A highly distinctive Brand

Stewart Brand is a radical thinker whose ideas about the way we live represent a 'great service to humankind', says his friend Brian Eno. Viewers of his TV series 'How Buildings Learn' now know why.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
On a patch of scrubby land, there's a row of closely spaced steel doors. With their battered faces and huge hinges, they might be industrial fridges destined for the skip. Nothing distinguishes them from each other but their numbers. No 12 swings open. Inside, on a stool, sits a man with white hair and a wise, lined face. He looks slightly amused at our surprise to find him here. His name is Stewart Brand and he's in a shipping container. It's his research library.

Five years ago, in this windowless, 8' x 8' x 40' steel, aluminium and wood box parked on a lot in Sausalito, California, Stewart Brand wrote a book. Called How Buildings Learn, it took a radical approach to architecture. It wasn't about the creation of buildings, but "what happens after they're built". Brand asked why some change and thrive over years, even centuries, while others remain forever stuck in the moment of their creation. He found that the buildings which most successfully met this challenge were not the supposed architectural masterpieces of the century - the works of Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and the modernist giants - but the ones that were scarcely designed at all: warehouses, factories, prefabs, garden sheds, beached boats, storage units, "low-road" buildings whose form and function can be invented again and again and which, instead of fighting time, grow with it.

How Buildings Learn was published here in 1994 and discreetly picked up a few good reviews. One person unequivocally impressed by the book was BBC producer Roland Keating, late of The Late Show and founder of One Foot in the Past. "Roly liked it, and came to visit me in California, and we got on," says Stewart Brand from San Francisco. "Next thing I knew, it was a series, and I wound up writer and presenter." The book, like the buildings it most applauds, has been adapted.

And it works. How Buildings Learn is now a compelling six-part series on BBC2, appearing on Thursday nights in an unlikely but unmissable double bill with This Life. Each week, Brand illustrates a different strand of his thesis with hundreds of buildings. He pops up, like a funky Pevsner, among the grands projets of Paris, the 19th-century terraces of San Francisco, the gothic palazzi of Venice, the futuristic domes of Arizona, the holiday chalets of Swansea, the modernist housing estates of suburban France, the "edge cities" of Washington, and "grow homes" of Montreal. He tracks the evolution of these buildings and meets the people who live and work in them.

The approach is more anthropological than aesthetic, and the result is a kind of natural history of buildings. It's stylishly done, with the buildings shot in calm stills that allow you a proper look and Brand delivering crunchy aphorisms like, "A building is not something you finish. A building is something you start". The series was filmed entirely on tiny digital-video camera by four directors without a crew. "They did the shooting and sound recording," says Brand. "As a result we were inconspicuous. And they could shoot promiscuously, collecting quantities of really tasty images." The pictures are enhanced by a twanging, ambient score, with a hook as persistent as the Twin Peaks theme. It was written by Brian Eno, the musician and producer, who is a close friend of Brand's. Incisive and entertaining, How Buildings Learn is resounding proof that architecture can be done on television.

At 57, Brand is new to television, and, largely, to Britain. In America, though, he is quietly celebrated as a visionary. He's not an architect, but an inventor, designer, biologist, ex-army officer, multi-media artist, photographer, writer, and, for want of a better word, a thinker (half the things Brand does defy categorisation). In the late 1960s he created the Whole Earth Catalog, an accumulative directory of useful and green products. In 1984, he started the Well, a teleconference system, which became a bellwether for other on-line communities. He co-founded and continues to work for the Global Business Network, a consultancy that undertakes "scenario planning" for multinational corporations. It has annual revenues of $8m and branches around the world. Brand's office, in Sausalito just across the bay from San Francisco, is a beached fishing boat.

Essentially, Brand is a man of ideas - 21st-century ideas. The person he discusses them with most is Brian Eno. The two men met in the late 1980s. Both "wired" to the extreme, they have exchanged e-mails every day for the last five or six years; snatches of their correspondence appeared in Eno's diary of 1995, A Year with Swollen Appendices. "The e-mail conversation must now be several hundred thousand words long," Eno tells me, in an e-mail (what else?) from St Petersburg. "We use each other to bounce thoughts off, and we are preoccupied with certain lines of thinking ... such as, 'What system-level alterations can be effected? What are the possibilities and dangers of doing that?' Lately we've been talking a lot about infrastructure - mental, moral, psychological."

