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How Buildings Learn


Soon after I moved to London in 1999 to work in the web industry, my friend Jim urged me to read this book, How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand.

Brand’s an interesting character. After some time in the army, in the ’60s he studied design, and became involved with the Merry Pranksters’ infamous ‘Acid Tests’. During the ’70s he produced the Whole Earth Catalog, the counter-culture’s DIY Bible, and in the ’80s he was instrumental in the seminal WELL online community’s development.

How Buildings Learn is subtitled ‘What happens after they’re built’. It’s basically a critique of architecture as an imposition, and a championing of the needs of the occupants of buildings. Brand points out that most architecture competitions are judged on photographs of the buildings on the day of completion. But visit the stunning, award-winning structure a year later, and it’s not unusual to find leaking roofs and unhappy people. Visit it decades later, and it may be severely dysfunctional, hampered forever by the image- rather than time-oriented stamp of the architect’s ego.

Brand champions design that accommodates change, making space for people to change things through use. Adaptation. Responsiveness, you might say.

When I read this, it was very early in the life of the web design industry, and the start of my time in it. But even then, the relevance this book seemed to have to websites just oozed off the pages. It was around this time that John Allsopp published his now-famous article ‘A Dao of Web Design’, urging designers to cast off the expectations and restrictions of their print backgrounds, and to embrace the fluidity demanded by the web.

But soon, very small screens became rare, and broadband became common. Fixed-width, often ‘pixel-perfect’ design became a norm in many areas of the industry.

Then, during the later years of the first decade of this century, mobile devices began to proliferate rapidly. In 2010, Ethan Marcotte’s article ‘Responsive Web Design’ opened with a quote from Allsopp’s decade-old but now supremely relevant article, and ushered in a shift back to fluidity.

Both these article owe a great debt – consciously or not – to Brand’s brilliant book.

It came to mind recently when I was thinking about the problems created when static design comps are presented to clients. I did a quick search on it and was delighted to discover that a BBC series based on the book, which had completely escaped my attention, has been uploaded in full to YouTube by Brand himself. Here’s the first of six parts:

It’s a fantastic series, well worth watching even aside from what it can teach us about websites. Ranging from squats to cathedrals, there’s a tremendous openness to its approach. It definitely feels ‘of its time’: West Coast startups on houseboats in Sausalito, affordable artist’s studios in Hackney, and raves in the Corn Exchange in Leeds. But it’s also timeless, looking at the real ways that people interact with buildings rather than the faux-eternity of static grandiosity.

One post that uses Brand’s book overtly to make points about building websites declares:

How Buildings Learn comes as highly recommended watching for online marketers, web designers, developers, UX, and usability pros. If you close your eyes, you can almost imagine that the BBC has created a series entirely dedicated to website optimization.

It’s not only relevant to ‘responsive design’, allowing sites to adapt to different use contexts, but it’s also incredibly relevant to overall attitudes to site development and maintenance. Returning to websites over time, assessing them, and evolving them isn’t a developer’s favourite task. But even though this is one of the ways in which websites differ markedly from buildings – they have a much shorter life expectancy, and thus maintenance isn’t prioritised in a busy workflow – Brand’s emphasis on designing from the outset to allow easy maintenance is surely something to learn from.

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