Cities, buildings, architecture 1

by Chris Bertram on July 29, 2003

I’ve been interested in buildings, architecture and cities for about ten years now. Truth be told, probably for much longer than that: but I’ve been conscious of it as an interest for that time. It is an enormously interesting and absorbing subject in more ways than are worth enumerating here. But one of the aspects that has interested me as a philosopher and borderline social scientist is the way in which buildings and cities are records of human reason in the face of all kinds of practical problems (social, topographical, economic, weather-related, material related) at the same time as being items of great aesthetic importance. Form, style, design are all products of human trial and error and what emerges is often striking and beautiful. Sometimes the product of an individual’s vision; at others the result of the accumulated strivings of numbers of people working without any general conception. (Often, for cities at least, the best results have come when humans have worked blind; and the worst when some architect of other has been given free rein.)

I’ve blogged about this before on Junius. But a new forum gives an opportunity to look again, so I thought I’d do a series of posts about important books in the field that I’ve learnt from and been inspired by. First of these is Stewart Brand’s remarkable How Buildings Learn: What happens after they’re built. Brand’s book really gripped me when I first read it, and looking back over its pages is still both informative and fun. I’ve given copies to a number of friends and relatives over the years and I’d recommend it to anyone. Aside from the intrinsic interest of the subject matter, Brand had a biggish effect on my political and philosophical outlook. To caricature what I believed before somewhat, I moved from being somone who thought that smart people applying the right principles could make the world right to someone inclined to be much more sceptical about what we know or can know in politics, who takes much more seriously people’s lived experience of institutions, plans, projects and buildings (devised by ‘experts’) and who has more of a focus on rules of thumb, practice, ‘knowing how’, tacit knowledge, “satisficing”, skill, craft and so on.

Brand’s book is a visual delight. Much of the book consists of pictures of the same buildings or urban vistas over a series of decades. The cover features at drawing of two identical Greek Revival brick townhouses from the 1850s next to a photograph of the same buildings in 1993. One has become a storey higher, the other has grown sideway. This kind of juxtaposition is repeated through the book for restaurants, gas stations, living rooms and streetscapes, all complete with commentary on the pressures which led to change. Brand’s focus isn’t on any one kind of building: he’s happy discussing Chatsworth and Salisbury Cathedral one moment and MIT’s Building 20 or an office in a container the next.

As a fairly neglectful and manually incompetent householder, I can’t read the chapter called “The Romance of Maintenance” without feeling guilty, but Brand manages to bring some poetry to the subject:

The root of all evil is water. It dissolves buildings. Water is exilir to unwelcome life such as rot and insects. Water, the universal solvent, makes chemical reactions happen every place you don’t want them. It consumes wood, erodes masonry, corrodes metals, peels paint, expands destructively when it freezes, and permeates everywhere when it evaporates. It warps, swells, discolors, rusts, mildews, and stinks.

Most basically the book is about adaptation and flexibility and the need to design in ways that permit change. Most architects build to a conception of a building’s purpose. But two things are likely to happen after a building gets built: people start to use it in ways that the architect didn’t predict (will the building help or hinder their preferred ways of working or living) or the building gets sold and used for some quite different purpose. As Brand puts it “All buildings are predictions. All buildings are wrong.”

Although the book has a more or less sequential text, much of the pleasure of it (particularly coming back later) lies in the little bits of sidebar commentary to the pictures, the diagrams etc. Brand really is a master of all this and he also has a magpie like ability to draw on anecdote, history and literature in support of his thesis. (Check out, for example, the Gregory Bateson story about the renewal of the oak beams in the New College, Oxford dining room on pp. 130-1). Highly recommended.

Brand’s book finishes with a really extensive list of further reading, some of which I’ll write about in future posts.



dsquared 07.29.03 at 12:30 pm

Did you ever read “All That is Solid Melts Into Air” by Marshall Berman? (my favourite book)


Chris Bertram 07.29.03 at 12:37 pm

One of mine too. I’ve had to buy several replacements through imprudent lending. I highly recommend Berman’s reply to Perry Anderson’s review from NLR about 20 years ago.


