How Buildings Learn
August 27, 2008 6:52 PM   Subscribe

How Buildings Learn--Stewart Brand, 1997, BBC, 6 Parts; Flow, The Low Road, Built For Change, Unreal Estate, The Romance of Maintenance, Shearing Layers. "What happens after buildings are built? Why do some buildings get better over time and others get demolished? Stewart Brand says architecture is a prediction, and all predictions are wrong, so the more monumental the architecture, the more wrong the building is. The buildings that thrive are those that can adapt to how people actually use them. The worst buildings for inhabitants are usually statement architecture -- buildings that look like art. The best buildings are often non-descript, and pick up character as they evolve. In other words they grow into art." Kevin Kelley
posted by vronsky (15 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
I hadn't realized there was a film. The book is fantastic.

I spent several years in one of the buildings he talks about; the MIT Media Lab. It was, indeed, as frustrating and difficult as he described. Much more like a corporate office than a college campus. On the other hand I suspect the building fulfilled it's #1 function: helping raise money with a big name architect and dramatic design. Serving as a home to an academic program was probably an afterthought.
posted by Nelson at 6:56 PM on August 27, 2008

I've never built a building, but I have architected software and this principle applies there as well. If your first step is to built a bunch of Java classes and object factories and APIs and junk, you are doing it wrong. Evolutionary improvement is the key.
posted by DU at 7:09 PM on August 27, 2008

One example of growing architecture to human use I remember hearing about awhile back:

There was an office park being constructed somewhere out in the exurbs of a large American city. The plan called for a large grassy common area between the main buildings. Rather than pave the area with sidewalks uniformly, or according to some arcane theory of human foot traffic, or even as some pattern that looked good from the tenth floor, the architects just left the area clear, hardly even had the grass cut. After a couple of weeks workers seeking the shortest way between two places had trod deep ruts into the lawn, with the most populous lines marked as large paths of flattened turf. The architects then had these paths paved over accordingly, leaving behind an efficient network of sidewalks that perfectly met the tenants' needs.

Desire lines, they were called. More info here and previously.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:13 PM on August 27, 2008 [9 favorites]

Meant to add that the original soundtrack is by Brian Eno. And from your "book" link Nelson I learned that Brand was one of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters. Cool.

That MIT Media Lab is pretty awful. But I have always thought that Pei was overrated.
posted by vronsky at 7:35 PM on August 27, 2008

I watched the first one a while back, I thought it was way too dry.
posted by empath at 7:51 PM on August 27, 2008

I was thinking about design not living up to its purpose after watching the first episode of Architecture School on the Sundance channel or They had a section where they interviewed New Orleans residents in the neighborhoods where the first two 'affordable' houses were built by Tulane architecture students.
posted by BrotherCaine at 8:39 PM on August 27, 2008

I've loved that book for years. When we built a house a couple of years ago, we used vernacular architecture as the basis. In particular, we based it on an old farmhouse we'd lived in which had a fantastic floor layout which had evolved over several generations as each owner modified it to suit their own purposes. It turned out to be a wildly successful decision -- the house was easy to build, economical to heat and worked just the way we expected it to. As a bonus it looks like it 'belongs' in the landscape.
posted by unSane at 8:49 PM on August 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

I bought the book after watching the miniseries on BBC. Mind was completely blown away, suddenly started seeing buildings differently. Suddenly saw architects in a more skeptical light.

I remembered the miniseries and the book after reading this Metafilter thread. Stewart Brand would have Gehry's head on a stick.
posted by micketymoc at 8:51 PM on August 27, 2008

I only saw part 5 when this was first broadcast, but it stayed with me like few TV programmes ever have. Really really must get that book. Meanwhile thank you for this wonderful post.

(Sadly, the story about the oak trees at New College, Oxford, turns out to be more beautiful than true...)
posted by motty at 10:10 PM on August 27, 2008

Christopher Alexander speaks briefly in the first part, he of the broadly influential "A Pattern Language". I soaked happily in that book over a time, and when remodeling our house tried to use his ideas too.

At some point it occured to me that the ideal architectural world he was proposing was Hobbiton.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 10:16 PM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I know this guy's son. I now know why Noah was always going on about how cool his dad is. Because he is.

Great links.
posted by Hactar at 1:16 AM on August 28, 2008

I'm in the middle of the second part, and although it could use a little tighter editing, there are some great ideas. I think I'd prefer the book though.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:02 AM on August 28, 2008

Stewart Brand really deserves a Metafilter post of his own. Very creative and unique person. Whole Earth Catalog, the WELL, the Long Now Foundation (including their crazy clock), etc. He's also a complete gentleman.
posted by Nelson at 8:44 AM on August 28, 2008

I am a total Stewart Brand fanboy, beginning when my dad brought home the Whole Earth Catalog in the 1970s. Whenever we're driving around and see a house that has been extensively modified, one of us will say, "that building looks like it's learning."
posted by mecran01 at 11:12 AM on August 28, 2008

Awesome post vronsky. And excellent thread.
posted by nickyskye at 12:38 PM on August 29, 2008

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