How Websites Learn

A look at how Stuart Brand’s classic work of social and architectural criticism, How Buildings Learn, applies to web design and development.

How Buildings Learn: What happens after they’re built, by Stuart Brand

First, if you are in any way interested in design, history, or architecture, which I assume you are by your presence here, read the book How Buildings Learn: What happens after they’re built, by Stuart Brand. Building on Jane Jacobs’ classic criticism of city planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Brand looks at what happens to buildings over the fourth dimension: time.

As I began to read How Buildings Learn, the initial concepts tickled me as familiar in a way that great and simple ideas often do. When written clearly, they seem obvious. However, when we look at the world around us, these ideas are clearly not obvious – or if they are obvious, they are ignored. Further in to the book, the basis for this familiarity becomes more obvious. Idea after idea and concept after concept, clear parallels emerge between the architectural issues dealt with in the book, and those issues we deal with every day as web developers.

Brutally oversimplifying Brand’s premise, he argues that modern architecture and building practises are ignoring what happens to buildings after they are built. Buildings are designed to be impressive on opening day and in 3D computer models, but not to be livable in the long term. When the ribbon is cut on opening day, many architects see their jobs as finished. So too are many websites designed to look good in the portfolio of the designer, no deeper than the front page. They aren’t designed to be lived in – they are not designed to be used, either by the visitors or by those who maintains the site.

Building for Change

Stuart Brand

Brand’s most fundamental edict is that of building for change. Perfection is a doomed goal. When building, whether it be a house or a website, if you try to freeze time and build for a perfect present (or your own concept of an ideal future), you are damning those that will maintain your creation to work within your flawed construct of perfection. Aware of this pitfall, the time-aware builder puts trust in the knowledge and experience to be gained by the tenants of his creation. He knows that after 10 years of living in a building (or ten months of managing a website), the original builder is no longer the expert. Rather, those who have come to occupy the building will be the experts – having dealt with the thousands of small challenges and decisions that confront an occupant through the years.

One, two, or three years after you’ve built a website, there is a strong chance that someone else will then know a lot more about it than you. They may thank you for your clear foresight in not over-specifying the structure of the site. They may also curse you for choosing a proprietary database or for not documenting your code.

Brand highlights the practises of builder / designer John Abrams as a great example of how to document your design for the next generation of occupants and builders. During construction, Abrams would photograph each wall before it was closed in – capturing the position of all service elements (electrical wiring, stud-spacing, plumbing, etc.). These photos were eventually compiled into a book that was passed on to the owner of the building when construction was finished.

The clearest parallel to this type of documentation in the web world is documenting and commenting of code. Code should be written and documented in a style that intends an audience other than yourself. Other seemingly trivial examples can be a life-saver for long-term maintenance, such as keeping original photo and vector art files or documenting and storing any fonts used in the project.

Use Local Materials

Brand also suggests that designers and builders use, as much as possible, local materials. Wood and masonry from the locale of the building site is far more likely to be available down the road when needed for repairs and replacement. While exotic masonry or roofing tiles may be an enticing conversation piece, it will turn into a maintenance nightmare when they start to crumble and the next owner of the building is unable to find suitable repair and replacement materials.

As there isn’t really such a thing as ‘local materials’ when it comes to web development, we must abstract the advice: Use materials that will be easy to maintain and build upon in the long run. While much has been said of the long term benefits of standards compliant XHTML on the front end of web development, little has been said of the long term effects of the back-end structure and choice of development platforms. If your site happens to be a collection of static pages, then strict XHTML compliance and careful structuring of code will help ensure long-term access to the content. However, many sites are more like an iceberg, with the generated HTML showing only a hint of of the server-side programming that lies beneath the surface.

Gregory Bateson

In an extreme but brilliant example of ensuring ample maintenance supplies for future generations, Brand tells of a story by anthropologist / philosopher Gregory Bateson [sic]:

New College, Oxford, is of rather late foundations, hence the name. It was founded around the late 14th century. It has, like other colleges, a great dining hall with big oak beams across the top, yes? These might be two feet square, forty-five feet long.

