Thursday, October 28, 2010

How Buildings Learn - Stewart Brand

I've been reading this fantastic book called How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built by Stewart Brand (Viking Press: 1994). The book seeks to show how various buildings have changed ('learned') over time, how some buildings are difficult to change, while others lend themselves to change - 'smart' buildings. By focusing on a building's history, how it alters at different times, Brand shifts the discussion of architecture away from space and focuses it on time. It also gives us an example of how space is produced (Brand's book is a subtle critique of Kant).


For Brand, 'starchitects' or other architects and builders who seek to 'make a statement' create 'dumb' buildings - structures that resist change and adaptation. The most obvious example of this in Toronto is Daniel Libeskind's Michael Lee-Chin Crystal addition to the ROM. It would be difficult to add to or alter the basic structure of this addition - in fact, it already leaks. Ironically, this 'addition' is attached to a very 'smart' building, a structure that is simple and elegant and easily alterable (why it functions well as a museum). 


Brand's focus on the time of buildings brings out the often overlooked aspect of buildings and structures - people. Buildings 'learn' because people teach them. A simple structure, such the fantastic bay-and-gable row houses in Toronto, lend themselves to multiple changes and purposes. There are a few varieties on this street. They were built in the late 1800s by tradesman who ordered the pieces out of catalogues. Originally, more than one generation or family would share the house, each on their own floor. Rooms got let out and some were eventually fully broken up into apartments. In the 1970s, young people who were raised in the suburbs found it desirable to buy one of these old houses, fix it up and raise a family. Bay-and-gables can easily be changed to suit purpose - single-family-dwellings, apartments, rooming houses, even a Travel Cuts. Being on a corner, this Travel Cuts lets you see the side and there are others along the street.


Buildings like bay-and-gables - the buildings that 'learn' - are built for people. They're not usually built to be photographed for magazines and they're not built for an architect to make a name for him- or herself. They're built for the people who use them, for life to happen, for dwelling, working, eating, fucking, exchanging money for goods, cleaning, fighting, loving.... 


Putting people before the building is the philosophy that Jan Gehl also follows. His early book, Life Between Buildings (Chapter 1), presented a radical position on the nature of architecture by putting people before design, style or aesthetic. 


In any case, Brand's book, How Buildings Learn, was popular enough that BBC commissioned him to make a six-part documentary based on the book. It first screened in 1997. Brand posted them on Google Video in June 2008; they are embedded below. Each part is about 30 minutes long. I find part 2 on "low road" buildings to be the most interesting, followed by part 5 on maintenance. The examples used in the book and the documentary are sometimes different, with the documentary focusing on more British buildings while the book looks at more American buildings. Though many of the ideas found in the text of the book are missing from the documentary, it's well worth watching.


Part 1/6 "Flow"



Part 2/6 "The Low Road"



Part 3/6 "Built for Change"



Part 4/6 "Unreal Estate"



Part 5/6 "The Romance of Maintenance" 



Part 6/6 "Shearing Layers"


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