Cyclespace and Its Architecture

This is another essay being drafted live on the blog, with the view to publishing it as a paper or book chapter, a few weeks/months from now. Though I’m borrowing from previous essays drafted first on the blog, here the emphasis is on a spacial paradigm Newcastle readers would know from places like Honeysuckle, that I am trying to have dubbed as "cyclespace".

Cyclespace

You know you’re in cyclespace when you wish you were riding a bicycle—unless of course you happen to be riding one now. If you are riding a bike you feel happy, empowered, in cyclespace. That is because cars are either banned or frustrated in cyclespace, and walking is too slow for the bleak spread out vastness of this space you find yourself in. 

Any time you are walking, and wish your feet came with wheels, chances are you are walking in what I call cyclespace. 

Much of the world’s cyclespace spent the century just past as industrial land. And when the industrialists had no further use for it, they dumped that land onto governments who, being keen for cheap votes, just rolled out some turf, whacked up some structures they could pass off as art, and laid a few paths down. "There, green space," they told their voters, who thought green space was the magic elixir.

Which is not to say all cyclespace was formerly docklands, carriage yards, abattoirs, skip lines, etcetera. Well established parks sometimes can qualify, as can some malls, or even roads where bicycles dominate. Distinguishing cyclespace from car space, or pedestrian space, can be rather like picking art from pornography: you just know when you see it. Describing it to a non cyclist, while not impossible, is like describing a person’s sex appeal to someone not of your own sexual persuasion. But one definition generally sticks. Cyclespace is any space in which cycling is preferable to walking or driving. In that sense, the more one enjoys cycling, the more of the world’s space will be cyclespace, according to them.


Places where I feel I’m in cyclespace, in my city, Newcastle

Authorities and planners do everything in their power to make cyclespace into pedestrian space, but public demand for all of this green has meant they’re working with too broad a canvas, with too little paint. Cyclists spot a safe route and take it. Pedestrians say it’s the cyclists’ fault they don’t want to walk these vast tracts. Signs are erected: "Give way to pedestrians", or, "Cyclists dismount". But King Canute’s signs can’t stop the tide. The generation who believed in the car are dying off now, and are being replaced by a generation whose ethos is health. The young want to cycle, and ask, "What is a pedestrian anyway, if not a driver let out for air? And what is a planner or city official, if not an old driver near the end of his life?"

The turf wars are bitter, each party seeing their rivals as affronts to their lifestyle.The drivers live at the far ends of roads that have become increasingly congested and sorry to drive on. The cyclists bought small houses built a century ago for those who worked in industrial areas; areas that have since become cyclespace. And as the missing teeth in the cyclespace smile is being filled in, one stretch at a time, and the network of cyclespace becomes as continuous as the network of industrial land from whence it was born, those old worker’s cottages keep rising in value.

As I cyclist, I’m not bemoaning the enervating effect these new recreational areas have on pedestrians. I certainly don’t care that large new tracts of land are not being made into roads. What I’m seeing, is a new spatial paradigm, one that is taken in more fleetingly than the pedestrian space that traditional urbanists love, yet more carefully than space designed to be read from a car. Sure, this new space is made on the cheap, by people who didn’t know what they were creating, and it is often twee, paternalistic, vacuous and contrived, yet despite all this, cyclespace in brilliant for getting around with a bicycle. It wasn’t made for us —"us" meaning cyclists—it just fell in our laps.

With no time to adjust to the consequences, cyclists have gone from being a placeless minority, to rulers of a previously unimaginable, and valuable, transportation network. Now they have power, cyclists will learn not to aid researchers representing former hegemonies. For example, researchers with the aim of encouraging cycling to free up road space for cars, we be told to fuck off. Generalisations that could be made about us, before we had power, we be met with our scorn. For example, anyone who would perpetuate the fallacy that all cyclists are greenies, because some cyclists are, will be called some derogatory name: "hybrid driving hypocritical chauvinist" has a nice ring. Likewise, unfit health professionals with clipboards, expecting cyclists to lessen the burden on hospitals by keeping fit, will be told they’re owed nothing from us.

We will keep hold of this power, the way all empires do, by marking our land architecturally.

