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Stewart Brand: How Buildings Learn:
what happens after they’re built
(Viking: 1994)

“Between the world and our idea of the world is a fascinating kink. Architecture, we imagine, is permanent. And so, our buildings thwart us. Because they discount time, they misuse time. Almost no buildings adapt well. They’re designed not to adapt; also budgeted and financed not to, constructed not to, administered not to, regulated and taxed not to, even remodelled not to. But all buildings (except monuments) adapt anyway, because the usages in and around them are changing constantly. The problem is world-scale - the building industry is the second-largest in the world (after agriculture). Buildings contain our lives, and all civilization. The problem is also intensely personal. If you look up from this book, what you almost certainly see is the inside of a building. Glance out a window, and the main thing you notice is the outside of other buildings. They look so static...[but] it is an illusion.... First we shape our buildings, then they shape us, then we shape them again - ad infinitum. Function reforms form, perpetually.... [And, paradoxically,] more than any other human artifact, buildings excel at improving with time, if they are given the chance.”
(Brand, pp.2-11)

Our built environment is, without a doubt, the least clearly understood of those tools which have made us...for the study of no other roughly-equivalent area so neglects the serious analysis of both the key working interfaces - in this case, interiors - and the developmental dimension, which is always the focal point of complex learning.

It’s no wonder architecture is held in such contempt...

As Stewart Brand argues, architects (at least since the Renaissance) have basically been in the skin trade, with very little attention paid to interiors - except where they could be matched with the aesthetic pronouncements already developed re the (supposedly) fundamental facades. With “use” a dirty word, and the awards of the profession given for plans and photographs - all prior to occupancy - there has been startlingly little attention paid to the serious study of what buildings actually do, let alone how they do it in the context of an overall built environment dominated today by a speculative real estate market and the imperatives of ever-increasing traffic flow. And town planning, despite the best efforts of Jane Jacobs and others, is still largely dominated by the anti-temporal (and top-down) assumptions of architecture - meaning that seriously empirical approaches are few & far between.

Which makes work like this even more rare...and fascinating:


“Commercial buildings have to adapt quickly, often radically, because of intense competitive pressure to perform, and they are subject to the rapid advances that occur in any industry. Most businesses either grow or fail. If they grow, they move; if they fail, they’re gone. Turnover is a constant. Commercial buildings are forever metamorphic. Domestic buildings - homes - are the steadiest changers, responding directly to the family’s ideas and annoyances, growth and prospects. The house and its occupants mold to each other twenty-four hours a day, and the building accumulates the record of that intimacy...[albeit] that is far less the case with renters, who must ask permission from landlords, and have no hope of financial gain from improvements.... Institutional buildings act as if they were designed specifically to prevent change for the organization inside, and to convey timeless reliability to everyone outside. When forced to change anyway, as they always are, they do so with expensive reluctance and all possible delay. Institutional buildings are mortified by change.... The three kinds of buildings diverge from each other deliberately. The crass seething of commerce is something that institutional buildings seek to rise above, and that homes seek to escape. But most institutional buildings are just offices, after all, and offices are infamously high-change environments, and so they are self-violating. [Meanwhile,] domestic buildings are a successful sanctuary only when property values are constant, which is seldom.”
(Brand, p.7)

In direct contrast, the imperatives of architecture as contemporary art - in our speculative landscape - are almost completely divorced from such fundamentals:


“Art must be inherently radical, but buildings are inherently conservative. Art must experiment to do its job. Most experiments fail. Art costs extra. How much extra are you willing to pay to live in a failed experiment? Art flouts convention. Convention becomes conventional because it works. Aspiring to art means aspiring to a building that almost certainly cannot work, because the old good solutions are thrown away. The roof has a dramatic new look, and it leaks dramatically. Art begets fashion; fashion means style; style is made of illusion...and illusion is no friend to function. The fashion game is fun for architects to play, and diverting for the public to watch, but it’s deadly for building users. When the height of fashion moves on, they’re the ones left behind, stuck in a building that was designed to look good rather than work well, and now it doesn’t even look good. They spend their day trapped in someone else’s taste, which everyone now agrees is bad taste.... Formerly stylish clothing you can throw or give away; a building goes on looking ever more out-of-it, decade after decade, until a new skin is grafted on at great expense, and the cycle begins again - months of glory, years of shame.”
(Brand, pp.54-5)

