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How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built [Paperback]

Stewart Brand
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Oct. 20 1995
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.

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From Publishers Weekly

All buildings are forced to adapt over time because of physical deterioration, changing surroundings and the life within--yet very few buildings adapt gracefully, according to Brand. Houses, he notes, respond to families' tastes, ideas, annoyance and growth; and institutional buildings change with expensive reluctance and delay; while commercial structures have to adapt quickly because of intense competitive pressures. Creator of The Whole Earth Catalog and founder of CoEvolution Quarterly (now Whole Earth Review ), Brand splices a conversational text with hundreds of extensively captioned photographs and drawings juxtaposing buildings that age well with those that age poorly. He buttresses his critique with insights gleaned from facilities managers, planners, preservationists, building historians and futurists. This informative, innovative handbook sets forth a strategy for constructing adaptive buildings that incorporates a conservationist approach to design, use of traditional materials, attention to local vernacular styles and budgeting to allow for continuous adjustment and maintenance.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

Brand founder of The Whole Earth Catalog and CoEvolution Quarterly, launches a populist attack on rarefied architectural conventions. A hippy elder statesman (once one of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters), Brand argues that a building can ``grow'' and should be treated as a ``Darwinian mechanism,'' something that adapts over time to meet certain changing needs. His humanistic insights grew out of a university seminar he taught in 1988. Catchy anti- establishment phrases abound: ``Function reforms form, perpetually,'' or ``Form follows funding.'' Thomas Jefferson, a ``high road'' builder, is shown to have tinkered his Monticello into a masterpiece over a lifetime. Commercial structures, Brand says, are ``forever metamorphic,'' as a garage-turned-boutique demonstrates. Photo spreads with smart and chatty captions trace the evolutions of buildings as they adopt new ``skins.'' Pointedly, architects Sir Richard Rogers (designer of the Pompidou Centre in Paris) and I.M. Pei (the Wiesner Building, aka the Media Lab at MIT) are taken to task for designing monumental flops that deny occupants' needs. Later sections track the social meanings of preservationism and celebrate vernacular traditions worldwide (e.g., the Malay house of Malaysia; pueblo architecture; the 18th- century Cape Cod House). Brand also documents his own unique habitats. He lives with his wife in a converted tugboat and houses his library in a metal self-storage container. Here, as throughout, Brand's self-reliant voice rings true--that of an engaging, intellectual crank. Brand makes a case for letting people shape their own environments. His crunchy-granola insights bristle with an undeniable pragmatism. -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn: What happens after they're built is as much a reflection of his life as it is about architecture. This potent clearly written essay provides valuable insights for a wider ranging audience while poking fun at established norms in the information age. Depreciatory of modernism casting doubt on the success of popular monuments paying homage to their creators, Brand does not limit his criticism of Wright for Falling Water in southwestern Pennsylvania or I.M. Pei's Media Lab Building at MIT. The strength of the book is the candid and thoughtful approach, interrelating complex issues with simple strands. Weaving a tale of old stuff in a new world, Brand proposes that buildings are most useful to their occupants and neighbors when they adapt. He assures that change will happen and that the only enduring monuments are those that can transform with time. Brand relies on a variety of primary and secondary sources and reinforces his examples with candid photographs, often visually comparing and contrasting to make his points. For each of these archetypes he tests the building against its function to perform basic living needs. He candidly makes observations without concern for political correctness within the broader architectural community.
Proposing six shear levels within a building based on their ability to temporally adapt, How Buildings Learn uses Site, Structure, Skin, Services, Space, and Stuff as a highly successful outline in delivering its message (p. 13). One source attributes this paradigm to that developed by British architect and historian F. Duffy's "Four S's" of capital investment in buildings. The site is eternal, yet often ignored by architects. The structure is most permanent defining the form and lasting 30 to 300 years.
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5.0 out of 5 stars More that just buildings can learn July 7 2002
Stewart Brand's "How Buildings Learn" is a well put together book on a
rarely addressed topic. By well put together I mean that it is not only well
written, but well illustrated. The photographs are excellent and help explain
the topic under discussion.
The book is about how buildings change over time. Brand shows numerous
examples of how different buildings have changed with use. More important he
explains what makes a building that can improve and adapt to new uses as it
ages. This is important for architecture since builds often last longer than the
people who design and build them. At some point they may be put to uses that
were never anticipated when they were built.
The author, who is an architect, is highly critical of how his colleges
design buildings. Most buildings are designed without any thought for the
occupants. Nor is any thought given to the uses the building will be put to in
the future. Few buildings are designed so they can adapt to unanticipated uses.
In brands opinion the more impressive the design of the building the less useful
