 reviews32 followers
May 19, 2020
An excellent exploration of how various types of buildings – from offices to homes – adapt to the people interacting with them over time. It's also an informative collection of the common mistakes we make when designing, building, renovating, and maintaining buildings. I can also see lessons from this book being applied to other complex projects. I only wish the quality of the photos was better in the Kindle edition.
8 reviews5 followers
April 24, 2021
Recommended for anyone interested in the built environment; should be required reading for architects and building preservationists.
Profile Image for Danielle.
517 reviews35 followers
May 29, 2021
This was a fascinating book about architecture, the design of buildings, how buildings are preserved for hystericity, real estate prices, building codes, building function versus building form maintenance, etc. This is not a topic that I usually care to consume, but I heard about it on a podcast and it sounded interesting. This was not a propulsive page turner. I read a chapter every few days maybe and I found it interesting and curious. You definitely need the physical book as there's a ton of pictures that explains what the author is talking about. The pictures are really cool! It shows the progression of buildings with age and remodeling. I think anyone who owns their own home or has a mortgage would find this book interesting has it directly relates to all of that. It was written in the early '90s but the concepts and principles of architecture and designer the same; the only differences would be the prices mentioned in the book and maybe current style and fashion.
Profile Image for Todd Stockslager.
1,642 reviews26 followers
November 11, 2022
Review title: This Old House

How do buildings age? That is the subject of this unique book by Stewart Brand, the creator of The Whole Earth Catalog which those who came of age in the mid 60s to late 70s will remember as kind of a pre-internet offline community--a paper-based social media, if you will. Here Brand focuses in on the buildings we love and work in and how they "learn"--how they adapt or are adapted to changing uses, tenants, repairs (or lack of), and investment.

Brand starts by defining the six S's of a building, starting from the bottom up and the outside in, and which most importantly age or change at very different rates or time scales (p. 13):

° Stuff
Furniture, appliances, finishes, which change on the scale of months, not years

° Space
Interior layout . House space may last decades, office space a few years.

° Services
Wiring, plumbing, HVAC, with typical lifespan of 7 to 15 years

° Skin
Exterior surfaces which last about 20 years depending on the material

° Structure
Foundation and frame, usually build to last 30 to 300 years

° Site
The geographic setting, which is essentially eternal

How buildings are designed, built, used, and managed and maintained to adapt to those changes--to "learn"--is the topic of the rest of the book. It is the slow-changing longer-lived components that dominate the building. "The quick processes provide originality and challenge, the slow provide continuity and constraint. Buildings steady us, which we can probably use. But if we let our buildings come to a full stop, they stop us." (p. 17). It is the combination of "Age plus adaptivity [which] makes a building come to be loved. The building learns from its occupants and they learn from it." (p. 23)

Brand uses photographs of the same building over time to show and describe (in tiny-font captions which left me squinting and moving the book very close to read) the changes . The book is heavily illustrated, and is published in 8 1/2 x 11 landscape pages so that the open book has 22 inches across two pages to display a series of photographs or drawings of a site, building, or interior space over time. It is effective for the topic but sometimes awkward to hold for reading. A bibliography of recommended reading and an index are included.

Brand is frequently critical of the architecture profession for its fixation on building unique, monumental, and "perfect" buildings expected to be frozen in time, and without accommodation to the smaller scale changes--the services, space plans, and stuff that make a building usable, and loved. Architecture should be seen as "craft instead of art", because "Art must be inherently radical, but buildings are inherently conservative." (p. 54). He is also often critical of the real estate and banking industries with their fixation on short-term profits. "Real estate turns buildings into money, into fungible units devoid of history and thereof of learning." (p. 87)

Writing in the mid 1990s Brand notes the "new" trend of preservation and home remodeling. Preservation of historic buildings ("High Road" is his term for valuable properties) means "Each property shall be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use." (p. 97). Ordinary low-cost "Low Road" buildings can be remodeled, updated, expanded, often by the owner: "They free you by constraining you. Since you don't have to address the appalling vacuum of a blank site, you can put all your effort and ingenuity into the manageable task of rearranging the relatively small part of the building's made that people deal with every day--the Services, Space plan, and Stuff." (p. 105). He writes approvingly and presciently of the explosion in spending for DIY projects versus new construction (p. 159) and would no doubt add a chapter on the boom in real estate shows and channels like HGTV if a new edition were published now.

