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