Bicycle Architecture Biennale

It might have been the shortest lived biennale since the word was first used and will not turn out to have been a “biennale” at all if it is not repeated in 2019. Nevertheless the Bicycle Architecture Biennale (official site here) was a swanky event, funded by the city of Amsterdam and shown to 800+ delegates of VeloCity 2017 during their half day excursion to Amsterdam. It gave ArchDaily their most visited story in June and provided a fitting occasion to launch my latest book, Velotopia.

For the benefit of those who could not be there, here is the brief essay I wrote to explain the event, my explanation of the projects that were included, and a few pictures that were taken on the night. And yes, we can talk if you’re interested in giving the show and the text a new airing.

 

 

Essay

Urban mobility, with its various modes, is an invisible hand shaping buildings and cities. Consider how, before machines of transportation arose, housing in cities was closely packed sideways and slung very near to the ground. The evolution of building types had been in deference to the deficiencies of walking through cities, and walking up stairs, for thousands of years.

Train transportation was behind the first wave of invention of new building types, for example the tall office building. The tallest in New York were constructed near Grand Central Station and the cluster of stations at the Southern tip of Manhattan.

Architects were imagining how cars would change buildings as early as the mid nineteen twenties. They imagined buildings would become taller and be on much smaller footprints to allow greater circulation of cars on the ground plane. They imagined all of us having freestanding houses raised up so cars could park under. Their prototypical buildings, as well as drawings of buildings that were never built, turned the public from resenting the car, to wanting the car for the buildings it offered.

Protected paths to help cyclists are the first major change to our streets since traffic signals were installed to help cars. It should not be a surprise, therefore, to see new building types, catalyzed by the new interest in cycling, entering the architectural canon right now. The bike path is the pipe work of the new bicycle city. The buildings each end are the dams and the taps.

The world’s first ever exhibition of buildings catalyzed by bike transport is an invitation to question the condition of the dams and the taps in your cities. By “dams” we mean high density housing. It is where flow on the bike paths begin. Do the dams of your city protect the public’s bike fleet from vandals and thieves? Do they let bicycles flow from home quickly or complicate lives with tiny lifts, tight corners and stairs?

And what about your city’s taps? Are office blocks, shopping centers and gathering places attractants of bike trips, or do people think of the problems they will encounter if they go there by bike, then change their mind about riding?

Over and above these sorts of practical questions are questions concerning aesthetics. One of the most influential architectural critics of the mid twentieth-century, Nicholas Pevsner, famously referred to the bike shed as an example of what architecture is not.

A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.

That’s right, the bicycle shed was the most perfunctory building type he could think of. The works selected for the 2017 Architecture Biennale would leave Pevsner in need of some other example. Indeed, in and era when the bicycle exemplifies the lack of encumbrance that defines a healthy and sustainable lifestyle, many architects would welcome a commission that pointed to a future of cycling, over a commission to build naves and steeples that merely pointed to heaven.

Dr. Steven Fleming, curator, 2017 Bicycle Architecture Biennale.

Projects

Dafne Schippers Bridge: a century ago when architects thought cars were the future, they imagined novel ways of using the roofs of buildings as roads and approach ramps to bridges. Imagine how many more cars we would have choking cities had their visions been realised! This bridge, that incorporates a new school as an approach ramp, shows the architectural imagination being used more productively, in a way that brings people to the city on bikes.
West Village Basis Yard: Often when architects use aerial streets to reduce the reliance on lifts (that are very expensive to build and maintain) the result is an apartment building that people choose to circulate using bikes. This is the third major building (after Park Hill in Sheffield and the 8-House in Copenhagen) where aerial streets slope to the ground, letting cyclists ride from their homes to the city as though they just lived on a hillside.
Velotopia: my own latest book Velotopia, I have has tried to imagine what cities would look like today if the past century had been all about bikes and not cars. By now we would have spiralling buildings, roofs over our streets and a ground plane that helps cyclists speed up and slow down without pedalling harder or using their brakes.
Giant Headquarter Building. From the outside it looks as though you can spiral all the way to the top floor on a continuous bike ramp. In reality the bike ramp only extends to the bicycle display room on the first floor. Still, the promise is there of a future when we can leave work without using the lifts, where bike ramps reduce heat load on the outside of buildings, and where doors are designed to ride through without stopping.
Bike Apple. It’s a spiralling bike parking station. It’s also an apple. It is from a time when architects and clients were just waking up to the bike shed as a permanent thing. In previous decades bicycle parking facilities always had a temporary feel, as though they were an interim measure while cities were waiting for cyclists to find enough money to drive.
Oslo Solar: Soon Oslo could have a car free city centre and will have spent two billion Euro on a bike network. With that plan comes a move to stop building car parking, and build bicycle parking instead. Oslo Solar is the first of a wave of new buildings in Oslo that will welcome cyclists with the main entry, not only to park, but to ride through the building.
Hotel Cycle. Ride your touring bike to the front desk and check in without getting out of the saddle. Take the lift of use the stair track to take your bike to your hotel room. Hang your bike on the wall or just relax knowing the floor and wall surfaces were built in anticipation of your bike going with you as though it were your shoes. Bike parking problems will be as common as shoe parking problems when all buildings are designed for bikes to stay with us.
SkyCycle. If something like this were proposed for car drivers, cyclists would complain that those drivers would spill onto the street around exits and fill the city with cars. Propose if for cyclists though, and cyclists complain that they’re being relegated to useless space. Take another look at SkyCycle. It was to be funded by new real estate ventures, built by and for cyclists, and would have done what all viaducts do: spew what they carry back onto the street.
Chogming Bicycle Park. With this double helical bicycle museum designed to circulate on your bike, JDS Architects show they’re a firm that keep coming back to the bike, in various ways. Other forays include a bike they have designed and an adrenaline packed active transport network using building tops and airspace in lower Manhattan.
Bicycle Club, Hainan. For those of us who have always thought that a velodrome looks like the roof of a pagoda, here is the building that needed proposing. The idea is so elegant, and inspiring, it is surprising it has not been built somewhere.
Medibank Melbourne: Aside from our mothers, no one is more concerned about us all staying healthy than our health insurance providers. Medibank Australia wants us all cycling to work, to the point where they have built a bike track in the atrium of their newest building in Melbourne. It leads cyclists, on their bikes, straight to the secure bicycle parking two levels up from their entry.
London Cloud: In 1937 Eugène Freyssinet designed something just like it for the Paris World’s Fair, only back then (in the age of the car) the double helix was meant to drive up and drive down in a car. In the age of bike transport the kind of motion architects want to celebrate with their towers is healthy, green and pedal powered.
Bicycle Pavilion on Belle Isle. After more than a hundred years, it is still the grandest edifice built especially for cyclists, and to encourage bike trips, and of all places it is in Detroit.

Photos from the night

2 Comments

  1. troy says:

    Dr B. I like the dams and taps analogy, I think because it concocts the image of a generous flow of people riding down city streets, and we can design the plumbing to let it flow freely (putting a few pipes together is conceptually easier than changing a street for cycling). I’m going to try this out on council.

    • Steven says:

      Well, let me know how it flies. The pipework analogy has been kicking around for quite a while, I believe.

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