The insights for the places I've lived and worked are fascinating. In 2021 my wife and I bought a Low Road house that was build in 1952 as a small one-story ranch style house with a combined living-dining area and a detached garage separated from the side door into the kitchen by a breezeway. Sometime later (we think the 1980s) the garage was converted to a wood-paneled living area with a wood-burning fireplace and a peaked roof with skylights to add light and height, connecting to the main part of the house through the now-enclosed breezeway with a new main entry into the house (the original front door remains, a very seldom used cul-de-sac). A new and larger garage was build a little further away across a brick patio. In the 90s the kitchen was remodeled and a bathroom added off the kitchen. Finally about ten years ago a whole new wing was build adding a new large master bedroom off the back of the house, with a new laundry room, large en-suite bathroom and walk-in closet, and a dedicated office with its own outside entrance onto the brick patio and courtyard with an outdoor sink and barbecue area. At some point a storage shed was added to the backyard next to a fenced and lighted basketball court (that we learned from a neighbor was at one time a swimming pool). This is the kind of incremental learning that Brand praises and documents with his photographic spreads, and I wish we had something like that to see document the life and learning of this old house, which at 70+ years and counting has been able to exceed the expected life span of a Low Road building by learning. And the learning continues; we had to replace a broken window in the fireplace room, and after an expensive first winter heating experience had insulation blown into wall cavities that the installer said showed evidence of different past efforts to insulate that left some wall cavities completely uninsulated, others partially insulated with different materials, and a few completely insulated.

Some of Brand's strongest criticism is directed towards commercial properties designed by architects with no input from the expected occupants, managed by landlords with no input from the actual occupants, and maintained by bureaucracies with no plan or funding to help the building learn. The result is solutions that are "inelegant, incomplete, impermanent, inexpensive, just barely good enough to work." (p. 165). Paradoxically, when those solutions are applied by the occupants who live with the building success has a higher chance: "it is those actually using the space who understand best how it can [be] made/altered to have the character of being conducive to the work." (p. 173). Twenty years ago I was one of four infrastructure support staff implementing a state-wide information system, and at the work site we were isolated in a block of four separate tiny cubicles. After having too many conversations over the walls or standing in the narrow entrances, and after learning how the cubicles were built and connected, one weekend on our own time and with our own tools we came in and reconfigured the four into one cubicle with each of us having a small corner desk space and a large round table in the middle that we could pivot and face for those impromptu working sessions. On Monday when the customer manager saw what we had done he said we would need to return the space to its original configuration. But that very day there was a critical system problem that pulled all four of us, and the customer manager, into a day-long series of troubleshooting meetings and calls around our group table. At the end of the day, as the manager walked past he popped in and said we could could keep the arrangement because it had proven its value. Brand would have approved.

He concludes with suggestions and questions to help architects, builders, owners/landlords, and building occupants to proceed and succeed.

° "If you want a building to learn, you have to pay its tuition." (p. 190)--plan and provide money for maintenance.

° Study the building "the way historians study the past--diachronically, in terms of change over time" (p. 210)--and provide pictures, diagrams, and as-built plans of changes to record those changes over time for future owners and occupants (I wish I'd had those for my house!)

° Look at the history of other buildings with similar usages or learning (p. 215) to see how they can be applied to yours.

° Study buildings that haven't changed or learned and ask why, then ask "what are the usages that nourish buildings? And which ones destroy buildings?" (p. 218)

Buildings where we live and work and play are a large part of the places we call home, and Brand has helped me realize they are also large part of the time we call life. Buildings really do learn, like the best of us.
Profile Image for Kristian.
25 reviews5 followers
July 24, 2008
If you are an architect you should lose your license for not having read this book. Anyone interested in building, architects, contractors, home-renovators, property managers, real-estate agents, DIY weekend warriors, all of you need to read this and better both yours, your clients, your renters, and your buildings lives... This book puts into wonderfully written word why european cities have evolved the way they have, and why nearly every new construction area in America seems like a joke. Old buildings will set you free. Brand also outlines several concepts and ideas that are currently being touted by current green and sustainable progressives, yet this book is over a decade old, and doesn't just use buzzwords to get his ideas across. There are complete and excellent examples, points and counterpoints to all the arguments and ideas he presents. Seriously, this is a great book for anyone to read, but especially those directly in contact with any part of the building or remodeling industries.
161 reviews4 followers
February 11, 2015
Just as awesome as I hoped when I put it on a 'to read' list years ago.

Has changed the way I'm able to pick apart many houses I drive by in NH, and think about houses that I'm very familiar with.

The suggested reading in the back put half a dozen new books on Amazon wish-lists for me.

