"Buildings have often been studied whole in space, but never before have they been studied whole in time." "Architects (and architectural historians) are interested only in a building's original intentions. Most are dismayed by what happens later, when a building develops its own life, responsive to the life within. To get the rest of the story - to explore the years between the dazzle of a new building and its eventual corpse - Stewart Brand went to facilities managers and real estate professionals, to preservationists and building historians, to photo archives and to futurists. He inquired, "What makes some buildings come to be loved?" He found that all buildings are forced to adapt, but only some adapt gracefully." "How Buildings Learn is a masterful new synthesis which proposes that buildings adapt best when constantly refined and reshaped by their occupants, and that architects can mature from being artists of space to becoming artists of time. A rich resource and point of departure, as stimulating for the general reader and home improvement hobbyist as for the building professional, the book is sure to generate ideas, provoke debate, and shake up habitual thinking." "From the connected farmhouses of New England to I. M. Pei's Media Lab, from "satisficing" to "form follows funding," from the evolution of bungalows to the invention of Santa Fe Style, from Low Road military surplus buildings to a High Road English classic like Chatsworth - this is a far-ranging survey of unexplored essential territory." "More than any other human artifact, buildings improve with time - if they're allowed. How Buildings Learn shows how to work with time rather than against it."--BOOK JACKET.Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved… (more)
Essentially there are no permanent solutions for buildings that are worth having - If it's doesn't adapt, it's obsolete before it's complete. Given this, there are two opposite models that Brand proposes are worthwhile; temporary buildings, and permanent ones. Seriously, the two working paradigms are buildings built over generations, and building so obviously deficient that they are treated as permanent projects. The first category includes buildings like feudal manors, where each addition is the permanent addition of an individual to a family tradition. The second are buildings that was designed to be temporary, such as building 20 at MIT built during WWII as a temporary building that is still standing, in which the occupants feel free to make "improvements," such as nailing up shelves wherever they need them, or inserting extra staircases, etc.
Another theme in the book was that short term planning for an object that is intended for the long term is, well, stupid. And recommended against. More money is spent changing existing buildings than building new ones. I am pretty sure the same applies to computer code,
and many other fields. The solution to this type of problem is to separate and layer different aspects - the load bearing elements should not be in the way of any conceivable floor plan, since the floor plan will change more than the structure. If architecture is seen as art, modernist styles are disastrous because they tend to experiment, and like all experimentation, fail often. This is acceptable unless failures must be used - in architecture this is true.
And of course, like any good book, it makes fun of somebody. The lessons here? Flat roofs are stupid - the reason they slant roofs is to get the water off. Flat roofs fail to do this. Fashionability is a bad thing when the building outlasts the trend. And, of course, most importantly, geodesic domes were a miserable idea, but everyone was high enough while talking about it so that they didn't notice.
It’s a very enjoyable book, and relevant not only to architecture but to any design field. As an Amazon commenter pointed out, simply substituting “building” for “software” in the text gives you an excellent essay on software development. I can imagine it offering the same benefits for many other professions.
Notionally a book about buildings, but is often shared by the Web design community for the inchoate idea around layers and paces of change which Brand goes on to flesh out fully in [The Long Now].
It's a book that's been on my wishlist for
This is the book that got me interested in re-photography. As a result,
Brand also skewers the whole profession of modernist-dominated architecture with true aim and vigor. If you've ever been involved in a building project, or if you will be, you will never look at an architect in quite the same way again -- and neither should you. Brand's criticisms of architects' egotism, contempt for clients and neighborhoods, and quixotic and destructive rage for making a mark by being 'original' are right on.
I would give this book six stars if I could.
Reading it, I suffered from the same discomfort I feel when reading geology books: too much technical jargon is used that is assumed known to the reader but is foreign to me.
Beyond that the
However a reasonable start to my endeavor.
How Buildings Learn is a must read not only because it clearly and coherently stands up to the arguments that Stewart Brand is making but it also stands the test of time. From its initial writing to now the arguments ring true. Additionally it clearly lays out how to observe and how to think about what you have seen and if you read well and take notes you just might learn how to present your observations in a compelling way.
A great topical book. A great sourcebook on architecture. A super effective reference book for seeing & writing.
Brand posits a view of buildings as defined by 6 distinct layers (adding to 4 from Frank Duffy). Duffy counseled: Imagine not a monolithic edifice, instead four layers of 'built components' with each layer aging at a different rate. Over time, they will shear apart unless they are able to adapt to both external pressures and internal stresses. [12-13] It is a design imperative to separate the layers to allow for adaptive change, for instance ensuring simple upgrades to conduits and plumbing.  It is sensible to think about the nature of these external and internal forces, whether changing real estate or neighbourhood standards or an expanding family, and accommodate them.
• Structure (Duffy = Shell)
• Services (Duffy)
• Space Plan (Duffy = Scenery)
• Stuff (Duffy = Set, primarily furniture)
Added to this outlook is Brand's preference for buildings which succeed either by meeting a specialised purpose through long-term adaptation, becoming ever more suited to that purpose (High Road); or, which succeed by prioritising function and flexibility over any preset design, aesthetic, or even purpose (Low Road). Primarily he looks to vernacular designs. Perhaps this focus indicates an ultimate preference for Low Road, and an intention to redress the imbalance exemplified in such cultural icons as Architectural Digest.
The above outlook seemingly condensed into the 3L rule, introduced in 1972 by Alex Gordon: Long life, loose fit, low energy.  Brand also refers multiple times to the Pattern Language of Christopher Alexander and his colleagues, and notes the affinities with preservation efforts and regular, mindful maintenance. At one point, Brand draws a parallel between successful building adaptation and Batesonian cybernetics. 
It seems to me that the best designs are those which accommodate the most contradiction. Looked at the other way, the most boring design is that which is directed at a simple, well-defined future. A lot of New Age music exemplifies this, as does, for me, Le Corbusier. They are both addressed to simple world pictures, and to simple ideas about how humans behave and what they want. [189, quoting Brian Eno]
Brand's appreciation for vernacular and hybrid design now informs my outlook in keeping up my home, and not merely as a measure by which to evaluate buildings I see around me. Later chapters discuss strategies for builders and architects as well as owner-occupants: scenario planning, financing alternatives to conventional mortgages, adopting methods most suitable for later adaptation and changing.
More broadly, Brand's general outlook underpins my take on architecture, to some extent in articulating a sensibility already held but not closely examined, and partly in introducing new concepts. A commonplace of architecture, I thought, was the ideal of melding function and beauty. It's interesting to read that Modernism receives a good amount of criticism if not outright scorn for jettisoning utility (buildings leak, can't maintain a livable environment, feature layouts which impede occupants), when a plebeian criticism was that Modernist buildings are all function and no beauty.
The wide format is well suited to the content, which features a great many diagrams and photos, but not easily read except at table, nor easily notated in margins or back pages as my custom. There exists a six-part BBC Television series hosted by Brand, as well.