Thursday, October 14, 2004

Adaptation and Adaptability

Adam Brown from John McAslan and Partners gave a talk recently about his restoration/renovation work with Swiss Cottage Library. Dan Hill has some notes on his blog.

Interesting aside on how difficult it is to work with modernist buildings given their focus on functionality - if the function changes over time, the building can resist change. With the library, Brown kept alluding to how difficult it was to work with certain layers, given the amount of change required (not just in contemporary services etc, but in building in the modern notion of what a library is (internet access, coffee shops, DVD lending - as well as books).

This leads to a discussion about the adaptability of a modernist architecture.

1. Basil Spence is undoubtedly a great architect in many ways, and the Swiss Cottage Library remains beautiful, even if its functionality is now somewhat dated.

2. Functionalism involves a high degree of adaptation (to a given conception of function/functionality).

3. Adaptation conflicts with adaptability. The more you optimize to the present, the more you close off alternative futures.

4. Great buildings should be able to accommodate change, age gracefully. Perhaps one of the errors of modernism was to imagine that change would no longer be necessary.


The modernist attitude is widespread in software engineering. Model-driven architecture represents a type of modernism: form should follow function.

Stewart Brand's book on How Buildings Learn contains the notion of Shearing Layers - functional layers that have a different natural rate of change. A flexible structure allows each layer to be changed independently. But where the layers are too tightly coupled, the differential rates of change tear the structure apart.

how buildings learn

The Shearing Layers concept is highly relevant to SOA.


Update: Stewart Brand has now introduced the term pace layering for the principle that stratification should be based on the differential rate of change. The term "shearing layers" refers to what happens when this principle is not followed.

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