Long-Lived Architecture

I love it when live becomes somewhat self-referential, or when life imitates art that is imitating life. Yesterday morning I spoke at EUNIS 2006, an annual conference of European universities that looks at technology issues in education and research. The event was held at the University of Tartu, Estonia.

The University of Tartu was established by King Gustavus of Sweden, however, its campus buildings date back to the 13th century. We held our partner talk in the University Art Museum, formerly the cathedral building, which was completed in the 16th century. The cathedral was damaged during various wars, and fell into disrepair after fires in the late 16th century. One of the university staff lamented that during the decades in which Estonia was part of the Russian confederacy, most funds for reconstruction were devoted to military spending, and only recently has repair of these wonderful buildings begun again.

The cathedral is a great work of engineering. Despite the destruction of buttresses and outside arches in the last few centuries, the walls didn't collapse under their own weight, or collapse inward into the building itself. The building was built for the long haul, to give a place for a community that would long outlive the original builders. During my talk, I made my usual references to the street "architecture" of Boston, drawn from my reading of Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn. Boston's street layout is accidental architecture overlaid with asphalt and then made permanent by buildings and other infrastructure. My key point is that if you allow messy architecture to become permanent, whatever you build on top attains a rigidity that makes incremental change difficult. You need to be able to change the components in the architecture, down to the level of those arches and supporting walls.

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Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management

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