“The business of contemporary architecture is dominated by two instants in time. One is the moment of go-ahead, when the architect’s reputation and the beguiling qualities of the renderings and model of the building-to-be overwhelm the client’s resistance. The other is the moment of hand-over, when the building shifts from the responsibility of the builders to the responsibility of the owners, and occupancy begins. These are necessary moments to make coordination possible, but they distort everything. Each instant is a massive barrier to learning. The effort is to make everything perfect and final for each of these opening nights. The finished-looking model and visually-obsessive renderings dominate the let’s-do-it meeting, so that shallow guesses are frozen as deep decisions. All the design intelligence gets forced to the earliest part of the building process, when everyone knows the least about what is really needed. ‘A lot of the time now, you see buildings that look exactly like their models,’ one model maker told me. ‘That’s when you know you’re in trouble.”
(Brand, p.63)

Stewart Brand is by temperament a generalist, w/a genuine appetite for work which enables us to get our heads around the complexities of the human world. And, as a result, he is particularly interested in those significant areas neglected in our current disciplinary landscape - such as this - and well-able to show us how we might best understand them. This is not to mention his incisively conversational prose style, a gift for wide-ranging synthesis we might all envy, and an understanding of the pragmatic dimension of theory which is nigh-on dead in much of academia. In short, we simply could not have a better guide to what the study of architecture ought to be about, and almost never is. So, let’s get right into the argument...


“Different parts of buildings change at different rates. [And] the leading theorist - practically the only theorist - of change rate in buildings is Frank Duffy.... ‘Our basic argument is that there isn’t such a thing as a building,’ says Duffy. ‘A building properly conceived is several layers of longevity of built components’.... I’ve taken the liberty of expanding Duffy’s ‘four S’s’ - which are oriented toward interior work in commercial buildings - into a slightly revised, general-purpose six....

* SITE - This is the geographical setting, the urban location, and the legally-defined lot, whose boundaries and context generally outlast generations of ephemeral buildings. ‘Site is eternal,’ Duffy agrees.

* STRUCTURE - The foundation and load-bearing elements are perilous and expensive to change, so people don’t. These are the building. Structural life ranges from 30 to 300 years (but few make it past 60, for other reasons).

* SKIN - Exterior surfaces now change every 20 years or so, to keep up with fashion or technology, or for wholesale repair. Recent focus on energy costs has led to re-engineered Skins that are air-tight and better insulated.

* SERVICES - These are the working guts of a building: communications wiring, electrical wiring, plumbing, sprinkler system, HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning), and moving parts like elevators and escalators. They wear out or obsolesce every 7 to 15 years. Many buildings are demolished early if their outdated systems are too deeply embedded to replace easily.

* SPACE PLAN - The interior layout - where walls, ceilings, floors, and doors go. Turbulent commercial space can change every three years or so; exceptionally quiet homes might wait 30 years.

* STUFF - Chairs, desks, phones, pictures; kitchen appliances, lamps, hair brushes; all the things that twitch around daily to monthly. Furniture is called mobila in Italian for good reason.”
(Brand, pp.12-13)

“Duffy’s time-layered perspective is fundamental to understanding how buildings actually behave. The 6-S sequence is precisely followed in both design and construction...[while] the layering also affects how a building relates to people. Organizational levels of responsibility match the pace levels. The building interacts with people at the level of Stuff; with the tenant organization (or family) at the Space plan level; with the landlord via the Services (and slower levels) which must be maintained; with the public via the Skin and entry; and with the whole community through city or county decisions...and restrictions on the Site.... Buildings [also] rule us via their time layering at least as much as we rule them, and in a surprising way.... The insight is this: ‘The dynamics of the system will be dominated by the slow components, with the rapid components simply following along.’ Slow constrains quick; slow controls quick.... Still, influence does percolate in the other direction. The slower processes of a building gradually integrate trends of rapid change within them. The speedy components propose, and the slow dispose.... Ecologist Buzz Hollings points out that it is at times of major changes in a system that the quick processes can most influence the slow. 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.”
(Brand, p.17)

