Stewart Brand changed the world, and the New York Times is on it

Stewart Brand
CC BY 2.0 Stewart Brand at TED/ via Wikipedia

But they don't even mention what many consider to be his greatest accomplishment.

David Brooks is a conservative commentator in the New York Times and many people, mostly liberals, complain that he gets things wrong a lot. Slate once asked asked, "What did we all do in our past lives to deserve David Brooks?" A lot of people probably think that Brooks got it wrong again with his piece about Stewart Brand, titled The Man Who Changed the World, Twice. They might say that he changed the world, at least three times.

Brooks' list includes The Whole Earth Catalog, which he calls "a bible for what would come to be known as the counterculture, full of reading lists and rich with the ideas of Buckminster Fuller and others." It certainly was that, but is not particularly relevant today. Similarly, The Well was a pioneering online platform that connected techies. "Brand meshed the engineers with the Merry Pranksters and helped give tech a moral ethos, a group identity, a sense of itself as a transformational force for good."

Shearing layers© How Buildings Learn/ Stewart Brand

But there are many who would say that his most important work was in his book, How Buildings Learn. He looks at the lifecycle of buildings and breaks it into "shearing layers" that age at different rates -- Site, Structure, Skin, Services, and Stuff.

ceiling installation© Fine HomeBuilding

Builders like Tedd Benson learned from his ideas about how buildings change and evolve, and separates the components of his homes so that they are accessible and upgradable.

wall displayLloyd Alter/ open building electric wiring/CC BY 2.0

I noted after a recent tour that "in a Bensonwood house, you can pull off the baseboard to get at the wiring and then you can pull it down from the electrical box through the conduit. I suspect that in the next ten years we will be converting to direct current and a lot of people will be wishing they could do this."

Another great notion of Brand's is the idea of High Road and Low Road buildings:

A Low Road building needs only to be roomy and cheap. Structurally it should be robust enough to take the major changes in use it will attract. Finish can be minimal and ornament modest or absent entirely. Initial Services can be rudimentary. Design it primarily for storage and it will soon attract creative human occupants.

T5© Michael Green Architecture

Right now we are seeing more buildings being designed like low road buildings, with the movement to wood construction where developers are building old-style warehouses with new wood, we are seeing a return to exposed, accessible services. These are flexible, adaptable buildings that could do anything for anyone, and are what everyone should be thinking about.

How Buildings Learn cover© How Buildings Learn

The Whole Earth Catalog and the Well are important history. I am of the age that the Catalog was like the bible to me. But the lessons from How Buildings Learn might well resonate for generations to come. David Brooks should read it and correct his title.

You can watch the TV series Brand developed from the book on TreeHugger here.

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