It would be interesting to see updated info/ideas, particularly covering green/sustainable building practices.

A lot of the ideas are applicable to many areas of interest, including programming, enterprise IT, and organizations of all sorts.
Profile Image for Jesse.
449 reviews
January 25, 2017
Took me months to slowly absorb this but in the process it has completely changed the way I think about houses, buildings, commercial space, urban space, architecture, and construction, probably forever. As a rank amateur in that field, I needed the best kind of introduction, and this certainly feels like this was it.
Profile Image for Ryan.
976 reviews
June 25, 2022
"How did it come to pass that garages have everything but cars in them?" (162). I know almost nothing about building and architecture, but I'm happy to recommend Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built. I might be able to summarize a lot of Brand's message by juxtaposing my dad's shop against my parents' house.

When my parents retired and moved into a town, my folks bought a house and my dad bought the adjacent property and built a shop on it. I always thought this signified that he was somehow unable to leave the farm behind, and it probably does. But Brand might suggest that this shop differs fundamentally from the house they moved into. It satisfies an important need many people have to muck around.

My parents' house is totally nice. It has a geothermal heating, a nice porch, and a fairly open living space. It's not very big, which is convenient, but it doesn't have an attic or basement. So it's not very changeable and in some ways not usable. The way things are laid out is the way they're likely always going to be laid out. If someone else moves into that house, I expect that they'll put the TV and kitchen table in exactly same places. If these people build anything, they will likely replace the deck rather than an addition. For Brand, my folks live in more of a "High Road" building as it's well built in many ways but it's poorly build as it's difficult to change. We are lucky when we enter high road buildings and find that they are usable because ultimately they're so expensive that we're stuck with them whether they're usable or not.

My dad's shop is a "Low Road" building. The floor is cement, though it has tubes of water that run through it to provide heat as well as plumbing, which are very nice features for a farmer's shop. Since he built it, my dad has built two small additions. In both cases, he was happy to cut through the frame to make room. The shop is not fancy. Not coincidentally, it doesn't need to be tidy, and in fact it isn't. It has a variety of flexible work spaces, benches, sitting and visiting spaces, heated areas, and shelves. In many ways, it's a more comfortable place than my parents' home.

Brand suggests that architects, and the culture more broadly, undervalue low road buildings and too often build buildings that cannot be updated and changed as people's needs evolve. At one point, Brand describes the elation an artist feels when entering an empty studio apartment--no matter what they do, it will add to the space. Brand's building ethos leads him to boost mobile homes because of how easy it is to build on to them. I enjoyed every anecdote he told about how he turned a dilapidated boat into his office. He also shares some anecdotes from his house boat. These moments, as well as the excellent pictures that show how buildings evolve, are excellent. Recommended.


I will also note this observation from Brian Eno for future reference:
We are convinced by things that show internal complexity, that show the traces of an interesting evolution. Those signs tell us that we might be rewarded if we accord it our trust. An important aspect of design is the degree to which the object involves you in its own completion. Some work invites you into itself by not offering a finished, glossy, one-reading-only surface.This is what makes old buildings interesting to me. I think that humans have a taste for thing that not only show that they have been through a process of evolution, but which also show they are still a part of one. They are not dead yet. (11)
4 reviews3 followers
December 31, 2020
This book is, nominally, a book about architecture and buildings, but it is actually a book about modernity and the products of modernity. It is a book about most, if not all, of today's professions; architecture is analyzed because its fruits are particularly visible and familiar. Stewart Brand lovingly describes two varieties of production that improve with time: Low Road and High Road; and one variety of production that worsens with time: No Road. Low Road production is carried out by laymen, it is impromptu and flexible, sometimes crude and always improvisational. High Road production is carried out by artisans, it is passion-driven and well-funded, it spans generations. No Road production shares none of the Low Road or High Road virtues, it is carried out by consultants without skin in the game and it is over-prescribed and inflexible, it is bureaucracy-driven with tight timelines and tighter budgets.

This book could just as easily be about medicine, engineering, tech, or agriculture. No Road exists across all of these disciplines, and, sadly, is often the norm. No Road medicine materializes as declining life expectancy in the 21st century. No Road engineering is an innovative and high-tech hydrocarbon sector that is making the earth uninhabitable. No Road tech is social networks (goodreads included, of course) that are driving monopoly and surveillance capitalism. No Road agriculture is intensive farming practices that increase short-term production at the expense of sustainable land use. These sectors produce impressive and useless products: pills to mask symptoms of diseases that are easily prevented; cars capable of achieving impressive speeds that spend their days crawling in traffic; smartphones that distract and track their owners; flavourless tomatoes and textureless "instant" food. Stewart Brand's advice regarding reform is universally true (replace "architecture" as necessary):
The conversion will be difficult because it is fundamental. The transition from image architecture to process architecture is a leap from the certainties of controllable things in space to the self-organizing complexities of an endlessly raveling and unraveling skein of relationships over time.

