Lessons from the 2014 Venice Biennale for bicycle urbanism

I’ve just returned from my 4th grand tour of Italy in 6 years, with a few sketches and big dose of inspiration from the 2014 Biennale in Venice.

Let’s face it, Italy is the world’s premier source book for architecture and urban design. Gehl’s best observations aren’t from Copenhagen, but Italian piazzas. Big urban incissions don’t start with Haussmann in Paris, but Sixtus V in Rome, c1600. The Venturis might have found inspiration in Vegas, but they got their authority to build decorated sheds from The Doge’s Palace in Venice.

Decorative Brickwork at the Doges Palace

The English country garden can be traced back further than Gilpin’s writings on The Picturesque in the late seventeen hundreds, to Nicolas Poussin’s and Claude Lorrain’s careers painting landscapes in Italy, where they drew inspiration from the asymmetrical landscape paintings of Veronese and de Messina. These are the reasons why no other country is worth a grand tour on its own.

Fresco by Veronese in the Villa Barbaro, 1560.

Fresco by Veronese in the Villa Barbaro, 1560.

The Greeks might object that statuary and architecture of the Classical era is older and better—but since most can no longer afford their internet connections I doubt I’ll get any complaints. That just leaves the Dutch, prolific landscape painters in the 1600s, who since Theo van Doesburg have also been punching above their weight as philosophers of art and design. In deference to these facts, I’ll call Italy the home of design precedents, and the Netherlands the home of design thinking. I hope that inspires you to visit the Venice Biennale, which as well as being in the most inspirational country for architecture, is curated this year by the architect of our age, the Dutchman, Rem Koolhaas.


My interpretation has been influenced, unduly perhaps, by what Peter Eisenman has had to say about Koolhaas’s curation. The Elements show is not about the evolving ways in which the elements of architecture have been going together. It’s about pulling them apart and seeing the elements of architecture in isolation. Not for too long though. Pregnant in the idea of looking at windows and doors in isolation from walls,  or ceilings in isolation from roofs, or stairs, ramps and lifts in isolation from floors, is the idea that all of these pieces might next go together in new ways that have no traditional basis.


This is like pulling all of your Lego models apart into individual pieces and mixing them together in one giant box so that next time you make something it will owe nothing to any genre or theme. Luna base parts will go with farm pieces will go with pieces made to be part of a pirate ship. You will have been freed to make something new.

We all love when directions we have been pursuing find validation from external sources. With my own recent design work I’ve been looking at what possibilities arise when, for example, a corridor is also a ramp, or when awnings extend so far that whole urban districts become single buildings. When you’re trying to imagine something entirely new, like a purpose built city for bikes, it helps to have all the world’s architectural elements pulled apart from each other, like one big box of atomised Lego sets.

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