How Buildings Learn, by Stewart Brand, is a perceptive study of how the built environment changes over time. Brand draws insight from historic and contemporary buildings to explain why some remain useful and/or well-loved, while others become obsolete. He compliments his examples with wonderful images throughout the book.
Brand points out the double meaning in the word “building” (both noun and verb, action and result) to explain that architecture is not a fixed entity. Thus buildings can evolve toward greater complementarity with their occupants and surroundings. Brand recommends that building processes incorporate this notion of continuous adaptation and improvement with time.
Throughout the book, buildings are discussed in ecological terms. Brand relates “low road” and “high road” development to r- and K- selected species. The low road is associated with rapid cycles of adaptive use and reuse (such as an industrial warehouse converted to a restaurant, then a bar, then apartments). The high road refers to incremental change over generations (such as a mansion cared for lovingly and eventually preserved as a museum). A combination of both approaches can bring about multifaceted environments that are both attractive and useful.
Brand finds that “age plus adaptivity is what makes buildings come to be loved. The building learns from its occupants, and they learn from it.” People modify the built environment, and in the process discover ways of making buildings last. If the longterm use of buildings is an effective means of conserving resources, the ideas presented in How Buildings Learn have much to contribute to sustainable development.
There is a six-part BBC series on How Buildings Learn posted for free viewing on Google Video (see links to each part below).
1 of 6 - "Flow"
2 of 6 - "The Low Road"
3 of 6 - "Built for Change"
4 of 6 - "Unreal Estate"
5 of 6 - "The Romance of Maintenance"
6 of 6 - "Shearing Layers"
(Photo included with permission from William Bernthal. The original full-sized version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)