As they all too often do. And, while How Buildings Learn is peppered with specific examples of good  - ie., useable - architectural practices, I’m (as usual) mainly concentrating here upon the core outlook/understandings which underlie the work...something I suspect Brand would fully understand. Because, it is quite clear from his arguments that  - in the absence of such an outlook - we fail to understand how buildings work, even if we seemingly have all of the ingredients right, since these can only work well together under certain, overarching, conditions:


“A design imperative emerges: An adaptive building has to allow slippage between the differently-paced systems of Site, Structure, Skin, Services, Space Plan, and Stuff. Otherwise, the slow systems block the flow of the quick ones, and the quick ones tear up the slow ones with their constant change. Embedding the systems together may look efficient at first, but over time it is the opposite, and destructive as well.... The opposite of adaptation in buildings is graceless turnover. The usual pattern is for a rapid succession of tenants, each scooping out all trace of the former tenants, and leaving nothing that successors can use. Finally, no tenant replaces the last one, vandals do their quick work, and broken windows beg for demolition. There are two forms of surcease. If their is a turnaround in local real estate, the succession of owners and tenants might head back upscale, each one adding value. Or the building may be blessed with durable construction and resilient design, which can forgive insult and hard swerves of usage.... Age plus adaptability is what makes a building come to be loved. The building learns from its occupants, and they learn from it.”
(Brand, pp.20-23)

But of course, since these criteria seem not to well-understood - if at all - the question then arises... Just how do buildings escape from their built limitations, and learn to learn, as it were?  The answer to this is complicated, and requires that we start from a very different position than the rarified skin-game of high architecture...amidst the tacit knowledges of successful vernacular forms. For it is these, in general, that mostly save us from building foolishly...


“What gets passed from building to building, via builders and users, is informal and casual and astute. At least, it is when the surrounding culture is coherent enough to embrace generations of experience.... In terms of architecture, vernacular...is everything not designed by professional architects - in other words, most of the world’s buildings.... Vernacular buildings evolve. As generations of new buildings imitate the best of mature buildings, they increase in sophistication while retaining simplicity. They become finely attuned to the local weather, and local society. A much quoted dictum of Henry Glassie’s states that ‘a search for pattern in folk material yields regions, where a search for pattern in popular material yields periods.’ Roof lines and room layout are regional. Paint color and trim vary with fashions in style. The heart of vernacular design is about form, not style. Style is time’s fool. Form is time’s student.”
(Brand, pp.132-3)

“The difference between style and form is the difference between a statement and a language. An architectural statement is limited to a few stylistic words, and depends on originality for its impact, whereas a vernacular form unleashes the power of a whole, tested grammar. Builders of would-be popular buildings do better when they learn from folklore than when they ape the elite.”
(Brand, p.155)

“The space plans of vernacular buildings are typically generic and general-purpose...the most inexpensively adaptable over time. Vernacular design is always prudent about materials and time, seeking the most pragmatic building for the least effort and cost. It provides an economical grammar of construction...[while] the specifics of material, style, and finish were left to the builder and dweller.... [However,] the process of vernacular design is treated, even by its admirers, with undeserved condescension, insists building historian Thomas Hubka.... Dell Upton summarizes: ‘Hubka carefully distinguishes between the vernacular builder’s process of design, in which existing models are conceptually taken apart and then reassembled in new buildings, from the professional designer’s manner of working, in which elements from disparate sources are combined to solve design problems anew.... By choosing to limit architectural ideas to what is available in the local context, the vernacular architect reduces the design task to manageable proportions. Although this mode of composition seems superficially to generate monotonously similar structures, it allows in fact for considerable individuality within its boundaries, permitting the designer to focus on skilful solution of particular problems, rather than on reinventing whole forms.’”
(Brand, pp.134-5)

