Saturday, August 9, 2008

How Buildings Learn


I just finished reading Stewart Brand’s book How Buildings Learn.(1) I’d been familiar with the book for some time – it was first published in 1994 – but only now got around to reading it. As an architect, I found the book enjoyable and chock full of common-sense insights about how buildings can be adapted to meet changing needs when they are constantly refined and reshaped by their occupants. Brand argues that architects typically design solely for the building’s original intentions and are consequently disappointed when it assumes a life of its own. The fact is architects should accept the inevitability of change and refinement, and design in such a way that buildings can be gracefully adapted to different purposes. Brand believes that architects must mature from being artists of space to become “artists of time.”

Stewart Brand is best known as the creator of The Whole Earth Catalog but ultimately may be most influential for cofounding the Long Now Foundation, which is dedicated to encouraging long-term thinking. Along these lines, How Buildings Learn explains how buildings can work with time rather than against it. Brand advocates the use of scenario planning rather than functional programming alone. The vice of programming is that it over-responds to the immediate needs of the initial users, resulting in buildings that are less adaptable to unforeseen future conditions. Programming converges on a single path – an optimal solution. Conversely, the essence of scenario planning is divergence: It is a future-oriented process of analysis and decision that relies upon the development of multiple “plot lines” based upon both reliable certainties (such as the aging of baby boomers) and crucial uncertainties (such as the possible advent of emergent machine intelligence).

I was first introduced to the use of scenario planning as a tool for use by architects during my 1980s graduate work at UCLA; it would become a focus of my studies there under the rubric of “imaging the future.” Some of the scenario planning concepts and methods presented to me include:

  • extrapolation, time-series, and trends
  • model building
  • simulations, games, and role-playing
  • scenario construction
  • contextual mapping
  • relevance trees and prescriptive futurizing
  • the dynamics of choice and decision making

I didn’t find some of the more statistical or rigid methods of forecasting very appealing because they were too technical for my liking. However, all are available in the scenario planning tool kit to help facilitate the formation of plot lines or narratives that generate images of possible futures. The notion of images is particularly useful because what architects do is largely visual. An architect often prepares elaborate renderings and models of a proposed development for viewing by the client prior to its construction. Because they are not static, scenarios are an especially powerful means to represent future possibilities. Images developed using forecasting techniques can extend and complement the traditional methods of representing a proposed building, both immediately upon its completion as well as after many years of adaption and refinement. Scenario planning is useful to architecture precisely because buildings are inherently contingent and sensitively dependent on complex environmental conditions. In addition to the three dimensions of space, buildings also occupy the fourth dimension of time.

It’s axiomatic that the work of an architect should be future-oriented. A typical building stands for many years(2): it will influence and be influenced by a physical, social, and cultural context throughout its useful life. What is not so evident is that its longevity or value is in many ways proportionate to the architect’s ability to imagine the future life of the building. The strength of How Buildings Learn is the persuasiveness of Brand’s thesis that every building is a never-finished, dynamic product. Rather than be too easily seduced by the ideal of perfection and blinded to the reality of change as a constant, we need to design buildings without arrogance. We need to design buildings that are flexible and adaptive to change over time.

(1) BBC TV produced a 6-part, three-hour television series version of How Buildings Learn in 1997. Historic note: This was one of the first completely digital television productions, shot and edited digitally.

(2) Note that the “greenest” building is one that never has to be torn down and replaced because it remains perpetually useful.

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