Charlie B. 07.29.03 at 1:39 pm

Ever try getting builders to do some elementary renovation to a nineteenth century house? *takes another valium*


Loren 07.29.03 at 3:33 pm

“… who takes much more seriously people’s lived experience of institutions, plans, projects and buildings (devised by ‘experts’) and who has more of a focus on rules of thumb, practice, ‘knowing how’, tacit knowledge, “satisficing”, skill, craft and so on.” I’m guessing, then, that you think highly of Richard Sennett’s writings, especially The Uses of Disorder and Conscience of the Eye? I think I share much of your sense about the built forms of cities, but I wonder if the great cities of ancient republics and empires might remain moving places just because of the tension between planned grandeur and unplanned settlement — the agora surrounding the temple. A conjecture, not a claim of fact, of course; but it’s worth wondering whether a vigorously democratic metropolis could ever inspire a sense of loyalty to a public, rather than, say, to one’s neighborhood and community. More critically, could such a cacophonous, unplanned region reliably exhibit the sort of planning required for long-term adaptability to distant (and not so distant) ecological and demographic conditions? Not sure.


Ruth Feingold 07.29.03 at 3:51 pm

As a friendly amendment to Chris’s Amazon link above, I’d like to suggest that those interested in buying Brand’s book consider ordering it from the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, in Chicago. The link for the paperback edition is:

The Co-op is independent, co-operativedly owned, and is probably the premier academic bookstore in the country. Yes, Amazon’s easy and can be cheap, but if you want to preserve the kind of bookstore that won’t offer you “sponsored links” to country home decor outlets when you look at a book on 19th-c. settlers in Australia, then browse or call 1-800-777-1456. You’ll get more information, better customer service, and a much better selection of the weird and intellectual.

(Disclaimer: No, I don’t work there. But I do own $100 worth of stock).


Chris Bertram 07.29.03 at 8:44 pm

I’ve never managed to get on with Sennett. I’ve not read The Conscience of the Eye, but both The Uses of Disorder and the Corrosion of Character struck me as unfocused and self-indulgent. The books seemed to be more about him than about their putative subject matter. Could just be a temperamental incompatibility!


Loren 07.29.03 at 11:08 pm

“both The Uses of Disorder and the Corrosion of Character struck me as unfocused and self-indulgent. The books seemed to be more about him than about their putative subject matter.” Yeah, tight analysis and focused argument it ain’t. But there are a few nice stories and intriguing conjectures hidden away — or so I’ve found.


JRoth 08.01.03 at 7:53 pm

OK, this may sound defensive, so I’ll start with a caveat and some background.

Caveat: I couldn’t get very far in Brand’s book; it was pissing me off, and I had other things to read.

Background: I am an architect. Kind of explains the response. But I want to be clear that I am an architect in fundamental agreement with Brand. I despise much “high style” design. I believe in designing flexible buildings that are driven by how people might want to live in them. I adore adaptive reuse, and was up until midnight last night demolishing a bathroom in my 90 year old house.

The reason Brand made me so angry was his *dismissal* of design – of the application of human intelligence to the creation of human habitat. Sure, he’s not quite that much of a bomb-thrower, but the subtext that screamed out to me was, “architects are useless; specialized knowledge brings nothing to the improvement of buildings.”

Frankly, many architects don’t bring very much to their designs. But a good (competent, thoughtful) architect is a problem-solver first, and has, in addition to a good spatial sense and technical expertise, the ability to synthesize data and create spaces and buildings that work. A good architect designs a building that accomplishes much of what Brand is touting for pure vernacular, while simultaneously increasing physical comfort, mental well-being, and social interaction.

Oy. Too defensive? Hope not.


Van der Leun 08.03.03 at 2:57 pm

Not at all. There’s a cult of Brand going around, not growing as fast as it once was, that tends to take what he writes as writ and gush accordingly. Count me in as another who couldn’t get through the book. I kept thinking, “Well, this is belaboring the obvious with a club.” and “The book is an example of carefully selecting specific examples to prove an overly generalized point.”


dzwonki 01.13.04 at 9:58 pm

Mein Hobby ist es Gästebücher zu besuchen. Das ist immer ganz interessant und widerspiegelt so, was die Leute im Internet wirklich denken. War auch interessant bei Dir ! Bis zum nächsten Mal. All The Best OfNew Year. Sorry for my english i’am from Germany.

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