“[The] change-back phenomenon is one I’ve observed so often in buildings that I suspect it approaches a law. Several dynamics seem to be at work. Change is often followed by the reversal of change, because the prior pattern lingers as the most conspicuous alternative, because people are understandably conservative about their physical space, and because most change is really undertaken as a trial, no matter what people say at the time. And most trials are errors.... The most likely place for a piece of furniture to move, after it has moved once, is back to where it was before.”
(Brand, p.172)

Atop of this, there appear to be two main routes to turning buildings into genuinely learning environments, which Brand christens the Low & High Roads. Moreover, his explanation of how (and why) these approaches work makes perfect sense, on all levels: structural & economic, social & cultural...which, sadly, is something of a rarity.


“What kinds of old building are the most freeing? ...They are shabby and spacious. Any change is likely to be an improvement. They are discarded buildings, fairly free of concern from landlord or authorities.... Low Road buildings are low-visibility, low-rent, high-turnover. Most of the world’s work is done in Low Road buildings, and even in rich societies the most inventive creativity, especially youthful creativity, will be found in Low Road buildings, taking full advantage of the license to try things.... The wonder is that Low Road building use has never been studied formally, either for academic or commercial interest, or to tease out design principles that might be useful in other buildings.... [For] Low Road buildings are peculiarly empowering.”
(Brand, pp.24-33)

“The most common form of survival of old buildings into renewed value comes from what preservationists have learned to honor and promote as ‘adaptive use’.... Where does that leave design truisms like ‘Form follows Function’? Completely invalidated. The...continuing changes in function turn into a colorful story which becomes valued in its own right.... The fact is that obsolete buildings are fun to convert, and a delight to use once they’re converted.... Originality is unavoidable. A building being reconfigured for a foreign new use is filled with novel opportunities, and impossible-seeming problems. Both encourage creativity, and you can’t brute-force design solutions on an implacably existing building: you have to finesse them. Invention becomes a habit as you proceed. This is the formal answer to the question, ‘Why are old buildings so liberating?’ They free you by constraining you. Since you don’t have to address the appalling vacuum of a blank slate, you can put all of your effort and ingenuity into the manageable task of rearranging the relatively small part of the building’s mass that people deal with every day - the Services, Space Plan, and Stuff. Instead of having to imagine with plans, you can visualize directly in the existing space.... [And] it is much easier to continue than to begin. Less money is needed, as well as less time, and fewer people are involved, so fewer compromises are necessary. And you can do it by stages, while using the space. The building already has a story; all you have to do is add the interesting next chapter.”
(Brand, pp.103-5)

“The basics of what makes a High Road building acquire its character [are] - high intent, duration of purpose, duration of care, time, and a steady supply of confident dictators. In time, such a building comes to express a confidence of its own.... Besides gaining the loyalty of their occupants and visitors, old buildings that stay in use rise to other freedoms. By spanning generations, they transcend style and turn it into history.... [And] by showing a tangible deep history, the building proposes an equally deep future, and summons the taking of long-term responsibility from its occupants. Such agglomerations become highly evolved, refinement added to refinement...the sensible parts kept, the humorous parts kept, the clever idea that didn’t work thrown away, the overambitious conservatory torn down, the loved view carefully maintained, until the aggregate is all finesse and eccentricity. The measure of successful evolution is intricate vivacity. But...the High Road is high-visibility, often high-style, nearly always high-cost. [And] whereas Low Road buildings are successively gutted and begun anew, High Road buildings are successively refined.... They cannot help becoming unique.”
(Brand, pp.35-8)

“For contrast, watch what happens when institutions try to make High Road buildings, which they usually do. Institutions aspire to be eternal, and they let that ambition lead them to the wrong physical strategy. Instead of opting for long-term flexibility, they go for monumentality, seeking to embody their power in physical grandeur... [They] belie and hinder their high-flux information function with stone walls, useless columns, and wasteful domes. The building tries to stand for the function, instead of serving it...[and so,] a frozen bureaucracy and a frozen building reinforce each other’s resistance to change.”
(Brand, p.44)

