by Stewart Brand
How Buildings Learn is a study of how time and continued inhabitation changes buildings. The first half or so of the book is descriptive: Brand characterizes long-lived buildings as following either the low road or the high road. Low-road buildings are cheap and adaptable: they can evolve to suit changing needs because nobody really cares about them. High-road buildings such as mansions and cathedrals start out as elegant, functional buildings and become even better over time through constant care and refinement. Brand has equal respect for both kinds of buildings: they serve our needs in different ways, but they serve them well. He has little respect, on the other hand, for "magazine architecture": buildings that architects design to look good in photographs rather than being practical, adaptable structures aimed at pleasing their inhabitants. With the chapter on magazine architecture, Brand switches into prescriptive mode. His main point is that we should be designing and building structures that can survive for many decades and that can gracefully adapt to support changing needs. He argues this point persuasively and at length.
How Buildings Learn is a pleasure to read; the early chapters are soothing and the later ones motivating. Brand has assembled many "then and now" sets of photographs of buildings to support his points; they're also fascinating and entertaining. The book ends up transcending architecture: it's a meditation on the effects of time on things that humans build, and a lesson on how to design for the long run instead of the short. Highly recommended.
copyright © 2000 John Regehr