I graduated from architecture school during a recession, that I dodged temporarily by working in Singapore. Even so, I struggled to find work that met my aspirations when I was a student. That’s why I did a doctorate and became an academic—no regrets so far.
With the economic times as they are, I know there would be many young architects in a similar position to the one I found myself in, in the nineties. There could even be someone who responds to this call. I’m looking for likeminded people to join me, initially as PhD candidates, in continuing the work I have started with my book Cycle Space.
Our niche role in the current bicycling renaissance will be to tell histories of architecture and urban design that frame urban cycling in ways that speak directly to design disciplines. Thus far the story of cycle-tracks, bike sharing schemes, and mandated bike parking coming to cities like Paris, New York, London, and Sydney has been told as one of car-focused cities wanting some of the public health outcomes and urban mobility enjoyed by Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where 40% of trips are by bike. What is not being said, is that the revival of interest in cycling also has ramifications for architectural and urban design theory. Others would say such theory is pointless. We know it separates us from the animals.
Whenever new transport modes have excited avant-garde thinkers—the way cycling is now—new theories of architecture, spatial cognition, aesthetics, and city planning have followed. Consider how, in the wake of the Futurist Manifesto of 1909, that extolled the potency of the car, the architectural world produced: buildings deformed to greet traffic such as the Bauhaus in Dessau; the photographic trope of the architect’s car in front of his building;
…theories like Sigfried Giedion’s in 1941 that defining the zeitgeist in terms of car motion; cities conceived for the car like le Plan Voisin; theoretical treatises including Corb’s Toward an Architecture that aestheticized cars, or The View from the Road from 1964, that aestheticized the car drivers’ POV; not to mention designs for actual cars like Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion car.
With the exception of the 1964 book—that is ironic in tone—all these outputs predate every national freeway project (bar Germany’s Autobahn), and also predate the post-war advent of mass private car ownership. Car-focused architectural solutions and theories were not borne of car dependence, but were precipitous of it.
The shortcomings of mechanised transport led to calls by avant-gardists like Guy Debord in France and Jane Jacobs in the US, for cities that prioritised walking. Revived interest in walking inspired theories like Gordon Cullen‘s that aestheticized the pedestrian’s experience of medieval walled cities; the New Urbanism movement; consultancies such as Jan Gehl’s who turn roads into piazzas; and broad announcements by scholars, for example Anthony Vidler’s argument that architecture now takes its authority from the European old town, and not the machine or the primitive hut.
I argue in Cycle Space that interest in cycling is rising in response to some shortcomings of walking. One is that walkable cities depend on unedifying bus and train trips. Another is that redeveloped industrial sites are of a scale that is boring for walking, while their attractions unfold at a less tedious rate for people on bikes. The publication of Cycle Space is not an isolated moment, but part of a wave of projects and events that have brought together leading architects, architectural institutes, and politicians to address urban cycling as a problem for architects. This makes sense, given the fate of cycling no longer rests solely with traffic engineers. What we are seeing in countries that are just coming out of a bicycling “dark age” is that sites over which traffic engineers have little volition—large brownfields and the rail routes and waterways that connect them—are where urban cycling is most prolific. Former industrial tracts are where a city’s cycling gets started; re-engineered streets just connect that last mile.
A weighty agenda, with ramifications for urban mobility, global warming and public health, has been placed on architects’ plates, occasioning a moment for us to absorb urban cycling into our traditions. We need to revisit our histories of ideas, with the cycling agenda in mind. Which raises the question: what new understandings of architecture might this process yield, that are of value during a cycling renaissance?
I have a page of thoughts prepared as an answer, if you care to inquire and discuss further.