Evolutionary Design is Healthier than Visionary Design

As I grow and develop as a designer and maker, a process which is not often linear but iterative, I sometimes have a pause and think about those people and works which have provided me with the most useful guidance and inspiration. One of the most particularly affecting of my thoughts about design was Stewart Brand’s 1994 work How buildings Learn, and I have referenced it several times on this blog in past years.

How Buildings Learn cleanly articulated a feeling I had been experiencing, and gave coherence to a perspective that I had been forming for many years about why most modern architecture is a failure – if not simply ugly – the buildings produced are conceived of as akin to fine works of art, or ‘statements’ when in truth architecture is is ultimately about the occupants and their lives – keeping them warm, safe and dry really is the bare beginnings of what architecture should be. Since modernism came along, especially, architecture has become increasingly divorced from its core purpose of providing shelter and more and more about expressing philosophy or the architect’s ego. Some architects are even proud of how useless their buildings are, believe it or not. Case in point would be Frank Lloyd wright and his leaky roof comment: “That’s how you know it’s a roof – because it leaks.” Another case in point involving FLW was when the chairman of the Johnson Wax company called him to complain that the roof of his new house was leaking and water was actually dripping from the skylight onto his head at the dining table, Wright told him to move the table(!). Did Wright learn from this sort of thing and change how he designed his buildings to keep the weather out? No. He was more in love with his own idea about how a building should be than in the ‘petty’ concerns of his clients or any considerations of practicality.

The building phase is brief, but the occupancy phase, ideally, is long and those who occupy a building are going to modify it if they need to so, to make that building work for them. If the building can’t be made to work for people it is often hated and soon torn down or abandoned. Few architects seem to recognize this issue it would appear, preferring not to revisit their earlier works to see how they are doing, and few architecture schools seem to be instructing the new disciples in anything other than the abstractions of architectural theory.

I’ve had Brand’s book listed in my ‘Worth a Read’ section (now found at the bottom of the page) since I started this blog and its not going to be leaving the list anytime soon. Some readers however may not have the time for as much reading as they might like, and I was pleased to recently learn of a video documentary about Brand and his work, How Buildings Learn. Though Brand is an American, leave it to the British and the BBC to come up with a fine documentary.

As an aside, I’ve always wondered why the Brits can produce such excellent documentaries while most American documentaries I have come across are shallow, incoherent or otherwise invariably suck wind. Compare, for instance, the BBC’s series The Planet Earth with David Attenborough, with anything put out by National Geographic. If someone could explain the reason for that phenomenon to me, I’d be most grateful!

Anyway, the BBC series is six parts long, each about half an hour in length, and here’s part one:

Here’s a link to:

part II

part III (I think this might be the best part!)

part IV

part V (I also think this might be the best part!)

part VI

I hope you’ll take the time to watch the other parts which can be accessed by a quick search on Google Video, or will seek out the book and take a deeper look. It’s well worth it.

10 thoughts on “Evolutionary Design is Healthier than Visionary Design

  1. Another thumbs up for How Buildings Learn, which has been on my shelve for years too, across two continents. I especially like the section on Building 20 at M.I.T., which was indeed gross and wonderful.

  2. In the first part was this quote ” it purifies the soul living in a Corbusier House” Patrick Aubry… You got to see the film : 'Mon Oncle' staring Jacques Tati about modern life in a modern house in 1958 … Thanks for the link to these films..


  3. Tim,

    glad to hear that you are a fan of Brand's work too! thanks for the comment.


    I will try to get a copy of that film – it looks like it might be a funny one.


  4. Being a Brit living in Canada I couldn't agree more with your comments about Brit documentaries.. I cannot bear watching NA TV, particularly because of the incessant and repetative adverts and content warnings, but mainly because the quality is just not there and everything is sensationalised. Fortunately am able to access UK satellite TV via the internet – the calmness, the friendliness, not to mention the quality of programming of the BBC and Channel 4 is quite literally a joy to return to after being subjected to an hour or 2 of local TV.
    I'd be interested to know why the difference is so great too – it cannot be to do with the way the BBC is run and funded because the private Channel 4 produces excellent programming – documentaries and films.
    Anyway, I missed this series so thanks v much for the heads-up and links.

  5. Adam,

    many thanks for your comment, and I was wondering when someone would make a response to my question! You'll also notice a striking difference when you see the 'man in the street' interview – the Brits tend to sound more literate and are better capable of expressing a complete thought in a sentence than the average American. I don't know why that is, but it might have something to do with the public education systems in the two countries.


  6. Very thought provoking Chris. In two months I am moving to an “unpopular” section of Brooklyn which is populated by live-in landlords who are quite free to modify their space to suit current needs. Some might find it messy or ugly but I enjoy the air of liberty. That sense of freedom also means you need to tolerate loud music and parties until two or three in the morning or a neighbor who opens a open air market in front of his house. By contrast the tightly scripted world of the planned communities seems like the land of the living dead.

    On the other hand, I understand the pressures that push zoning into existence. When you spend several hundred thousand dollars for a house, you aren't thrilled so see a developer buy the block across the street for thirty story tower full of luxury unit you could never afford.

    As a whole, the zoning system in NYC has been the playground of the rich and connected to ensure they control the flow of economic development. Very un-democratic.

    Thanks for the thoughts,
    Harlan Barnhart

  7. You might want to consider updating the dead links to the BBC series. Brand has posted the videos on how own youtube channel.

    On a side note, I read HBL and it inspired me to make a pilgrimage to Montpelier. The docent that day was completely unaware of Brand's work, nor much about Madison's modifications. I enjoyed the tour nonetheless, especially how the decision was made to preserve and maintain the building as *was, (equally maintaining the DuPont modifications) due to limited funding and to show the house as part of a continuum. I was impressed with the reasons and the results.
    A few years later and several millions of dollars of appropriated grant money, that whole line of reasoning was gone along with all the later additions. It seems that sometimes buildings must be unlearned. Money swears and I was not at all impressed with the restoration work. And we have another updated suburban McMansion with a big green lawn and lots of trees to draw in the tourists.

  8. Potomacker,

    many thanks for your comment and letting me know about the dead links. I need to do a back check of links soon!

    Not surprised you were unimpressed with the restoration work – it is rare when it meets the standard of the original in so many cases.


Anything to add?