What Buildings Can Teach People, and Vice Versa

Michael Schrage is a writer, consultant and research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He writes this column independently for The Times

Back when Woodstock was Woodstock and not a crass venture of commercial nostalgia, Stewart Brand was busy defining the design ethic of the counterculture. He did it brilliantly.

His “Whole Earth Catalog"--a wildly eclectic and provocative compilation of tools, technologies and ideas for living in a postindustrial world--became a surprise bestseller. What the Sears catalogue once was to the values and aspirations of Middle America, the “Whole Earth Catalog” was for the non-anarchic children of the ‘60s.

At the core of this catalogue, however, wasn’t the question “What kind of objects do we want to consume?” but rather “What kind of lives and lifestyles do we want to design?”

For Brand, the “design of design” has been the evolving theme that has unified his work for more than a generation. His ideas and insights on meta-design have never been more forcefully argued or more cleverly presented than in his new book, “How Buildings Learn” (Viking, 1994). Brand may lack the metaphorical flair and vicious bon mots that Tom Wolfe bundled into his “From Bauhaus to Our House” but, as a critique of architecture and a guidebook for intelligent design, “How Buildings Learn” is far more, um, constructive.


Brand’s book will force people to rethink their assumptions about where they live, where they work and what innovation in design should mean--and not just in the realm of architecture. That’s because “How Buildings Learn” is a misnomer; this is really a book about how people learn.

Buildings are just the medium of expression and the artifacts of this learning. Talk with Brand and it immediately becomes clear that, precisely at the time when techno-pundits wax lyrical about the vistas of virtual reality, he finds the raw physicality of buildings and environments an even more compelling medium for redesigning design.

“I was very involved in issues of organizational learning and doing work with Royal Dutch Shell, AT&T; and Volvo,” recalls Brand. “I thought there was a lot of hand-waving and fuzziness about things like ‘double loop’ organizational learning and the like. I was trained as a biologist way back when, and I wanted something more than theories based on theories to test in the real world. Give me something I can go out and see, something I can observe, that will give me some way to measure organizational learning. With buildings, I expected to be able to see an evolution of organizational learning through the artifact of the building itself.”

Ironically, what triggered Brand’s desire to explore organizational learning through architecture was his stint at MIT’s Media Lab. While Brand was fascinated by the Media Lab’s efforts to create a new collaborative design ethic for digital technologies and virtual realities, he was struck by the total inappropriateness of the I.M. Pei-designed building for collaborative research.


“The book really began at the Media Lab and the building that housed it,” he says. “It was interesting to me that the Media Lab was designed for all these really smart people but that it got in their way . . . and it was the Architecture Department that was the organizing client that didn’t know how to program. I felt something was deeply wrong at a fundamental level if $44 million could be blown that badly. The whole apparatus of intentional building was out of whack.”


By contrast, MIT’s Building 20--a World War II structure so Spartan and ungainly that it makes a Quonset hut look like the Ritz--was one of the most popular buildings on campus for creative people and their teams. “So here was Building 20 so ugly, utilitarian and beloved, and there was the Media Lab, so bad and so disparaged and so expensive,” says Brand, who, appropriately enough, lives in a renovated houseboat in Sausalito. “Why?”

The bottom line, he says, is the last line of the book: Evolutionary design is healthier than visionary design. At the center of Brand’s argument is a fervent belief that totalitarianism of megalomaniacal designers must yield to design philosophies and media that give people far greater control over their environments.


For all the ideological warfare among classicists and modernists and postmodernists that has characterized the history of architecture, all schools have been united on the primacy of the architect as visionary. It is this fundamental perspective that Brand rejects.

To a very large extent, Brand imported the ideals and values of virtual design from the software world into his critique of the hard construction of physical environments. Buildings can learn only if people can palpably act upon what they’ve learned.

“I brought an impatience from hanging around software designers,” says Brand. “They’re always assuming an upgrade path that provides hooks and features that would be added later. There were concepts like ‘modularity’ for both debugging and off-the-shelf assembly.

“All these design approaches were basically absent from the history of architectural design. Buildings aren’t designed to be upgraded; too often, they aren’t even designed to be maintained,” he says.


“We need to go from architecture as the art of building to architecture as the design science of the life of buildings,” Brand insists. “An architecture department that took that seriously would upgrade the importance of the facilities planners, it would bring in the developers and the construction lawyers.” In other words, buildings would be thought of as dynamic, evolving systems, not static objects that people happen to live or work in.


“The emphasis has to be on design that lets people do things,” says Brand. “We need to turn the buildings over to the occupants; they’re the ones who seem to be better at learning and adapting than the architects. The general populace should be encouraged to feel freed up to do what they do anyway, which is change buildings and do it better. . . . What I want is a popular change of the view of buildings: that people don’t feel bad about changing buildings; they feel good about changing buildings.”