How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built

by Stewart Brand

Paperback, 1995



Call number



Penguin Books (1995), Edition: Reprint, 256 pages


"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."--Jacket.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Davidmanheim
I finally read this book after stumbling across it, oversized, on a library shelf. I had it on my reading list that I (used to) keep updated on my Palm Pilot, for a while. Twice, in fact, as it had been recommended from a couple different sources, and when I went to browse the list again, I
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realized I was removing it from the list for the second time. It was a very good book, achieving what so few nonfiction books do - explaining a subject so well that almost all of the lessons carried over to dozens of examples more of interest to me personally. The subject at hand was the evolution of buildings over time, a subject that had no specific interest to me, but since the book came so highly recommended, from so many sources, when I saw it I checked it out.

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.
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LibraryThing member jorgearanda
An eye-opener of a book that shocks the reader with its detailed comparisons of archival photographies and the reasons behind many building modifications. His long-term view transforms buildings into quasi-living entities that learn from their inhabitants and constantly evolve to suit their needs.
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Looking at some of the book’s photographs of the same building throughout the decades is like watching the ever-shifting clouds in the sky: You can tell it is the same cloud you saw a minute ago, it feels the same, and yet you can barely recognize it now.

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.
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LibraryThing member Chalky
This is one of the most thought provoking books I've ever come across: it really does change the way you think about buildings, how we live in them, the people who work round them and what makes for a successful or otherwise building. Stewart Brand brings to this book a wealth of experience and
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research; but you do not need to be an architect or builder to be totally captivated by this book and its philosophy of respect for life that is grounded in its time and place rather than ruled by abstract ideas.
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LibraryThing member krookey
How Buildings Learn gave me new eyes for buildings all around me. Read this book and you'll soon start interpretting the features of buildings all around you as indicators of the economic life of the occupants and neighborhoods.

This is the book that got me interested in re-photography. As a result,
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I've tried to take a picture of my house at least once a year. It's amazing to see differences over time, especially on buildings we're familiar with. The change can be dramatic even when it seems that nothing has changed.
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LibraryThing member booklog
Outstanding survey of how buildings survive and grow or die over the years. What features make a building useful or useless. Excellent photographs showing stages of growth or decline. Educated and lively text. Read with "Architecture of the Absurd" by John Silber.
LibraryThing member mrtall
Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn is half detailed analytical study of real buildings, half manifesto. Brand brings front and center the crucial features of real buildings that architects for the most part love to sweep under the rug, or rather love to sweep under the gleaming mock-ups they
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parade about to naive clients: how well do buildings really serve their intended purposes after they're complete? How are they changed over time as the demands on them inevitably change, often radically? How hard -- and costly -- is it to make these changes? This added fourth dimension, i.e. time itself, is the source of remarkably rich insights, over and over, as Brand analyzes the lives of real buildings as they age and adapt -- or die.

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.
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LibraryThing member Murdocke23
I bought this book while i was in Engineering school on my way to study Architecture. Never went that direction, but finally read the book. A great book on buildings alone, but concepts it has go beyond buildings and into many areas of applied design, including websites and computer software.
LibraryThing member thenumeraltwo
> All buildings are predictions. All predictions are wrong.

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
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a few years, along with a few other design classics, so I was pleased to find I enjoyed it immensely. His advocacy of the vernacular and avuncular come with my Jane Jacobs inspired views. And there's many a good quote to nick.
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LibraryThing member rakerman
Exploration of how to build for the long haul, kind of a "death and life of buildings".
LibraryThing member adzebill
Radically rethinks how we look at architecture and living or working in it.
LibraryThing member name99
I want to learn at least something about how houses and building work. This book was a step along the way.

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
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author cares rather more than I do about the subject matter, so I really couldn't fake an interest in some of what he was saying.

However a reasonable start to my endeavor.
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LibraryThing member Othemts
Really excellent study of how buildings go beyond architecture as the grow, change, and are readopted. See why some buildings work and others do not.
LibraryThing member castiron
A really interesting way to look at buildings and how to make them useful for a long time.
LibraryThing member elenchus
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
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buildings over time? [2]

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. [20] 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.

• Site
• Structure (Duffy = Shell)
• Skin
• 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. [57] 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. [167]

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.
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LibraryThing member modioperandi
First Stewart Brand is an expert observer. Next Stewart Brand is skilled at thinking about what he has seen. How Buildings Learn is a fantastic read from a writer that who has the uncanny ability to take what he has seen and distill it into something more than the obvious. Brand's musings and
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observation, after having read them, feel like 'oh yeah I knew that' but of course the point is you did and you do but it takes someone like a Stewart Brand it takes Stewart Brand to lead by example to show and teach how to look at what has been around you all along - buildings - and see and recognize and realize the things that you already knew.

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.
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LibraryThing member Karen5Lund
This is one of those rare books that I borrowed from the library, then immediately had to go out and purchase for my own collection.

A whole new way of looking at buildings and what happens to them over the years, and how we can read their histories in their structures.


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Physical description

256 p.; 10.75 inches


0140139966 / 9780140139969
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