Environmental & Architectural 
Phenomenology  Newsletter





& Back Issues

Selected Reviews

Stewart Brand, 1994. How Buildings Learn. New York: Viking Penguin.

Reviewed by Herb Childress

All buildings are predictions. All predictions are wrong. There's no escape from this grim syllogism, but it can be softened.

From these words, Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Catalog fame, has crafted a book that calls forth memories of several other writers (e.g., J. B. Jackson's Discovering the Vernacular Landscape and Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House), while still being an important new addition to architectural theory. Writing in a hip, management-theory style filled with acronyms and alliteration, Brand banters his way into real insights about the nature of change in buildings that so often seem permanent.

Brand presents his basic argument in an early chapter, "Shearing Layers," which argues that any building is actually a hierarchy of pieces, each of which inherently changes at different rates. In his business-consulting manner, he calls these the "Six S's" (borrowed in part from British architect and historian F. Duffy's "Four S's" of capital investment in buildings).

The Site is eternal; the Structure is good for 30 to 300 years ("but few buildings make it past 60, for other reasons"); the Skin now changes every 15 to 20 years due to both weathering and fashion; the Services (wiring, plumbing, kitchen appliances, heating and cooling) change every seven to 15 years, perhaps faster in more technological settings; Space Planning, the interior partitioning and pedestrian flow, changes every two or three years in offices and lasts perhaps 30 years in the most stable homes; and the innermost layers of Stuff (furnishings) change continually.

Brand is still an ecologist at heart, and he draws on what is called an hierarchical concept of ecosystems to surmise that the slow-to-change elements of the building drive the quick-to-change--the site is a determinant of structure, the structure drives the skin, and so on down to the level of furniture:

A design imperative emerges: An adaptive building has to allow slippage between the differently-paced systems of Site, Structure, Skin, Services, Space Plan, and Stuff. Otherwise the slow systems block the flow of the quick ones, and the quick ones tear up the slow ones with their constant change. Embedding the systems together may look efficient at first, but over time it is the opposite, and destructive as well. Thus, pouring concrete on the ground for an instant foundation ("slab-on-grade") is maladaptive--pipes are foolishly buried, and there’s no basement space for storage, expansion, maintenance, and Services access. Timber-frame buildings, on the other hand, conveniently separate Structure, Skin, and Services, while balloon-frame (standard stud construction) over-connects them (p. 20).

Over-connection is only one flaw Brand notes in the difficulty of modifying modern (and particularly Modern) buildings. In a central series of chapters, Brand takes great glee in blasting 20th-century architects from Wright to Pei for their pictorial over-emphasis on the central layers of the model--Structure, Skin and Services, and primarily the central of these three--and a willingness to divorce these from the layers before and after.

These buildings have been designed as sculptural (and eminently photographable) objects, unable to move or adapt, perfect in their moment of pre-habitation. In criticizing this practice, Brand uses the very tool that the "magazine architects" have used for justification: the still photograph. But Brand subverts the formal purity of the designs by photographing these buildings with people using them, by stacking up photos taken over time, and by comparing these photos with similar images of other buildings less hindered by the immaculate moment of their creation.

In short, Brand replaces the narrative of created form with a more humane narrative of habitation. This is the central and existential theme of the book--that we have narrative rather than static connections with places, and that habitation is always active and purposeful. "Age plus adaptivity,” says Brand (p. 23), “is what makes a building come to be loved. The building learns from its occupants, and they learn from it."

The final chapters offers Brand's way out of this mess, which is to offer a more fluid version of what architects have conventionally called programming. Brand calls his approach "scenario planning":

The product of skilled scenario work is not a plan but a strategy. Where a plan is based on prediction, a strategy is designed to encompass unforeseeably changing conditions. A good strategy ensures that, no matter what happens, you always have maneuvering room (p. 178).

The way to soften the inevitable need for building revision, Brand argues, is to fully understand that revisions are inevitable in buildings from highest Monticello to the lowest gas station, that our relationships with places are as inherently fluid as our relationships with people.

Brand’s book playfully humanizes the shifting landscape through photos and captions that offer the reader a temporal, narrative connection with these altered places. In this way, Brand offers the environmental design professions a vital glimpse of what the past hundred years of magazine architecture has almost taken away--an understanding of habitation.

Overall, How Buildings Learn is an "almost-great" book. Certainly, it does what Brand set out to do: to humanize and temporalize the world of buildings and help remove them from the limbo of the perfect object. But what he misses, somehow, is a sense of affection for the places he shows us. He writes, glibly and with detachment, about a phenomenon that obviously has human--and not simply functional--origins. He helps us see but not feel these places. Luckily, the photographs give us more than Brand himself intends they should, and they save him.