Recently, I've been reading this book called How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built by Steward Brand.
The book has some great ideas about how buildings grow and evolve over time, but I think some quite relevant and interesting parallels can be drawn to complex systems in general: be it large organizations, businesses, economies, or technological infrastructure.
"The word “building” contains the double reality. It means both “the action of the verb BUILD” and “that which is built”—both verb and noun, both the action and the result. Whereas “architecture” may strive to be permanent, a “building” is always building and rebuilding. The idea is crystalline, the fact fluid."
And so it is with any complex system that starts with a simple structure and then evolves bottom-up over time, as it adapts to the changing environment and circumstances around it. And different kinds of systems inhabit different incentive and structural environment that dictate in what direction they evolve over time.
"Commercial buildings have to adapt quickly, often radically, because of intense competitive pressure to perform, and they are subject to the rapid advances that occur in any industry. Most businesses either grow or fail. If they grow, they move; if they fail, they’re gone. Turnover is a constant. Commercial buildings are forever metamorphic. Domestic buildings—homes—are the steadiest changers, responding directly to the family’s ideas and annoyances, growth and prospects. The house and its occupants mold to each other twenty-four hours a day, and the building accumulates the record of that intimacy."
In contrast, the author writes,
"Institutional buildings act as if they were designed specifically to prevent change for the organization inside and to convey timeless reliability to everyone outside. When forced to change anyway, as they always are, they do so with expensive reluctance and all possible delay. Institutional buildings are mortified by change."
If you've always wondered how your physical environment can subtly influence the way you live and grow over time, I don't think there could be a more apt example than a rigid traditional building that strictly imposes a kind of character, personality, and philosophy — elements that can, over time, limit the possible paths the structure and the people inhabiting it can take.
This works out well when its dwellers also keep embodying the philosophy imposed by the building over its entire lifespan. But if they do not, the structure can become a cultural atavism which is at best a sight-seeing place, and at worst, an antiquated relic that signifies red-tape, lethargy, and a shameless refusal to move on with the times.
If this made you think of bureaucratic government offices housed in old and rigid setups, we are on the same page.
Having said this, the flipside is that the older a building gets, the more we have respect and affection for its evident maturity, for the accumulated human investment it shows. The attractive patina it wears in the form of paint peeling off of the walls, muted bricks, worn stairs, wooden furniture that wears its history in the form of scribbles and scratches... all encapsulate and signal evolution and time.
In fact, age is arguably the cool thing nowadays in upmarket architectural design, where in pub-style bars and restaurants you'll often find worn out brick walls, a paint job that is purposely made to look stained and old, and furniture and cutlery that look similarly plain and old.
But of course, in these places, the age is more fake than real. However, the reason for this sort of thing being cool is also insightful and merits thinking about.
"We are convinced by things that show internal complexity, that show the traces of an interesting evolution. Those signs tell us that we might be rewarded if we accord it our trust. An important aspect of design is the degree to which the object involves you in its own completion. Some work invites you into itself by not offering a finished, glossy, one-reading-only surface. This is what makes old buildings interesting to me. I think that humans have a taste for things that not only show that they have been through a process of evolution, but which also show they are still a part of one. They are not dead yet."
— Brian Eno
The essence of the idea is how legacy systems capture and showcase the element of time, an element that is so often ignored in modern architecture. The result is the places we live and work in feel more inhumane, sterile, lacking character, and lifeless. They do not inspire us, they do not exude a rich history, they do not make us feel that we are a part of something bigger and timeless.
For the sake of length, I would like to end Part 1 here.
But I exhort you to think about how understanding this can serve as a panacea to the current pandemic of fleeting and trivial content, a loss of attention spans, and just a general loss of meaning we experience in the first world, as things become more and more convenient, abundant, and consequently, expendable.
Part 2 coming up tomorrow. Stay tuned.