How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built

Author: Stewart Brand
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by wpietri   2018-03-21
Ooh, that reminds me of another excellent book on failure, Sidney Dekker's "Field Guide to Understanding Human Error":

It's about investigating airplane crashes, and in particular two different paradigms for understanding failure. It deeply changed how I think and talk about software bugs, and especially how I do retrospectives. I strongly recommend it.

And the article made me think of Stewart Brand's "How Buildings Learn":

It changed my view of a building from a static thing to a dynamic system, changing over time.

The BBC later turned it into a 6-part series, which I haven't seen, but which the author put up on YouTube, starting here:

I especially like that in the comments he writes: "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."

by webmaven   2017-08-20
> Buildings are much more complex in the way they live and breath and the ergonomics they offer than what a lot of people give them credit for.

Too true. Anyone interested in this topic should check out "How Buildings Learn". Well worth reading:

Also made into a 6-part TV series by the BBC:

by tokenadult   2017-08-20
From the photo caption showing the existing (ugly) pre-fab skyscraper:

"Prefabricated skyscrapers can be inflexible. To create a lobby for this hotel, Broad had to stick an awkward pyramid onto the base."

Central planning of the national economy during the Warsaw Pact era left some cities in central and eastern Europe with some of the world's ugliest and most user-unfriendly "modern" architecture. Only in a country with a centrally planned economy could a builder come up with the idea that skyscrapers built like Lego toys will become the new standard for skyscrapers.

I think it's here on Hacker News where I learned most of the interesting story of the construction of the Burj Dubai (now Burj Khalifa) skyscraper. There were structural innovations in that building

that allowed it to reach its world-record height. It was also built during a crazy, boom economy, and it remains to be seen how soon, if ever, the building will produce an economic return for its investors.

I think the most thoughtful book I have ever read about architecture, published before Hacker News was founded, is Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built.

(Yes, the author is the same Stewart Brand who is famous among HN participants for saying "On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.") Brand's book How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built is all about the many modifications that building owners make to buildings over time as the economy changes, as new materials and technologies are invented, and as buildings change owners. The gee-whiz articles about what the Chinese builder PLANS to do with buildings made of pre-fab parts are less interesting to me than what the possibilities are for modifying such buildings after they are built.

AFTER EDIT: An interesting second-level comment below asked about

it looks in the video like they build the crane into the building (which is sort of a waste of a crane)

and that prompted me to look up an article about how the tower cranes that build the tallest skyscrapers interact with the buildings they build.

There are occasions when some parts of the crane's support structure is built into (or onto) the building as the building goes up, but usually the working part of the crane is disassembled and reused.

AFTER ONE MORE EDIT: While doing something else, I remembered that another Hacker News participant recently linked in a comment in another thread to Paul Graham's 2005 essay "The Submarine,"

about the public relations industry, and how "news" stories are inserted in the mainstream media. I have seen a lot of kind submissions to HN of stories about the Chinese builder's PLAN to build the world's tallest skyscraper out of pre-fab components, but those stories, even in the best instance, have included remarkably little actual reporting from the scene about the economic viability of the plan or how well the builder's existing buildings are liked by owners or occupants. He has a great publicity machine, but I'd like to know more about the buildings.

by ericedge   2017-08-20
I agree there's a range, but if you have to abandon an analogy to describe another end of the range, then it's time to find a new analogy. I think one trap in the article's logic is thinking that all structural engineering is at the scale of bay-spanning bridges or skyscrapers. Structural engineering can range from structures that withstand earthquakes down to a shack to stash your garden tools--just because one end of the continuum requires more rigor than the other doesn't make them unrelated.

In software engineering there are still rigorous requirements in fields that run software on other planets or in medical systems, but there's software with looser requirements as well.

The best metaphor I've encountered for the wide variety of software engineering was a talk that covered the book "How Buildings Learn" -- there are structures that favor adaptability, and others that favor rigor, but that doesn't mean that structural engineering doesn't happen on one end of the continuum compared to the other.

(To be fair, there are rigorous forms of writing, too, but I think restricting the analogy to only novels is too narrow to be effective.)