Why did Stewart Brand have to go so hard? His 1994 publication How Buildings Learn is full of insights about how buildings discount and misuse time. He studies how buildings adapt and change over the decades, or even centuries, of their existence. He rails against “magazine architecture,” beginning with the example of I. M. Pei’s MIT Media Lab, which defies adaptation: The building isn’t unusually bad; its badness is just the norm in new buildings overdesigned by architects. (Perhaps my fondness for the book is heightened by his regular references to MIT’s campus, where I was an undergrad.) He then laments the existence of architecture as art instead of craft and addresses the still-tricky problem of architectural photography, which is often created before people begin using the buildings. These photos then often go on to be published opposite language from the “‘prismatic luminescence’ school of wine writing.”
Throughout, Brand mentions responsive and humble approaches that we might today call “sustainable,” but the term’s only index-worthy appearance—as “sustainable design”—lands in the appendix: “Sustainable is a buzzword, meaning ‘ecologically correct,’ but it does stimulate thinking toward durability and open possibilities,” Brand wrote. (This type of hardy, DIY realization was something he had been working on for decades at the time, at least since launching The Whole Earth Catalog in 1968.) Rather than architecture as “the art of building,” he suggests the practice of architecture should be reborn with a new definition: “the design-science of the life of buildings.”
Given current knowledge about the climate crisis, this would-be new vocation has everything to do with the subject of this issue of AN: sustainability. The topic permeates most of the contents that follow, including some appropriate criticism of its shortcomings. This is most clearly seen in our material-forward Focus section, which examines new bio-cements, hears from the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons, interviews a decarbonization specialist, reviews an exhibition about low-carbon home design, and shares products to consider specifying in your next project.
Brand might appreciate the Poplar Grove residence designed by BLDUS covered by Nigel F. Maynard. (Astute readers may recall that AN published the architect’s sketches for the home in 2021.) In both its contextual placement as an alley house and in its construction using natural materials, it functions as a case study for how to build thoughtfully and lightly. But its architecture can’t escape history. The plans summon both John Hejduk’s nine-square grid exercise and the Roman domus: The interior square is given over to a staircase, above which a compluvium admits daylight instead of rain.
Brand might also enjoy the features section of this issue, which focuses on adaptive reuse, an act that has always been a regular part of making architecture. Here we share an excerpt from Deborah Berke’s new book, Transform, written with Thomas de Monchaux and published by Monacelli Press, along with worthwhile projects by GOMA, PLY+, Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects, and Bruner/Cott.
As a break, check out a few technology-focused spreads where you can preview AN’s upcoming Tech+ conference on October 27 and read my exchange with Olivier Campagne, a Paris-based digital-image maker who uses Midjourney to imagine new versions of the mechanical-minded worlds he’s been rendering for leading European architects.
This carbon-aware issue arrives at the end of a summer of climate disasters. Architects learn from nearly everything— education, mentorship, travel, observation, conferences, conversation, clients, and media—so this summer has been a master class in what might be our future. From floods in Vermont and India to fires in Canada and on Maui and the heat dome across the central U.S., it’s obvious that the effects of climate change are already here. This lived experience should spur action. Wider regulatory mandates are urgently needed, but regardless, architects can design buildings that use less carbon and might serve as refuge when climate change intensifies.
Writers need readers. Brand closed the acknowledgements in How Buildings Learn by listing his contact info to encourage people to get in touch with him “to make corrections for later printings and to make things happen in the real world.” Feedback still matters today.
Following in Brand’s footsteps, I’ll leave you with my email address, should you want to make something happen in the real world: email@example.com.