How Buildings Learn: From High Road to Unreal Estate

How Buildings Learn tries to accomplish alot that I won’t be able to adequately cover here. I’ll try to hit the high points, the ones that made the most impression on me, and leave the rest for you to find when you read the book and/or for those of you who dislike reading (!!) catch the videos by clicking here.

Brand categorizes buildings in several ways. First, he divides buildings into High Road, those with conscious style and often expense put into them; Vernacular, usually middle-class buildings that are solidly constructed and changed only conservatively; and Low Road, those that re-use unorthodox materials and usually change drastically and very cheaply over time. Brand believes buildings that fit these descriptions are useful in their own ways–they all serve a purpose within society. He reserves special scorn, however, for another type of building as a waste of energy and money not meant for real human occupation: Magazine Architecture. He spends several chapters in the first part of the book discussing these categories.

At first when I started reading I worried that Brand was going to lean so heavily toward Low Road and Vernacular buildings that he would not respect the need and beauty of High Road, but that is not the case. The distinction he makes between beautiful High Road buildings and fake or Magazine Architecture is in the livability and organic change over time of High Road buildings in contrast to the picture-perfect, art object that defines Magazine Architecture–made for photos and praise but not for human living.

Here’s a section on Mt. Vernon (a High Road building that is also in my mind fairly vernacular) that I really loved:

It would have been a long skinny house but for a brilliant innovation of [Washington’s], perfectly suited to the building and the site. Mount Vernon overlooks a beautiful stretch of the Potomac River. For the side of the house facing the view, where there is morning sun and afternoon shade, Washington invented a two-story-high porch (“piazza”) extending the whole length of the house and unifying it. Flagstones made it impervious to rain and rot. To this day it is one of the nicest places in America to just sit [obviously my own porch would also fit this description]. Would Washington have known how to make the piazza so amenable if he hadn’t lived in the house for fourteen years first?

I’ve tried to remember this point as I’ve lived in and changed my own, modestly vernacular house–allow the building and site to show me what really could use changing, and change only that thing, meanwhile highlighting those aspects that are really wonderful, like my screened porch. This passage is one reason why I finally stopped watching the home improvement shows, even allegedly historic home improvements–they glorify destruction and gutting and updating for new owners who have never allowed the building to sink in and explain itself. These shows are very anti-history in my mind.

Moving on . . .

Brand hates “Magazine Architecture”–I don’t think that’s an overstatement. He despairs of the Modern era of architecture as Art instead of Craft. Art is “proudly non-functional” and “despises the conventional” whereas Craft “is something useful made with artfulness, with close attention to detail. So buildings should be.”

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. Here, time becomes a problem for buildings. Fashion can only advance by punishing the no-longer-fashionable. Formerly stylish clothing you can throw away 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.

I don’t know, I think maybe he lays too much on the Modernist architects here. The architects of the 19th century were also concerned about style and wanted their buildings to be fashionable. This has been true as long as there have been architects–it’s a quirk of humanity to enjoy the new and shun the old and to compare ourselves to our neighbors. On the other hand, his next point is right on target, in my opinion, much as I enjoy architectural photography:

At a building preservation conference in Charleston, South Carolina, I chatted with an architecture student. Interested primarily in rehab and restoration work, she referred unflatteringly to the majority of her 450 fellow students at Tulane University Architecture Department as ‘magazine architects.’ By which she meant image-driven and fad-driven architects, because architecture magazines probe no deeper than the look and style of the buildings they cover. They never interview clients or users. They never criticize buildings except, rarely, in terms of being bad art or off-trend. Articles consist primarily of stylized color photographs. Reports cover only new or newly renovated buildings, often in language that sounds like the ‘prismatic luminescence’ school of wine writing. The subject is taste, not use; commercial success, not operational success. Architecture magazines are about what sells. They are advertising, cover to cover.

In his chapter on Unreal Estate, Brand explores the effects of zoning laws and building codes on the life of buildings. Turns out, they have a big effect.  This paragraph made me laugh on my most recent reading, and I’m sure all of you will find it just as amusing, as it was written in 1994:

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 on the shape and fate of buildings than architectural theories or aesthetics. In America, according to the Wall Street Journal, ‘The businesses of financing, building, selling and furnishing real estate account for nearly one-fifth of the nation’s total output.’ This one-fifth, unfortunately for national stability and building longevity, is the last arena of truly wild-eyed financial speculation. Real-estate bubbles inflate and pop, inflate and pop with amnesiac regularity. 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.

To which I say, “just wait 14 years, Stewart, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

This post is the 2nd part of a week-long series. Want to read the rest?

1. Book Quotes: How Buildings Learn

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, Historic Preservation, Modernism, Vernacular Architecture

2 replies

  1. I just found these posts – very interesting. Look forward to reading the rest. We will need to update Brand on the activity and interests of the students at the Tulane School of Architecture. Since 2005 students in the UrbanBuild program have designed and built six houses in New Orleans. They are contemporary houses and explore use of different building materials and systems and yet they also share some characteristics of the vernacular in their relationship to the landscape, climate and culture. And yes, they’ve not only been featured in Magazines but also on TV!

    I posted on one of the UrbanBuild houses ages ago at regional-modernism and will need to write more on the subject soon. Thanks for the provocation!


  2. Thanks for introducing these new projects to us, Francine. I have read a little about the new/vernacular architecture in New Orleans, beginning with the article in The Atlantic that I reviewed briefly last year:

    Are there any plans to have a tour of the Tulane projects or of the several varieties of student-designed new housing?


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