Their respect is mutual. Even before they met, Brand recalls, "I had been saying aloud for years, 'There's only two people I'd rather be than me: Brian Eno and Jane Jacobs'." (Jacobs is the author of the 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities.) Now he knows him well, he calls Eno a "drifting clarifier". The sort of thing Eno's admirers say about him, Eno says about Brand: "He's a really big thinker, a great example of the American 'can do' apapproach. His natural optimism (that the world is getting better) is tied to a very attractive contrarian streak, which tempers the utopianism that sometimes accompanies 'can do': if everyone else agrees about something, Stewart always starts to wonder what you would find if you disagreed. He is more concise than anyone I've ever met, able to put very large ideas into very tight, neat sentences. This is a great service to humankind. He distrusts wordiness and obscurantism, and thinks it ought to be possible to put across complex ideas clearly. A lot of things have happened as a result of ideas that Stewart has shepherded into the public domain, but his pleasure is to carefully plant some seeds and then watch them grow - sometimes into forests."

IN 1986, Brand spent three months as a visiting scientist at the Media Lab, the computer-research centre at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The laboratory had just moved into the Wiesner Building, designed by I M Pei, architect of the Louvre pyramid. Sleekly modernist, with white marmoreal facades broken horizontally by bands of dark glass, it's the coolest thing on the campus - an ice-cube in wraparound shades. It rises five storeys, has a monumental perpendicular arch jutting out to one side and a massive atrium inside, and cost $45m. It's the reason why Brand wrote How Buildings Learn. "What got me going," he says, "was my wrath at the expensive folly of I M Pei's Media Lab."

Pei had designed the building specifically for the laboratory, but the result was hopelessly unsuitable. The atrium took up so much of the building that lab space was severely cramped, and served to keep people apart instead of bringing them together. "The pretentiousness, ill-functionality, and non-adaptability of the Media Lab building [was] so shocking to me," Brand thundered in the book. In the series, he remembers that "In the three months I was there, the elevator caught fire, the revolving door kept breaking, every doorknob had to be replaced, automatic door closers were stronger than people, and an untraceable stench filled the lecture hall for months. This is normal."

And that's his point. His beef with architects is that too many of them make buildings which fail in their function and are actually designed not to adapt. They design buildings down to the last light switch, and expect them to stay that way, set in aspic and frozen in time. Brand deplores this kind of Gestalt architecture, that total control of the aesthetic demanded and won by the architects of the Bauhaus, and insisted upon by generations of modernists since.

LE CORBUSIER said that the first aim of architecture is to defy time. Stewart Brand uses Le Corbusier's own architecture to expose his delusion. "Le Corbusier argued that people should adapt their lives to his modernist buildings, but at Pessac they did the opposite." With its rows of stark pastel cubes, flat-faced and flat-roofed, this housing estate near Bordeaux must, in 1926, have seemed a breathtaking vision of the new. But the Corbusier aesthetic was too demanding for some: early residents added pitched roofs, internal walls, outside extensions, and shutters. Now a younger generation is being offered grants to restore the houses to their original state: "It's a whole way of life," says Patrick Aubry, who lives at Pessac. "One has to leave the Louis VIII sideboard at one's parents." "It purifies the soul, living in a Le Corbusier house," says his wife, and the couple do seem serene in their masterpiece (but then they don't appear to have any children, animals or junk). The strong implication, though, is that this is not a reasonable way to live, or rather that it is not reasonable for architects to expect people to live like this, according to their principles and prescriptions. "Corbu was way wrong," says Brand.

Still, in the programme, Pessac strikes the eye as beautiful. If How Buildings Learn has a fault, it's that it nods in the direction of the "magazine architecture" Brand denounces: the camerawork can do the buildings too many favours as the commentary reveals their shortcomings. It's a problem of which James Runcie, the series producer, was conscious: "One has to be aware that architecture is more than just facades. It's very tempting to make the buildings look as good as possible."

