How Buildings Learn: Some Closing Thoughts

After a week of looking back through Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn, I’m left with a sense of contradiction in my own thoughts on High Road, Low Road, etc.

  • I completely agree with him about Magazine Architecture and the devastation that Unreal Estate can cause (who can argue with that in our current situation?). And I’m glad he sees that High Road architecture can be as adaptable as Low Road, if given enough time and money. It’s his railings against Modernist architecture that once again trip me up. Granted, there are plenty of crummy Modern buildings that were poorly constructed and poorly designed, and I suspect that there are even more NeoModern–or whatever you want to call the buildings of the last high-flying decade of real estate development–that fit that bill. But Paul Goldberger’s essay in this week’s New Yorker (The Skyline: Spiralling Upward) about the 50th anniversay of the Guggenheim Museum got me thinking about the place of architects who push the limits and design “art” that enriches our lives. The building is not as functional as the curators would like and I’m sure Steward Brand hates it, but it’s a thing of beauty and imagination and has become a landmark with the people of New York City and around the world.
  • Re: consigning every building that leaks to the trash bin of history. I’ve worked in historic buildings with steep hipped roofs that leaked because the roof ran right into the chimney, funneling water straight down–the building was grand in other ways though. I attended school in a 1970s building with a flat roof that also leaked all the time. However, it was functional in many other ways that couldn’t have been achieved with a gable or hipped roof. The halls were wide and spacious, the transoms didn’t open or close but they were still good for climbing up and making faces at the kids in the classrooms (not that I, of course, ever did this, but I saw it done and it was fun), and we had a cafeteria and auditorium all in the same building. When it rained hard, we students simply got up, retrieved the large garbage cans and put them under the leaks, moving our desks around to accommodate. An annoyance? Yes. Reason to tear the building down and rebuild? No, a thousand times no.
  • Lots of buildings whose roofs don’t leak, are nonetheless torn down *cough* Speed Street School *cough* No, I’m not going to let that one go.
  • Might I be allowed to love both the Guggenheim and other Modern buildings that leak and the house outside of Vaiden that shows an organic adaptation over time? Is it intellectually dishonest to enjoy the buildings inaccurately “restored” in the 19th century, and still agree with William Morris and John Ruskin?
  • I guess my final thought (and I know you’re ready for me to get to it) is that some buildings are gloriously functional and adaptive and evocative of history, some are works of art, some are both. As preservationists, shouldn’t we be ready to show why the best of all three categories should be preserved and loved for what they are?

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

1. Book Quotes: How Buildings Learn

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

Categories: Books, Historic Preservation

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