Cyclespace Architecture

Cyclespace calls for architecture inspired by the bicycle, the way buildings of the era just gone were inspired by the car. That era started with architects bringing cars right into the building, and compensating for these machines’ lack of agility with curved routes and ramps. They dreamed for a while of buildings being made by assembly-line logic. Come the post war era, architects were designing homes to make anyone not equipped with a car with which to drive right up to the door, feel as though they were lame. Not owning a car meant exclusion from the good life, as the good life was defined architecturally. Seen another way, architecture was being used to claim cities as car space.   

The architecture of cyclespace speaks to us with an alternative message. It says the good life calls us all to own bikes. The first group of buildings I’ll hold up as examples are those of Millennium Park in Chicago. The park is built on the site of a former train carriage yard, and thus lacks the intimate, "outdoor room" scale that someone like Jane Jacobs or Jan Gehl would quite rightly say appeals to pedestrians. For the keen cyclist though, everything in Millennium park affirms their passion for bikes. Entry is via a bridge designed by Frank Gehry, that meanders in a way that would drive most pedestrians nuts, but which delights cyclists, by offering a heightened sensation of speed. It is sheathed in the premium material for bicycle frame manufacture, titanium, as is the park’s Bandshell, also designed by Frank Gehry. The frame covering the great lawn which faces that bandshell, is made of steel tubes, joined in a manner resembling bicycle frame lug work. Behind Gehry’s bandshell, is the Mc’Donalds Cycle Center (yes, the fast food chain "bikewashed" themselves by paying for naming rights). It is an indoor secure bicycle parking station for 300 bikes, with showers, lockers and a bicycle repair shop.

I’m looking at the buildings of Millennium Park the way the Roman Emperor Hadrian looked at the marvels of Greece: as though they were his! Whatever Gehry might have been thinking means nothing to me. I’m seeing architecture through the eyes of a cyclist marking his territory, using buildings as stakes.
  
Federation Square in Melbourne is built at a crossroads, between the cyclespace of riverfront park lands, and the pedestrian space of down town Melbourne. As cyclists would not naturally want to dismount here, I’m calling most of the site cyclespace. The architecture, as seen by someone who loves bikes the way Corb loved his Voisin, celebrates the complex geometry of bicycle frame manufacture. In parts the building looks like a tracing of bicycle frames laid on the sky.

Some Architects working in cyclespace seem naturally drawn to the essentialist, Platonic Form-like character of The Bicycle’s two major components, the diamond frame, and the wheel made from spokes pulling back on a rim. First, a frame like example, the roof of the Sydney Velodrome, whose architects boast that it has the lightest dead weight, per square meter, of any building with such a broad span. We cyclists see our racing bikes that way, purely in terms of strength verses weight. Our focus on performance makes us leery of novelty, and interested more in weight shaving refinements to a frame shape that essentially will never change. The Sydney Velodrome has the same claim to beauty, one that comes exclusively from its utility. This was Plato’s view also, that edifying human creations are those that match their task and are thus true to their own essence, rather than imitating images one might find in nature. The bicycle frame, and the irreducible roof truss, are close cousins in that sense.

 
Now to some bike wheel inspired buildings. Bicycle wheels, the rear ones especially, are dishes that resist deformation as cyclists pedal. The right side, with the gear cassette, is virtually flat. Structurally, what is happening, is the rim is acting like a compressive circular arch, resisting the enormous tension in every spoke. When scaled up, laid on its side, and used as a roof like that of architect Dominique Perrault’s Velodrome in Berlin, you have a dome where the collar is in compression (not tension, like Brunelleschi’s) and the dome is utterly flat. (add a few words on The Union Station bicycle station in Washington DC. ….) Plus there is this Mobile Performance Venue by "Various Architects", with a similar roof.

Claes Oldenburg clearly knew he was working in cyclespace, when designing this colossal bike embedded in the lawn at Park de la Villette, a former abattoir outside of Paris.
  
If we think of the car as the primary inspiration for Modern architecture, we could be tricked into thinking cyclespace architecture represents a radical overhaul of the Modernist project. But Sigfried Giedion tells us Modernism was primarily an attempt to represent time as a spatial dimension, in a bid to embrace Einstein’s cosmology. The Cubists and Futurists were interested in representing objects from more than one moment in time, so were naturally attracted to subjects that moved, like the car of course, but also the bicycle. Had the prevalence of oil not made cars so attractive, one could easily imagine the architecture of the past 80 years having been inspired by bikes. However, the era of the bicycle being the primary inspiration for architects, had to wait for oil production to peak, and begin to decline, as it recently has.

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