A century ago, so I am told, some busy entomologist, went up into the root of the dining hall with a penknife and poked at the beams and found that they were full of beetles. This was reported to the College Council, who met in some dismay, because where would they get beams of that calibre nowadays?

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be on College lands some oak. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country. So they called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked him about oaks.

And he pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further enquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dinning hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for five hundred years. “Your don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

A nice story. That’s the way to run a culture.

Excerpt from Stuart Brand’s How Buildings Learn.

The true architect builds with a clear understanding of the limitations of his current vantage point, before a building exists, rather then blindly ignoring them. When building your next web project, be sure to plant oaks for the next developer.

Embracing the Low Road

Building well architected systems with well thought-out directory and file naming schemes and well commented code is all well and good when you have the time and resources. However, what about that little side-project that you don’t really have time to do anyhow? You’re not getting paid much for it, and you don’t have time to do as good a job as you would like.

That’s fine, as long as you keep a few simple things in mind. The method of building and designing that Stuart Brand argues we need is not one of big budgets and over-planning. On the contrary, Brand embraces simplicity, common sense, and frugality in what he calls the low road.

“A young couple moves into an old farmhouse or old barn, lit up with adventure. An entrepreneur opens shop in an echoing warehouse, an artist takes over a drafty loft in the bad part of town, and they feel joy at the prospect. They can’t wait to have at the space and put it immediately to work. What these buildings have in common is that they are shabby and spacious. Any change is likely to be an improvement. They are discarded buildings, fairly free of concern from landlord or authorities: “Do what you want. The place can’t get much worse anyway. It’s just too much trouble to tear down.”

Low Road buildings are low-visibility, low-rent, no-style, high-turnover. Most of the world’s work is done in Low road buildings, and even in rich societies the most inventive creativity, especially youthful creativity, will be found in Low Road buildings taking full advantage of the license to try things”

Excerpt from Stuart Brand’s How Buildings Learn.

Your quick and dirty little side project is not intended to be a monument for the ages. You’re not building the pyramids here – you’re just trying to get something done on time and on budget (if there even is a budget). Brand’s low road of building and architecture is all about quick and dirty solutions. The redeeming feature is that it be quick and dirty enough that you can tear down or dramatically renovate without anyone missing the original.

The second key to building on the quick and dirty low road is to remember that even if you don’t intend something to be used for very long, if may well be.

Temporary is Permanent

Architecture is full of examples of hastily built buildings intended for a temporary use living long and fruitful lives well beyond the scope envisioned by their original builders. This phenomenon is sure to be familiar to most web developers; that web site for the university department that you built in an afternoon in 1998 is still up; that sloppy web-based application system you doubted would even work then somehow went on to handle loads of traffic.

We’ve all had projects like these. The next time you go to build something “quick and dirty” or do an ugly hack on an existing system, remind yourself that this code will probably live on far longer than you may intend.

These are only a few of the parallels between Brand’s great work, How Buildings Learn, that can be applied to web development. The book is full of other anecdotes and examples that can help any web designer or developer.


13 thoughts on “How Websites Learn

  1. I’ve always thought of Wikis as the Web equivalent of Brand’s “low-road” architecture. They’re not pretty, but they’re 100% utilitarian. Everything you do to them is an improvement, and you (well, anyone) can refactor them as easily as cutting and pasting.

    (Well, plus the kind of just-the-facts-maam style sites that use nothing but hn, p, and a.)

    For those who haven’t read the book, the other categories Brand uses are “High road” (think New York Public Library or Taj Mahal), “No road” (e.g. the suburban boxes built to house Best Buys, but not to last more than 20 years), and the “magazine architecture” you talked about (e.g. everything by Calatrava and Gehry).

    I think the Web equivalent of “magazine architecture” is clear (a Web site designed designed to be seen and not used, probably in Flash). But what is there such a thing as “high road” Web architecture? Is it meaningful in this medium to talk about a building that’s both a machine serving its occupants (as library, home, etc.) and a monument and/or work of art?

  2. I forgot to say… I think the Web equivalent of “no-road” architecture is sites like the big studios create for their movies. Most of the time, they have no point and no content… nothing worthwhile beyond the release date and maybe a wallpaper. And after the movie comes out they’ll never be worked on again. Like the suburban buildings Brand talks about, they’re utterly generic and without craft.

