How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built

Book review by Deane Barker tags: buildings

this is a wonderful examination of an interesting topic: how do buildings change over time? How do they age? How are they modified?

This is something I’ve never really considered. I guess I new that buildings get remodeled, but the dynamics of that remodeling reveals things about the building and how people use it. Buildings change over time in response to what people need.

Another truth: boring buildings are super functional; and exciting, conceptual buildings tend to be less so. Several case studies are presented of dull, boxy buildings in which incredible things have happened over decades simply because the buildings lent themselves so well to re-use and re-imagination. The buildings were simply the silent, accommodating host to what people wanted to do inside them (and shouldn’t this be the ultimate purpose of any building?).

The book is wonderfully illustrated with pictures of the same buildings over time. In some cases, you’re presented with 5-6 pictures of the same building over a 150 year period. You can see where new additions were added and how the building evolved.

The author builds on Frank Duffy’s idea of “shearing layers,” in which he states that different parts parts of a building have different velocities. The ground a building is built on definitely changes at a slower pace that the furniture inside it. This means that buildings which transcend time need to thought-out carefully. The foundation and core structure needs to be solid and adaptable to change.

As an aside, I read this book as a companion to my work in website development. The parallels are incredibly clear. Building are host to our physical bodies, were websites are hosts to something else – our minds, perhaps? We relate to, and move through, a building physically, whereas we relate to, and move through, an information space mentally. Just like a building, a website needs to change and adapt over time, as it the ways people use it and the information it holds becomes more clear.

I loved this book. The physical format is a little hard to deal with (it’s sort of coffee table-ish), but with all the pictures, it was probably necessary. Still, a wonderful read whether or not you have anything to do with construction or architecture.

Book Info

Stewart Brand
  • I have read this book. According to my records, I completed it on .
  • A hardcover copy of this book is currently in my home library.

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