This book is a five-star read because, unlike many in the genre, it does not stop at diagnosing the problem (to do so would make him guilty of his own critiques, I suspect). More than half of How Buildings Learn is dedicated to presenting strategies for reform that span scale from the micro to the macro. The reader is left feeling inspired and empowered to make micro changes to their own home, and they are left optimistic about the potential futures of architecture and urban planning at large. Brand presents a loose but instructive framework for a utopian cure for the often dystopian present. His utopia includes renovations and retrofittings that conserve the embodied energy in our present fleet of buildings and new construction that will be well-suited for the future, regardless of which outcomes are realized out of these turbulent times.

How Buildings Learn has been in print for a quarter of a century. It reads as if it was published yesterday. Brand's conclusion needs to be read and interpreted and reinterpreted across disciplines and across time: "What is called for is the slow moral plastic of the "many ways" diverging, exploring, insidiously improving. Instead of discounting time, we can embrace and exploit time's depth. Evolutionary design is healthier than visionary design."
Profile Image for Ben Doherty.
5 reviews3 followers
January 12, 2020
I've been pecking away at this book for about 4 years now. I think I've struggled to get started with it because it's a funny shaped book. It's landscape and in two columns, which sounds like a good idea, but means that it's hard to read without a table. Anyway, I had a good run up at it over the last 3 weeks so I gave it a red hot go, and was rewarded richly!

To a casual reader, it might come across as a catalogue of the ways that Steward Brand hates architects, but it's richer than a simple hatchet job. He cares deeply about the environment, in comprehensive way that feels unusual in today's reactive and noisy response to the climate crisis. He's a conservative—in the smallest c way possible—he's interested in conserving the world, and the best way to do that is focus on learning rather than revolution.

The book is interested in how buildings learn. This is a complex idea because learning happens through time, and also through time the thing that is being learned about changes too. The book describes the attributes of buildings that enable them to learn, and also the mechanisms that allow them to do it. It's some combination of inertia, motivation, and capability.

He describes three classes of building:
* Low road buildings that don't have any societal heft to them, so nobody cares when the occupants modify them to fit their needs. The Actual building is modified whenever it's needed.
* High road buildings are classy, weighty, often institutional. People care a lot about them, and are forced through that inertia to think carefully about making permanent changes. The small changes that happen often don't touch the fabric of the building.
* Magazine architecture is what happens when there's a desire to make something fancy. That desire leads to something that photographs well, but isn't able to keep up with it's users as they change, if it was ever right for them! (He takes pains to point out that no building is ever actually right, and the ability to change is what makes buildings feel right.)

He's incredibly scathing of the whole process that allows magazine architecture to be built. As a grumpy person it was an odd feeling, someone else's words, expressing my feelings so closely. I anticipate quoting from it so much that [I copied that chapter out on my website](https://notionparallax.co.uk/2019/mag...)! He wrote this over 25 years ago, and I'm only just coming to the same conclusions on my own.

There are some bits that feel uncomfortable, mainly caused by things that the last decade and a half have brought up that would have been difficult to predict. But the book has ages remarkably well—perhaps unsurprisingly given the topic.

The rest of the book is good, but if you can only spare enough time to read the first four chapters, you'll still get a lot out of it!
Profile Image for Samuel Oktavianus.
270 reviews3 followers
April 9, 2020
How Buildings Learn is an architecture/urbanism book written by Steward Brand, an American author & environmentalist. My architectural curiosity made me pick up this book on a hunch, but it was mostly because of the magnetizing title. As for someone who isn't familiar with architecture, I've learned a thing or two after reading this. The book is originally published almost two decades ago, so some parts can be a little dated and technical. Oh, and I just discovered the BBC made a documentary based on this book back in 1997!

At its heart, the book tells how buildings evolve through time—starting from the time they were built until either eventually destroyed, rebuilt or occupied by another person. It's a fascinating exploration of the connection between humans and buildings. It's about how buildings learn to adapt to many aspects like time, weather, location, material, human behavior, maintenance, etc. There are many exciting examples, but it's mostly geared toward western architecture.

