I've been reading a bunch of books on architecture lately, both out of general interest and necessity as we work on a major remodel of our home, and this weekend I finally dug into How Buildings Learn by Steward Brand. It's definitely the best book on architecture I've read since I dove into A Pattern Language nearly twenty years ago. (On the subject of A Pattern Language, Stewart charmingly refers to Christoper Alexander as "Chris Alexander" and relays "the following mini-lecture [...] pieced together from a conversation we had one afternoon in his backyard.") How Buildings Learn is not your typical architecture book, and that's good thing. As Brand puts it, it's designed to help us "learn how to learn" about buildings, examining the big picture and how the problems and solutions are linked together. It reminds me of Doug Engelbart's Type C activities: "improving our ability to improve."
One might fear that this focus on the meta would leave the book dry and abstract. Far from it. Brand does an excellent job grounding the book in specific examples while drawing out lessons that have broad applicability. His tone is direct and witty, while carrying the weight of wisdom.
If you're at all interested, I'd recommend skimming this brief summary of the book by Derek Sivers. It's no substitute for actually reading the book, but it makes a remarkable appetizer to the main meal. Sivers crystallizes the key ideas and takeaways. I sent the summary to my wife a few weeks ago. This weekend, as I read some passages to her from the actual book, she said "It's funny, but I feel as if I've read this before, like I already know what you're going to say before you finish."
How could a summary of only a few pages effectively distill a 300+ page book? I think there are couple of things going on here. First, we are both fairly familiar with some of the source material that Brand is drawing from: Christopher Alexander, Ivan Illich, Long Now thinking, learning theory. That familiarity means that a simple statement like "almost no buildings adapt well, but all buildings adapt anyway" expands into a whole set of concepts and associations in our minds. Second, Brand's sentences that Sivers captures have the flavor of a good title in Andy Matuschak's evergreen note-taking: they are a complete statement making a strong claim. Finally, our memory and understanding work better when engaging with a work in bite-sized increments over a long period of time. Reading a summary first and then reading sections of the book over a few weeks, returning to re-read the summary, has a similar effect as a spaced repetition system. Piotr Wozniak, well-known advocate of spaced repetition and author of SuperMemo, describes a system called Incremental Reading that relies on similar approaches.
If you'd prefer to watch rather than reading a book, Brand worked with BBC to produce a miniseries documentary based on How Buildings Learn. Parts 1 through 6 are available on YouTube.
My wife and I have been working on a house remodel in fits and starts for about four years now. As our family has grown, the need has become more acute. We had a breakthrough recently that has unlocked a lot of positive momentum: we discovered the Tudor Revival. Tudor Revival homes were common in America from 1900-1940. It's estimated that more than 1 in 4 homes built during that period were Tudor Revivals, including the region where we live. There are a half dozen or so examples within walking distance of our home.
Tudor Revival has been a breakthrough for us because it's a complete "pattern language" that we can draw upon that fits the constraints of our existing home that we are remodeling, is well-adapted to our region, and we actually enjoy the style.
So what are the main elements of a Tudor Revival? Tudors feature high-pitched gable roofs, usually with a front facing dormer. They often have detail work called half-timbering on the upper floors, with stone and brick on the bottom floor. Doorways often make use of arches, including the eponymous Tudor Arch.
Also, this funky sloped roof is called a catslide roof. How cool is that?
Here's our current house:
And here's how it might look as a Tudor Revival:
I built the above model in a tool called Cedreo, which is an admirable blend of a floor-planning tool and a 3D modeling tool, adapted for use on residential homes.
Gordon Brander launched the first alpha release of Subconscious, his take on a "tool for thinking." Long-time readers of Gordon's Substack will know that "his take" is quite different from the floor for note-taking apps. His initial release features a search-or-create popularized years ago in Notational Velocity. I'm most interested in his next major release: Geists. Geists are a form of generative creativity, almost like little bots that live in your note-taking tool offering creative prompts and asking generative questions. I'm very interested in workflows that lean towards a conversational model of note-taking.
Ian Kettlewell released an innocuous little 3D design tool called Bloom3D. If you enjoyed the simplicity that was early SketchUp, this is SketchUp pared back to the absolute basics. It has flavors of TLDraw and Excalidraw in its minimalism, focus, and immediacy. I'm excited to see how Ian walks the line between simplicity and expressivity. It may seem the 3D modeling space has fully explored the possibilities for novel interfaces, but I continue to think there is more to discover.