  3. I’ve developed similar ideas, based around Brand’s work and IBM’s Tom Moran – his idea of adaptive design uses Brand as one of its inspirations – check my presentation here – – and my notes on Moran and Brand here – – I’d be interested in anyone’s thoughts here. And we’re talking about this kind of stuff more at the DIS2004 conference, under a panel headed ‘Design for Hackability’ … hth, D.

  4. Matt – I like your point about wikis as low-road design on the web. I do think there is high road design on the web – elegant sites with carefully architected back and front ends perhaps?

    Great presentation Dan – thanks for the link.

  5. Great article, Steve! I particularly enjoyed it since I’m an Architect by education and a Web Designer by trade. You linked both worlds remarkably.

  6. An outstanding article on what looks to be an outstanding book.

    I like the way that you draw parallels between building design and web design. Your analogies hit home in these areas.

    When I put my blog up, I didn’t spend more time that I had to on the design because I wanted to be able to start generating content. I had already read too many articles and seen too many comments about sites that were nice to look at, but have no substance. I may work on the design a bit in the future, but I will not do so at the expense of decent postings.

    Again, a good article. I enjoyed reading it.

  7. John, I’m in the middle of A Pattern Language right now, but I haven’t read Nature of Order. I’ll add it to my list to read – thanks.

  8. I think the idea of a “high road” best
    maps to the framework you are using:
    j2ee containers and the xml/xslt-only
    based frameworks sprint to mind.

    Low road: well, PHP or perhaps an embedded
    perl templating system.

    The most useful thing in Brand’s book to
    me is the idea of shearing layers: so
    I look at something like MVC based
    frameworks in terms of shearing: will a
    templating system (for the view) be
    powerful enough to let me easily modify
    presentation? Down at the lowest shearing
    layer (the foundation) I count things like
    the persistence layer (you’ll never be able
    to rearchitect the entity-relation model
    in an rdbms).

  9. You’re piece got me thinking about the lack of permanence for anything web based. Why does that have to be the case? Among the reasons is the need for constant maintenance.

    How could a web based application be engineered to be forgotten and still survive the ensuing years? What would it be doing and where would it be? Its expanded upon here. Baby book | Active Time Capsule

  10. I’m halfway through How Buildings Learn (thanks to your post and the amazing Indianapolis library system) and I’m seeing a lot of similarities between Alexander and Brand. Both have an innate dislike of modernist architecture, for valid but very different reasons. Both like “old” buildings, Brand for their functionality and Alexander for what I would call “center-ness.” If you enjoyed Brand, I believe you’ll enjoy Alexander. It’s basically the same ideas, but perhaps more ethereal and philosophical. You may want to get it from your local book-p2p (that is, the library) because I couldn’t find it cheaper than $70.

  11. This article is excellent! I love the parallels drawn here between Brands’ architecture and web development, and the conclusions of non-permanence.

    I think back on the late ’80s, where Gates provided the windows code for free to software developers, which essentially blew Apple off the face of the planet.

    Why? Because, the code changed, the software proceeded to change, and yet Apple, forever in love with its Macintosh, took the road of “permanence”, which resulted ultimately in Job’ demise (arguably, at least for the late ’80s.)

    I think in terms of now, and movement towards “open source” for software development, and I draw the same conclusions to that, as Brand does to architecture.

    Open Source software is a perfect example of how the internet can be comprised of products that are completely non-permanent and embracing change, absolutely “low road” and aquired through “local materials”, and wholly owned by everyone.

    Furthermore, a truly democratic system of software development, Open Source technology gains popularity, over its competitors, only because it is superior in quality. In other words, if 3 developers take an example of Open Source code, and each of them develops their own products with their own sets of solutions and creative ingenuity, in the end, only one of them will be downloaded the most…

    So, Open Source follows in the spirit of the internets growing vibrant culture and history. It promises a framework, or architecture, by which its structures can continue to develop and change, as needs change, and as new ideas and solutions can be added on to it.

    In any event, grabbing a copy of “How Buildings Learn” is absolutely on my things to do list today. I’ll be curious to see if the book further supports my theory on embracing change, success in non-permanence on the web, and Open Source code.

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