There were some parts of the book that sort of opened up my mind. It's kind of surprising to discover how much a building change in a decade just from looking at its old & new photograph. I love Brand's definition of what good architecture should be, and I sort of agree with that. He also wrote critiques for contemporary architecture that only centers on the "aesthetic" aspect. I just realized how much people are so interconnected to buildings that we take it for granted.

To be honest, some parts of the book were too dull to read. Some chapter was filled with technical jargons. I admit it, I may have skipped some pages. Most Architecture students would find this book interesting, but this is simply not for me. I wish there was a simpler book on urbanism.

In Conclusion, how buildings learn is great for those who want to learn how buildings adapt to human behavior. It's a jam-packed book that deeply explores the connection between humans and buildings, a connection that we take for granted. It's for those who are strongly committed to studying architecture, but some of you who aren't familiar with the basic architectural concept may find this a little too dull.

Profile Image for Mohamad Ahmad.
137 reviews3 followers
June 24, 2021
Stewart brand spends 6 years studying buildings and what happens long after they're built. Buildings, the author argues, learn from its occupants and its occupants learn from it. The author talks about how architects are more interested in the outer shape of the building then what happens after it is inhabited and that's wrong. A bulding undergoes a lot of adaptability over the years, and the more a building ages and shows adaptability the more it is desired. The author talks about various kinds of buildings from low order buildings to buildigs that went out of use because of their not well thought out designs, to city buildings that adapts constantly to fit different uses. A building is never finished, says the author,it lives like humans,and it is always beginning.
One of the most interesting ideas in the book is the part about layers; how parts of the buildings change at different paces( with services moving the fastest and the façade of the building the slowest) The concept is Pace layering. Layers govern how a house changes: the site changes most slowly, then the foundation, then the structure of the house, the skin, the services (e.g., plumbing), the space.. A good analogy is how organizations & institutions move with different rates of change: certain layers (nature) move slowly, others a bit faster (government) and then the top ones fastest (e.g., fashion).
According to pace layering nature should be moving slower than government — government should have time to adapt! Unfortunately, nature has accelerated its rate of change while the governmental layer has slowed down. This mismatch results in our current disaster.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book and I now look at buildungs as breathing entities capable of change.
Profile Image for Vampire Who Baked.
140 reviews82 followers
September 23, 2021
one of the most interesting books i have read in a very long time, that goes against much of the conventional wisdom when it comes to architecture or design as a whole ("form initially follows function, but after than function follows form"). very unique topic -- viewing architecture and also urban planning through a lens of time rather than space (the latter is much more common -- people look at how a building meets the current context, as opposed to how it can respond to challenges brought about by the passage of time, changing needs, changing technologies, changing social sensibilities, etc.).

these ideas are especially relevant in the age of covid, when the possibilities for the future are all up in the air (will remote work become permanent? will suburbanization or urbanization be the predominant trend? will people working from home start living hundreds of miles away from offices? etc etc.)

more broadly, this book can also be seen as a theory of change (even though this was probably not the intent or objective for the book). a lot of these ideas are worth thinking about in a generalized sense -- we can consider public policy, personal behaviour, big and small scale purchases and investments, big and small scale life decisions, etc. all through the lens of time rather than space. as the apocryphal story goes, zhou enlai when asked about his opinion of the french revolution reportedly replied "it's too early to tell". perhaps it actually is.
Profile Image for Keenan.
303 reviews9 followers
October 9, 2018
Buildings are meant to be occupied: this is the credo for this picture-filled book. Too often are high-class buildings designed with nothing but their external appearance in mind with little regard for future functionaility. Too often residential buildings are built hastily and with little communication between people in charge of the structure, services, and space, resulting in maintenance costs that eventually overshadow the initial building cost. The question worth asking is: what kinds of buildings have stood the test of time, are worth investing in rather than letting fall apart?

This book does a great job constructing an overarching narrative answering this question with enough little tidbits of insight and fun examples in between to keep the reader engaged. Coming into this with very little real estate or building background, I feel I have a bit more of a toolkit that'll be handy whenever I move into a new place or renovate an old one. Ultimately, for a book with such a title that suggests a very wide scope, the buildings within are very US- and England-centric; I look forward to reading the Oriental version of this book, 建筑体会:稳健得胜 (I assume)

P.S. Who are these people that say "good for a lazy Sunday afternoon"?! Don't be fooled, this is a hefty book, and taking your time with the references will take a good weekend :)
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