Having now sketched in Brand’s approach to his title, it’s well-worth noting that he certainly does not stop there - insisting upon a fully-contextual approach to the entire built environment. And, it is only at this point that we can really begin to grasp exactly how ill-studied this whole area is. For we are profoundly misled if we think that the predominant academic specialities in the area - which, in essence, are simply training fields for fundamentally narrow (and ill-conceived) professions -  are set up to do the necessary job of understanding. To be sure, there are some scholars whose approach is genuinely valuable in this area - urban historians and students of vernacular architecture, in particular - but they are professionally marginal, and all too easily dismissed by the mainstream. In consequence, the broader picture is rarely comprehended, and actions taken on the official level are all too often counterproductive. This is hardly surprising, since the forces in play are basically conflictual:


“Every building leads three contradictory lives - as habitat, as property, and as a component of the surrounding community. The most immediate conflict is financial.... If you maximize use value, your home will steadily become more idiosyncratic and highly adapted over the years. Maximizing market value means becoming episodically more standard, stylish, and inspectable in order to meet the imagined desires of a potential buyer. Seeking to be anybody’s house, it becomes nobody’s.... [Another] area of perpetual discord is the enforcement of building codes. The earliest cities had them...[and] most building codes are a manifestation of the whole community learning. What they embody is good sense, acquired the hard way from generations of recurrent problems. Form follows failure.... [However,] convention is preferable to law, being more adaptive, accommodating, and locally appropriate, but a fast-moving society outruns the pace of informal convention, and must resort to abstract law...[and] at their worst, code enforcers block creativity and defy reason, answerable to remote abstractions that have nothing to do with the present case or opportunity.... Communities that want their built environment to improve over time would do well not to punish.... As for transport, Joel Garreau’s Edge City has the key insight: ‘Cities are always created around whatever the state-of-the-art transportation device is at the time. If the state of the art is sandal leather and donkeys, you get Jerusalem. The combination of the present is the automobile, the jet plane, and the computer. The result is Edge City.’”
(Brand, pp.73-6)

“Zoning must have worked to some degree, since it has lasted so long. But it has succeeded in freezing up cities so tight that new Edge Cities out on the periphery became inevitable, and something was lost with all that comfortable stasis. Luxemburger planner-apostate Leon Krier declares, ‘Functional Zoning is not an innocent instrument; it has been the most effective means in destroying the infinitely complex social and physical fabric of pre-industrial communities, of urban democracy and culture.’ People find ways around zoning ordinances - quietly setting up home businesses in their garage or basement, quietly moving into industrial lofts - but like barrio dwellers, they can succeed only so far before authority discovers and curtails them. Quelling change, zoning quells life.”
(Brand, p.79)

“Different site arrangements lead to different city evolutions. Downtown New York, with its very narrow long blocks, is uniquely dense and uniquely flexible. Quick built San Francisco is kept adaptable, congenial, and conservative over the decades by its modest lot sizes, according to urban designer Anne Vernez Moudon: ‘Small lots will support resilience, because they allow many people to attend directly to their needs by designing, building, and maintaining their own environment. By ensuring that property remains in many hands, small lots bring important results: many people make many different decisions, thereby ensuring variety in the resulting environment. And many property owners slow down the rate of change, by making large-scale real estate transactions difficult.’”
(Brand, p. 18)

