A History of Me

If I were a rock star now, as I was planning when I was 18 and writing a song every week, I would be fabricating a rather different history of me than the one I will now. My Dr. Behooving bio calls for reflection upon events relevant to my interest these days in buildings and bikes.

In truth, designing and writing about buildings, and bicycle racing, are the only things for which I’ve ever been recognized—not counting the painting I did in high school that was hung in The National Gallery. As for rock stardom, and writing novels, I remain someone who tried hard, but failed.

1993 was the year I graduated with first class honours from architecture school, and in my first season of racing became the club champion of Kooragang Cycling Club. It was a club still issuing what were called "pro licenses"; you could call it a scrap heap for burnt out pros returning from Europe, as quite a few of the club members were. And as far as these 40, 50 and 70 years olds were concerned, their new club champion was naturally bound for Montpelier, where folks would be told in advance of my coming. Sure, it would be a labouring job, and my mentors in this folly had made me aware that I would be doped, but it also presented itself as a legitimate means via which a young man might way out the recession that was still leaving architects unemployed. My pompous tone with this blog, is only to mask a very rough upbringing, of the kind that breeds soldiers of fortune.

In the nick of time though, I learned of surer cash awaiting in Singapore, where it seemed all the world’s cranes and architects were flocking to serve a booming tiger economy. Phew, no need to ride bikes for a living! I spent ’93-’95 designing a huge park and 4 blocks of flats, up to 24 stories. Plus I was supervising the construction of 3 other contracts, totalling 1450 more flats, mostly all towers.

It was amidst this insanity, that I went along to the National University of Singapore (NUS), to attend a lecture by Jan Gehl. His message reminded me of lectures a professor of mine, a modest but great Cambridge scholar, had given about urban design, and the folly of the tower blocks Singapore’s government was paying me so well to design. Gehl also spoke quite a bit about citizen cycling. 

After hearing Gehl speak, I went back to the office and started designing secret, alternative schemes, for each of the tower block contracts assigned to me to design.  I saw for myself what Gehl, and people like Lionel March had been saying, that the magical 3.6:1 plot ratios we had to achieve in Singapore, did not require towers. They could actually be achieved with dense 5 and 6 storey development, that would allow for greater cohesion between where people lived, and the public realm at street level. I showed such a scheme to our chief architect (CA, as he was affectionately known), who crushed my 1:1000 polystyrene model the moment he saw it (thanks CA, that was real cute). I guess all he could see were Singapore’s race riots of the 60s, and how streets and lanes favour gorillas. Better to keep them in towers, his generation still thought.

But this Jan Gehl/Jane Jacobs disciple could not abide. I returned to Australia and secured an Australian Post Graduate award, to research the integration of cycling into dense  cities, like Singapore. Within a month though, my supervisor—who I guess couldn’t see himself in such a practical topic—had talked me into extending an earlier honors thesis of mine, about a famous architect, Louis Kahn, and his Neoplatonic theoretical guff.

The intervening 15 years spent researching and teaching the history and theory of architecture, seems in some ways regrettable. But on the other hand, without this diversion, what would I have to say that people like Jan Gehl haven’t said anyway? My voice would just be part of a chorus moaning that all the world’s streets don’t look like this one:

I guess if Jan were still at NUS, bailed up for 15 years by lectern rushers,  I would walk down as well and tell him I’ve been away studying another angle from which the problem might be approached, how architects can latch onto something like bike love, and use it to sell their buildings to a bike loving society, the way Louis Kahn sold his buildings to a society which at the time loved transcendent philosophy.

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