News Brief

How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built

How to Raise and Train

a Building

by Stewart Brand. Viking Penguin, New York, 1994. Hardcover, 240 pages, $30.

How Buildings Learn is a wonderful and convincing appeal for the recognition that every building is an evolving process. With widely varied arguments and examples, Brand points out the folly of our present emphasis on the moment of “completion” of a building—just before it is occupied. The real life of a building is just beginning when the users move in, he argues, and the real test of a building is how it serves those users as they incessantly adapt and alter it to meet their changing needs. “A building is not something you finish. A building is something you start.”

Brand is most severe in his criticism of “magazine architecture.” The glorification of panache and photogenic style at the expense of good function is presented as contemporary archi­tecture’s biggest fault. Icons in the field such as Frank Lloyd Wright and I.M. Pei are not spared in Brand’s attack. “Architects’ reputations should rot if their buildings can’t handle rain,” Brand argues, singling out Wright in particular, who was “notorious not only for his leaks but for his flippant dismissals of client complaints.”

Magazine architecture is attacked not only for failing to keep out the elements, but also for senseless and inconvenient shaping of interior space. By the same arguments, Brand nails down the coffin lid on geodesic domes, for which he admits he was “a major propagandist.” “Domes leaked, always. The angles between the facets could never be sealed successfully…The inside was basically one big room, impossible to subdivide…Construction was a nightmare because everything was non-standard…Worst of all, domes couldn’t grow or adapt…When my generation outgrew the domes, we simply left them empty, like hatchlings leaving their eggshells.”

From many angles, Brand describes what may be the most undervalued aspect of a building: its ability to adapt to changing needs. Designing a building too tightly for a particular function virtually ensures its obsolescence, sometimes before it is even occupied. Pei’s Media Lab at MIT is “burdened with a pair of rooms designed for wall-size rear-projection—research that was no longer even going on when the building opened…A long, narrow theater was built and wired especially for advanced, interactive movie research. All it’s used for is lectures, and its design makes it one of the worst lecture spaces on campus.”

For insights into what does work,

How Buildings Learn is packed with studies of older buildings and how they have survived. “Low-road” buildings, according to Brand, are inexpensive and accessible so they are readily adapted by occupants for frequently changing needs. “High-road” buildings, on the other hand, are loved and cared for due to their high-intent and presence. Maintenance is key for the survival of any building. “The issue is core and absolute: no maintenance, no building.”

With the accelerating pace of technological and social change, the environmental cost of constantly replacing our building stock to serve new functions is increasingly burdensome. Buildings that might serve for centuries are not only, as Brand points out, a wise economic investment, but also a good environmental choice.

Whether the topic is the commercial forces of the (un)real estate markets, the quiet revolution of historic preservation, the pros and cons of material choices, or scenario planning to create buildings that are truly responsive to unforeseeable futures,

How Buildings Learn is always informative and entertaining. The text throughout is echoed by a series of photographs and detailed captions, each of which tells a story of its own. In fact, the pictures are so engaging that it is hard to stick to the text; I found myself frequently leafing back to find where I had left off. Brand has even provided his own address and phone numbers, so this book can keep learning with the help of its readers.

Published September 1, 1994

(1994, September 1). How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built. Retrieved from

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