How Buildings Learn – Uploaded by Stewart Brand Himself
August 4th, 2008 8 comments link to (permalink) posted by david
Amazingly, this does indeed look like Stewart Brand has uploaded the entire series based on his seminal book ‘How Buildings Learn’. The uploads have the pre-roll countdown screen.
Having been both an Architect of buildings and of software I agree with Brand’s point that “architects are not as alert as computer people” in being interested in his book. However, technology companies are much less alert about design than architecture firms are. Most software is engineered rather than designed, and the term designer often is reserved for people responsible for more superficial (in the literal rather than pejorative sense) UI tasks such as web designers.
Almost no computer software is actually designed by ‘architects’ who sit in between the people who commission software and the people who build it. An architect takes requirements and re-interprets, adds, combines, eliminates and prioritizes them into a ‘holistic’ design rather than a collection of requirements. In software, feature decisions are usually made by marketing departments (product marketing people who create requirements documents, PRDs) who pass them to the engineering department. In architecture this would be like someone who wanted to a building going straight to the contractor. This happens with tract housing, and the result is crappy, like the vast majority of current software.
The lack of architectural design in software is largely due to it being both novel, historically, and about novelty. New things are sold based upon features, from menu functions to gigaherz & gigabytes, rather than overall design. Once features become standardized, such as hifis then holistic design becomes important. Cheap hifis, for example, often have lots of features and flashing lights, better ones often have merely an on/off switch and a volume control, but they sound great. Software is still sold based upon bells and whistles rather than ergonomics.
How buildings learn was a great idea for a book, but it had its faults. The premise was that feedback from the use and behavior of a building throughout its lifespan, would allow for evolutionary (in the Lamarckian sense, i.e. during its lifespan) design improvement. Some modern architects were criticized (notably Richard Rogers, where the criticism had to be removed from the UK edition, to avoid being sued) because of design flaws which were largely the inevitable result of innovation.
Although Brand pointed to examples of innovative buildings whose designs were refined over time, such as Jefferson’s Monticello, the innovation here largely comprised neat gadgets such as dumb-waiters and fold-away beds, contained within a very traditional, neo-classical, building envelope style that had been perfected over centuries (actually, by definition, two millennia). Secondly, buildings like Piano and Rogers’ Beaubourg center, are flamboyant cultural monuments rather than purely rational designs. Brand’s criticism of some of the elements of modern architecture as something that could be perfected in an evolutionary manner, is like saying you could make a cathedral warmer and more energy efficient by making the ceiling ten foot high.
The premise of How Buildings Learn could be applied to the book itself, it could be improved by being re-worked, based upon feedback. Equally, a book could be written about taking architectural approaches to software design called: ‘How Software Learns’.
Anyway, the documentary is great stuff. Brand writes:
“This six-part, three-hour, BBC TV series aired in 1997. I presented and co-wrote the series; it was directed by James Muncie, with music by Brian Eno. The series was based on my 1994 book, HOW BUILDINGS LEARN: What Happens After They’re Built. The book is still selling well and is used as a text in some college courses. Most of the 27 reviews on Amazon treat it as a book about system and software design, which tells me that architects are not as alert as computer people. But I knew that; that’s part of why I wrote the book. Anybody is welcome to use anything from this series in any way they like. Please don’t bug me with requests for permission. Hack away. Do credit the BBC, who put considerable time and talent into the project. Historic note: this was one of the first television productions made entirely in digital— shot digital, edited digital. The project wound up with not enough money, so digital was the workaround. The camera was so small that we seldom had to ask permission to shoot; everybody thought we were tourists. No film or sound crew. Everything technical on site was done by editors, writers, directors. That’s why the sound is a little sketchy, but there’s also some direct perception in the filming that is unusual.”