April 2012

Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn is one of my favourite books, maybe one of the half dozen non-fiction works I would take to a desert island. It’s a book about buildings, and specifically how buildings are modified and adapted over time, but the theoretical ideas on which it’s grounded can be applied to any type of system.

The argument is illustrated by sequences of photographs, and these are the greatest asset of the book. Brand has trawled the archives for sequences of photographs of the same building or street scene taken at different times. The cover features two Greek Revival townhouses on St. Charles Street in New Orleans; identical in a auctioneers drawing made in 1857, quite different in a 1993 photograph after various modifications to add storeys, extensions, balconies, windows and entrances.


Amy Chua’s memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother attracted plenty of critical response when it was published last year. The excerpts in the Wall Street Journal suggested it was a guide to parenting which praised the superiority of the ‘Chinese’ method. But this is misleading. Chua tells us she started to write the book in summer of 2009 when the family returned from Moscow, where, during a break in a café in Red Square, she finally admitted defeat over her parenting methods, at least in the case of her younger daughter Lulu, and allowed her to make her own choices about where to focus her efforts and her own choices about how much dedication and intensity to invest. The presentation of herself as an extreme ‘Chinese’ mother is delivered dead-pan, which makes it very funny.

The Wall Street Journal knew what it was doing when it printed extracts from the earlier chapters, because there can be fewer more contentious activities than bringing up the next generation. The polarities of ‘Chinese’ parenting and ‘Western’ parenting can stand in for most of the conflicts between strict and liberal and traditional and modern. I think there are at least four objectives involved in bringing up children: transmitting culture; preparing for life, developing an individual and protecting the experience of childhood.