How buildings learn

Just recently I was scouting around Powells and found a book that Ethan has recommended, so I picked it up. How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand is a fascinating read. When I tweeted about buying it, I was amazed by how many people responded that they loved this book.

After finishing the book, I completely understand the zeal people have for it. It is fascinating on many levels and the parallels that you can draw to the web are amazing.

One of my favorite chapters in the book discusses how architects design for the beautiful photo that will be taken when the building is finished, rather than for the people who will be using the building throughout its lifetime. Does that sound like anything that happens when designing and building for the web? At the end of the chapter, Brand poses the following:

If you think about what a building actually does as it is used through time—how it matures, how it takes the knocks, how it develops, and you realize the beauty resides in that process—then you have a different kind of architecture. What would an aesthetic based on the inevitability of transience actually look like?

And he goes on to talk of a conversion from image architecture to process architecture, which I relate to iterating on a site or application as you receive user feedback. In the last year I have found that iterating on an application based on user feedback is so satisfying. Obviously with a building, this is a lot harder, but if the building is set up to be able to change and evolve, then hopefully it can happen even then.

I could keep going with quotes from the book that I loved, but instead I’ll just say that you should give it a read. Its relation to the work of making for the web is enlightening, but it is also just a really interesting read about how we build, use, preserve, and think about buildings. While I drew connections to the world in which I work, I also enjoyed moving out of that world for a bit as well.

What makes a building learn is its physical connection to the people within.