Book Quotes: How Buildings Learn

I read Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn way back in 1997, and it was when I really began to understand and appreciate vernacular architecture. The thesis of the book is that buildings change over time based on the needs of the users–sometimes generations of users–and that this change should be expected and accepted. Brand believes that architects, especially Modernist architects, by idealizing architecture as art have moved far away from creating buildings for human habitation and have failed to take into account how the buildings will be used and maintained after the contractors drive off the lot.

The BBC produced a 6-part documentary based on the book and featuring Steward Brand in 1997. If you’d rather watch that than read these excerpts, feel free. You can click below to see the first episode and then see the rest at GoogleVideo:

Brand’s introduction indicates he intends architects to be his primary audience, but I suspect he’s had more influence with architectural historians, preservationists, and the like. If I could narrow down the one theme I have remembered through the last 12 years as I’ve thought about the book, I would say that I have become suspicious (or maybe less accepting) of the idea of “restoration” to a particular time period. Each change to a building has a purpose, and I think that I have begun to come down on the side of repair and light updating in more cases than I would try to “restore” a building, even when some of the changes occurred fairly late in the game. Reading the book made me less uptight about dealing with places like the house near Vaiden I talked about in Dealing with Vernacular Places–it was actually liberating to know that I could “accept” buildings for what they had become over time instead of forcing my idea of what they should be on them.

I especially want to point out the wonderful illustrations throughout the book, showing in photographs and drawings how buildings have transformed over time, complete with captions that describe and explain the various changes–an architectural historian’s dream!

Brand quotes Dell Upton, vernacularist architectural historian, a number of times throughout the book, and the theme of the book is very similar to Upton’s recent plenary talk at the Society of Architectural Historians, which I summarized in “Fluidity in Architecture.” How Buildings Learn has also apparently become a cult classic among software developers who have taken its principles and applied them to–you guessed it–software development. Sometimes, it occurs to me, the techie crowd is more wide-read than the architecture crowd.

Here’s a clip from the book’s introduction:

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, maintained not ti, regulated and taxed not to, even remodeled not to. But all buildings (except monuments) adapt anyway, however poorly, because the usages in and around them are changing constantly.
. . .

Buildings loom over us and persist beyond us. They have the perfect memory of materiality [I love this phrase!]. When we deal with buildings we deal with decisions taken long ago for remote reasons. We argue with anonymous predecessors and lose. The best we can hope for is compromise with the fait accompli of the building. The whole idea of architecture is permanence. University donors invest in “bricks and mortar” rather than professorial chairs because of the lure of a lasting monument. In wider use, the term “architecture” always means “unchanging deep structure.”

It is an illusion. New usages persistently retire or reshape buildings. The old church is torn down, lovely as it is, because the parishioners have gone and no other use can be found for it. The old factory, the plainest of buildings, keeps being revived: first for a collection of light industries, then for artists’ studios, the for offices (with boutiques and a restaurant on the ground floor), and something else is bound to follow. From the first drawings to the final demolition, buildings are shaped and reshaped by changing cultural currents, changing real-estate value, and changing usage.

The word “building” contains the double reality. It means both “the action of the verb build” and “that which is built”–both verb and noun, both the action and the result. Whereas “architecture” may strive to be permanent, a “building” is always building and rebuilding. The idea is crystalline, the fact fluid. Could the idea be revised to match the fact?

That’s the intent of this book. My approach is to examine buildings as a whole–not just whole in space, but whole in time. Some buildings are designed and managed as a spatial whole, none as a temporal whole. In the absence of theory or standard practice in the matter, we can begin by investigating: What happens anyway in buildings over time?

Two quotes are most often cited as emblems of the way to understand how buildings and their use interact. The first echoing the whole length of the 20th century, is “Form ever follows function.”Written in 1896 by Louis Sullivan, the Chicago highrise designer, it was the founding idea of Modernist architecture. The very opposite concept is Winston Churchill’s “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” These were clairvoyant insights, pointing in the right direction, but they stopped short.

Sullivan’s form-follows-function misled a century of architects into believing that they could really anticipate function. Churchill’s ringing and-then-they-shape-us truncated the fuller cycle of reality. First we shape our buildings, then they shape us, then we shape them again–ad infinitum. Function reforms form, perpetually.

This post is the first in a week-long series. Want to read the rest?

2. How Buildings Learn: From High Road to Unreal Estate

3. How Buildings Learn: Preservationists Are Soooo Cool

4. How Buildings Learn: Preservation, Part 2

5. How Buildings Learn: Defining Vernacular

6. How Buildings Learn: Some Closing Thoughts

Categories: Architectural Research, Books, Cool Old Places, Demolition/Abandonment, Historic Preservation, Preservation Education, Renovation Projects, Vernacular Architecture

2 replies

  1. I really enjoyed this particular post and the 1st of the 6 videos–I’ll have to find time for the other 5. Towards the end of the video a woman says, “We wanted a building that would be a pleasure to be in.”

    For most workers there are 5 straight days each week where the office is where they spend the majority of their waking hours. It would be nice if all companies were more concerned with the function of a building rather than the impression it might give to outsiders.



    • I have had the privilege to work in one historic building in my career. It was an old brick 2-story building with huge windows that we could open on a nice spring day like the ones we’ve been having lately. On sunny days (i.e., most of the time), we could also get away with not turning on the flourescent lights because the room was bright enough without them–it’s amazing how much different an office enivronment feels without those floursecents on, much more relaxed and humane.

      I’ll admit, the windows rattled and the roof leaked after 20 years of zero maintenance–but that was the fault of the owners, not the building. Eventually, we had to move out because we just ran out of room and our filing cabinets vastly exceeded the acceptable weight load on the 2nd floor. Our new(er) building was built in 1971, and I enjoy the space and the funky 70s colors, but I miss greatly the ability to open the windows and to work without the lights on.

      I’ve also noticed in office buildings, a disturbing tendency of The Powers That Be to set the temperature for the comfort of the computers rather than the comfort of the human beings that work there. It’s weird and a sign of the times to go in a building in Jackson, Miss. in the middle of August and see people wearing sweaters and rubbbing their hands together against the cold.


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