Chris Castig Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.

How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand

5 min read

How Buildings Learn Summary

I love How Buildings Learn because while the subject of is “buildings,” it’s really about time. What happens to the objects we create over time? What principles endure and which are merely fashionable? In the end, it turns out that buildings can learn a lot from humans, and that humans can learn a lot from buildings.


Hello and welcome to On Books, this week I’m sharing with you How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand. This was one of my favorite books from the past year. 

In the past year I’ve read 35 books, I’m going to be sharing the top four with you in this episode and that over the next few episodes. I hope you’re really excited about that. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read the book or not, what you can expect in this episode is summary of the book, a few takeaways. I’ll do a reading, a few pages of the books, give you a sense of what it’s like and then some final thoughts on how you can apply the book to your life. Let’s get right into it, this is How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand.

How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand  

How Buildings Learn is a book about buildings, but it’s also a book about time — and that’s what drew me in.

The question is: What happens to the objects we create over time?

Buildings is the subject of the book and buildings inevitably change with time. What makes some buildings get better while others get worse? How does time act as an architect that shapes our building? These are the questions and this is what was on Stewart Brand’s mind when he set out to write How Buildings Learn. .

In order to answer that question, Brand has observed buildings over time, over decades, over centuries and brought together hundreds of these photos. Through Brand’s observations, he’s come up with some really poetic narrative of vocabulary and principles explaining the transformation of these buildings over time and what we can learn from it.

I’m going to read now from the first few pages of How Buildings Learn. This is Chapter 1,

Year after year, the cultural elite of San Francisco is treated to the site of its preeminent ladies resplendently gallant lined up in public waiting to pee.

The occasion is intermission at the Annual Gala Opening of the Opera. The ground floor ladies room at the opera house is too small, the men’s isn’t.

This has been the case since the place was built in 1932. As the women are lined up right next to the lobby bar, their plight has become a traditional topic of conversation. The compliments and jokes never change. Well, neither does the ladies room between the world and our ideas of the world is a fascinating kink, architecture we’re imagined is permanent and our buildings for us, because they discount time, they misuse time, almost no buildings adapt well. They’re designed not to adapt. Also, budgeting and finance not to, constructed not to, administered not to, maintained not to regulated and tax not to, even remodeled not to.

Buildings are often not designed to adapt — that is the main takeaway we’ve hit on.

Brand adds,

But, all buildings except monuments adapt anyway. However, poorly because the usage is in and around us are constantly changing.

This is one of the main conflicts in the book, one of the things that really bothers Brand and that he sets out to write and research this book to clarify. The problem that Stewart Brand notices is that we are making buildings often so short sighted to only consider the first tenant in the building.

Or in our society (more widely) we create objects with just the first use in mind, and not necessarily where that object will go, or adapt in time. 

How do we think about time as an architect? Time architects and adapts our buildings.

We always seem to give the main credit to the architect (who built the building). Architects become these famous people and we appreciate them and we love them, but we don’t always consider what happens on day two after a building is launched.

Now, I’m going to play you some audio of the BBC series called How Buildings Learn, that Stewart Brand did for the BBC, after the publication of this book here. In this clip Brand is talking about Frank Lloyd Wright. Because Wright didn’t have a longer term vision of maintaining and learning from his building, he created this same problem with all of the buildings from his first and the last throughout his life. This is Stewart Brand in the BBC series, How Buildings Learn.

Stewart Brand: Frank Lloyd wright is considered to be the greatest American architects of all time. This is one of his buildings and it’s beautiful, but it leaked from day one. The Marin County Civic Center in California was the last project of his life, but it leaked just as badly as all of his earlier buildings. His clients would say, “The roof leaks.” He would joke, “That’s how you can tell it’s a roof.” Someone should’ve told him, “That’s how you can tell it’s a failure.”

Chris: That’s Stewart Brand from the BBC Documentary he put together called How Buildings Learn. I think the documentary, it’s pretty good, but it feels …to be honest, I feel like the book reads better, it’s more poetic, and I just love the photos and language of the book. So if you watch it on YouTube (You can watch it for free), I would still really recommend to book. I would say that book is even better in my opinion.

How do buildings learn? Well, if we consider that all buildings are predictions, the architect is predicting how the building is going to be used. The architects predicting how money and technology and fashion are going to influence the building that he or she creates.

A building as a prediction if we understand that as a given but add to it that all predictions are wrong, knowing that over time the predictions that we make are going to have to bend in some ways. Then we can see this book, that Stewart Brand has put together as assembling what might be called Steps Towards Adaptive Architecture and that’s what he calls it, Adaptive Architecture, thinking about how what we create adapts over time. He says quite politically here,

Honoring the future begins with honoring the past.

That’s exactly what this book does: How Buildings Learn honors our future, by honoring long term thinking, our choices and decisions. All this by looking at lessons from the past. Like I said, Brand has assembled dozens, hundreds of photographs here. What you can expect to see are some famous buildings like I.M Pei’s, Media Lab, for example, at MIT, George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, as well as brownstones in Greenwich Village before and after.

How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand

What can we learn by looking at the same structure, the same site, the same building over time? There’re just hundreds of these examples, it’s so wonderful.

That’s what Stewart Brand is doing, over the 12 chapters in this book, he’s given us vocabulary, he’s given us designed principles, he’s given us tons of examples of how we can think to create architecture that is more adaptive over time. I’m going to read a little bit more here and then finish this off with just, give you a few more takeaways from the book. He says,

A question I asked everyone while working on the book was what makes a building come to be loved? A 13 year old boy in Maine had the most succinct answer,  ‘Age.’

Apparently, the older building gets the more we have respect and affection for its evident maturity, for the accumulated human investment it shows, for the attractive patina it wears, muted bricks, warren stairs, colorfully stained roofs, lush vines. It just so valued that in America it is far more often bake than real. In a pub style bar and restaurant, you find British antique oak wall paneling perfectly replicated and high density pile your thing. n.

On the roof are fiber cement shingles molded and colored to look like warren natural slate. Age plus adaptability is what makes the building come to be loved. The building learns from its occupants, and they learned from it.

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Chris Castig Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.