it will be to it's occupants.
Brand offers advise and examples on how to make a building that will last
and be used and loved by its occupants for a long time. These rules are fairly
simple. Several good examples are included. This is the most important part of
the book.
I read this book about architecture even though I am not an architect and
have no particular interest in the subject. This book was worth while because of
the ideas for how to design something complex and long lived so that it will
remain useful. This can be applied to software engineering just as well as
architecture. I do not know of any better discussion of the subject.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and convincing Oct. 9 2001
In a review in _The Last Whole Earth Catalog_ (1971), author Stewart Brand wrote: "We're not into utopian thinking around here, preferring a more fiasco-by-fiasco approach to perfection."
This perfectly captures the central thesis of _How Buildings Learn_: Once built, buildings do and must _change_ to fit the changing needs of their inhabitants. The interiors may be remodeled, roofs raised, additions made, plumbing and wiring added, rerouted or remodeled, & etc. Single-family brownstones become apartment buildings, homely warehouses may become lofts for artists and high-tech startups, and mansions may be turned into museums.
Good buildings can be changed gracefully; bad ones resist change. Brand shows us many examples of each. In many cases, "vernacular" architecture -- rather plain structures that wouldn't earn a place in an architect's resume -- prove the most suited to change. Brand reserves considerable fury for prestiege projects that seem more to serve the architect's ego than the inhabitants' practical use.
I'm not an architect, student of architecture, or what-have-you, so I don't know how this book ranks with other critiques of architecture. I can say that I found it immenseley informative, persuasive, and readable.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Buildings Come Alive! Sept. 3 2000
'Buildings That Learn' covers the adaptation over time of buildings to tenant needs, often hindered by all of: the 'fixed solution in year xyza' aesthetic architects; the vagaries of the real-estate market; and the short-lifetime of modern buildings (quality not increased at same or better rate of increase in human life over centuries). Interestingly, software 'guru' Ed Yourdon flagged up similar problems hindering software productivity and quality in his 'Rise & Fall of the American Programmer' (e.g. non-customer focus, markets prices & labor costs, poor quality development etc..).
Addressing the building layers (site, structure, skin, services, space plan and "stuff") through a logical sequence of chapters, to get the most out of this book deserves a thorough read rather than a surface glance. The deeply referenced & illustrated, entertaining chapters span:
Flow- introduction and the time dimension; Shearing Layers- of the different rates of change in buildings; "Nobody Cares What You Do In There": The Low Road- easy adaptation in cheap buildings; Houseproud: The High Road- refined adaptation in long-lasting sustained-purpose buildings; Magazine Architecture: No Road- where tenants needs ignored for photo-aesthetics; Unreal estate- and markets sever continuity in buildings; Preservation: A Quiet, Popularist, Conservative, Victorious Revolution- to address incontinuity and frustrate innovators; The Romance of Maintenance- and preservation; Vernacular: How Buildings Learn from Each Other- and respect for design wisdom of older buildings; Function Melts Form: Satisficing Home and Office; The Scenario-buffered Building; and Built for Change- imagining buildings inviting adaption.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Well worth a read.
After reading this book in its entirety I have frequently returned to revisit chapters. A well researched book. Read more
Published 11 months ago by M. Yeo
5.0 out of 5 stars I liked it!
Recommended by John Brown of Housebrand. Generally liked it, great perspective on function in design. Read more
Published 13 months ago by Robert Kelly
3.0 out of 5 stars Morality in building
The best part of this book is its historical photos, a history of our society told by its buildings. Read more
Published on Oct. 5 2003 by misterbeets
3.0 out of 5 stars lots of flash but not much substance
When I started reading the book I felt myself in agreement with much of what Brand has to say. Eventually I began to have nagging doubts which eventually crystallized. Read more
Published on June 11 2002 by Justus Pendleton
3.0 out of 5 stars conservatism in disguise
the point made by the author is a very good one: we all have to look at the way buildings were once built and integrate the intrinsic knowledge into what we architects are doing... Read more
Published on Dec 9 2001 by J. A. Hoedemaker
5.0 out of 5 stars genius
Very entertaining and informative, without being worthy. It's true, replace the word "building" with "web site" or "software" or any other systemic... Read more
Published on June 27 2001 by Mr. R. Horberry
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating book about buildings changing over time
I'm always fascinated with how seemingly impersonal forces effect changes over time. This book is about exactly that: Although people are responsible for changes to a building,... Read more
Published on Aug. 13 2000 by Michael Rawdon
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating book about how and why buildings change
I read this book after reading several books by Christopher Alexander. I'd heard that Brand was inspired by Alexander's work, and I was pleased to find that Brand makes his own... Read more
Published on May 22 2000 by James DeRossitt
4.0 out of 5 stars Building or software, common sence of not
When ever a walk in to a building or room, I will often think "WHY! " Why do I have to stand on the toilet to close the door, Why is this place so out of touch with... Read more
Published on Feb. 24 2000 by Richard Delorenzi
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