“Real estate is an astonishingly unexamined phenomenon. Books on the history of architecture outnumber books on the history of real estate 1,000 to 0, yet real estate has vastly more influence.... [And,] since the boom-times are as destructive as the busts, you’d think that governments and banks would take steps to gentle the oscillation. Instead, they feed it. [So] people get into a ‘trade up’ mentality about their houses, and treat them as investments. Any improvements made are for the imaginary next buyers, not themselves.... Downtown it’s worse...[as] commercial centers act like gravity wells, with everything nearby getting sucked in.... [Meanwhile,] cities are just as destructive when the real estate market dives. Lower value means less rent, hence less maintenance, which leads to even lower rents.... As usual, the rate of change is everything. Plummeting real-estate value is devastating, and soaring real estate value paralyzes homes and guts commercial districts. But, in a slow down market, people stay where they are, improving their property for themselves and becoming real denizens of their neighborhood, [and] in a slow up market, they are rewarded for rehabilitating marginal structures.... Jane Jacobs draws the distinction between ‘cataclysmic money and gradual money’, noting that cataclysmic money in cities is destructive, whereas gradual money is wholesome and adaptive. Chris Alexander agrees: ‘The money is wrong in most buildings, and it’s crucial. There should be more in the basic structure, less in finish, more in maintenance and adaptation.’ ...Nearly everything about real estate estranges buildings from their users, and interrupts any form of sustained continuity.... The ‘real’ in ‘real estate’ derives from re-al - ‘royal’ - rather than from res - ‘thing’ - which is the root of ‘reality’. Realty is in many ways the opposite of reality.”
(Brand, pp.80-7)

And, penultimately, I’d like to touch (again) on the wealth of passing insights which Brand offers us, touching here - in particular - upon that most theoretically neglected of areas: maintenance. It’s a measure of just how deeply embedded Brand is in the real life of buildings, that he devotes an entire chapter to this issue...and that he is fully aware of the unlikelihood of all this, is amply signalled by his title: “The Romance of Maintenance”.


“The root of all evil is water. It dissolves buildings. Water is elixir to unwelcome life such as rot and insects.... It consumes wood, erodes masonry, corrodes metals, peels paints, expands destructively when it freezes, and permeates everywhere when it evaporates. It warps, swells, discolors, rusts, loosens, mildews, and stinks...[And] rain is only the most obvious source of the problem.”
(Brand, p.114)

“There is a sensing problem with buildings. Too much is invisible - the pressure regulator in the gas meter, the rot in the walls, the location of the short circuit. Ventilation is especially elusive. While people are acutely sensitive to temperature problems, and are always ready to bang on a thermostat, they don’t notice when they aren’t getting their requisite fifteen cubic feet per minute of fresh air.... I’d like to see building designers take on problem transparency as a design goal. Use materials that smell bad when they get wet. Build in inspection windows and hatches. Expose the parts of service systems that are likeliest to fail.”
(Brand, p.129)

Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn is a marvellous book, interweaving empirical observation, theoretical insight, and practical guidance in a way that is unfortunately rare. Easily readable by a general audience, it also happens to be the very best way into a fuller understanding of the nature of our built environment, drawing upon a wide range of specialist approaches to the fundamentals of growth and change ignored or misinterpreted by the mainstreams of architecture and town planning.  And, in conjunction with the (also neglected) work of Peter J. Wilson - particularly The Domestication of the Human Species - Brand’s book can help us begin to understand how our buildings both constrain and enable our lives and our thought...and how we might make much better use of their capacity to do so.


“Habitation and habit come from one word - Latin habere, to have. We shape our buildings around our routines, loving the fit when it becomes intimate and sure, and cleaving to it as conservatively as a duchess in her sitting room. Paradoxically, habit is both the product of learning and the escape from learning. We learn in order not to learn. Habit is efficient; learning is messy and wasteful. Learning that doesn’t produce habit is a waste of time. Habit that does not resist learning is failing in its function of continuity and efficiency.... To change is to lose identity; yet to change is to be alive. Buildings partially resolve the paradox by offering the hierarchy of pace - you can fiddle with the Stuff and Space Plan all you want, while the Structure and Site remain solid and reliable.... [Still,]  the only reliable attitude to take toward the future is that it is profoundly, structurally, unavoidably perverse. The rest of the iron rule is: whatever you are ready for, doesn’t happen; whatever you are unready for, does.”
(Brand, pp.167-81)


John Henry Calvinist