Words and pictures more often tell the same story when describing buildings whose flaws are patently visible. A recent Frank Gehry building in Prague has a facade so curvaceous and entwined that it is nicknamed Fred and Ginger, and has to be cleaned by mountaineers. In Paris, the new Bastille Opera is covered in netting after sheets of cladding fell off. And some buildings are too delightfully ludicrous to mount any sort of defence against Brand's scorn. The geodesic domes, designed in the 1970s by Buckminster Fuller and built in thousands around the world, could not stand the test of time. A giant lollypop stuck in the sand might have seemed like the ultimate new-age home, but glass walls and obtuse angles proved incompatible with human life: the domes were impossible to furnish, subdivide and extend, and they always leaked. In a backyard in Bolinas, California, one dome is occupied only by a lemon tree. "Building is not really something you want to do when you're stoned," says Lloyd Khan, a "dome apostate", who has since, to his relief, rediscovered the perpendicular.

Domes have fascinated architects ancient and modern (just look what we're getting for the Millennium). Frank Lloyd Wright experimented with hexagonal, triangular and spherical structures. Rectangles bored him. "I have, lifelong, been fighting the pull of the specious old box," he said in 1952. One element he insisted should be straight, though, was the roof. A big mistake, in Stewart Brand's opinion. But not in Wright's: "When his clients complained that his flat roofs leaked, he would answer, 'That's how you can tell it's a roof'."

DO ARCHITECTS care if their buildings don't work? Brand thinks that mostly they do not. He asked one what he had learnt from past mistakes. "Oh, you never go back," the architect replied. "It's too discouraging." A chartered surveyor found that only one in 10 of London's newish offices had been revisited by its architect. There are only a handful of architects among the many contributors to How Buildings Learn. They are unusual - they do go back. Christopher Alexander, who wrote a seminal book on architectural forms and styles, A Pattern Language, builds in the vernacular and lets his clients decide where they want the dining room. On Long Island John Abrams revisits the houses he has built every spring, and takes along his workmen. This is the way forward. "I do push for architects retaining long-term relationships with buildings they design," says Brand. "For the sake of graceful learning both in the building and in the architect."

Brand is not anti-architecture. He just wishes it were better. He makes a profound distinction between architecture and buildings: "When people say, 'There's a work of architecture', they mean 'art'. Such art is usually meant to be timeless, and indeed architects almost universally resent what time does to their architecture. Buildings are just things with roofs and walls, utterly immersed in time. It's vision versus reality."

Brand is big on reality. Families grow, and need more rooms. People work at home, and convert the garden shed. Real life produces stuff that has to go somewhere. And all this is a good thing. "Needs almost always beat art, and should." Roofs leak, pipes burst. Maintenance is a fact of life. And DIY shouldn't be knocked. "It's a high calling, tending to a ship, to a garden, a building. One is participating physically in a deep, long life."

The buildings Brand likes best evolve continually, and don't cover their tracks. St Albans Abbey shows every architectural style since 1077; it "positively flaunts its layers of change". Liberty's grew from a small shop in Regent Street to a mock-Tudor palace. The post-war prefab Building 20 at MIT is everything the Media Lab is not - cheap, unaesthetic, infinitely adaptable, empowering and loved. Brand's home, where he lives with his wife, Ryan Phelan, and 20-year-old son Noah, is a 1912 tug boat; "we're busy putting an engine back in it." These places prove his dictum that buildings are never complete. If this sounds surprising, it shouldn't. In medieval times the scaffolding was never taken down from cathedrals, because it would have implied they were finished. And that would have been an insult to God.

STEWART BRAND is now building a monument himself. More than a building, the Clock Library is an attempt to address the future in bricks and mortar and technology. Brand, Eno and seven others have started the Long Now Foundation. "We all think that many of the world's problems result from short-term thinking," says Eno. "And we want to think of ways of getting to grips with the possibility that we might, as a species, be here for the next 10,000 years, and what we do now makes a difference to how it will be then." They are building a library in San Francisco that will be both literal and virtual. It will preserve evidence of our time it so that it can be read in thousands of years. The clock will tick once a year, bong once a century, and its cuckoo will come out every millennium.

While most of us are grappling with this Millennium, Stewart Brand is thinking about the next 10.

'How Buildings Learn' continues on Thursdays at 7.30pm on BBC2 until 14 Aug. The book is published in paperback by Weidenfeld and Nicolson at pounds 12.99. The Clock Library's website is at www.longnow.org.