Like most big events in history these days it was recorded on what my philosopher friend Arthur Danto would have called a kind of indexing machine, a machine that records every event, no matter how trivial it may seem at the time, thus generating a complete record of something that isn’t a story (or “history”), but something a bit closer to the whole “past”. I’m referring to Twitter. One historical story that was turned on it’s head on Twitter last week was the story of bike access buildings.
It matters to me because it’s a story I started. Like most stories though, it was a kind of lie. I knew when my last book was going to print that a sign had appeared on the ramped access galleries of the 8-House, banning people from riding bikes. Sure, I could have put a stop on the printing to take out half a chapter, but historians don’t do that. We tell lies in the service of critical agendas, in my case an agenda to revolutionise apartment design. It would serve society better, I believe, if perimeter blocks were spiralling to make it more natural to leave on a bike. Continuing with our present practice of treating each level of an apartment as a separate shelf, would be like continuing with flying buttresses after the invention of reinforced concrete.
The shelf form is not of this age of modelling buildings in 3-D in computers, but a primitive age of drawing each level on a new piece of paper. It is also unhealthy, encouraging people to walk from their apartments and take lifts to the ground where they are presented with three crappy choices: 1. fuss around getting a bike they have had to lock to a pole or in a bike shed, 2. walk to a train gaining minimal exercise, or 3. take a car and do harm to themselves and their city. The 8-House, while only providing ramped bicycle access to half its apartments, would have stood as the first historical step toward the new kind of building I am promoting.
But I knew from the start it had failed on this front. The risk of cyclists skidding on ice at one of the 90degree turns facing outward and breaking through the glass balustrade was obvious to anyone older than Ingels, especially a nervous ninny like me who has kids. His office’s advice to me in an email that they had a remarkable bike access building for the book I was writing, and the media image his office was subtly fostering in other ways, of a building you could skate down or ride down, was like Ingels’s wink to the parkour community that his Mountain Dwellings building was designed for them to climb all over like monkeys. He was inviting us to view his works as examples of “Sustainable Hedonism” and also inviting non-sanctioned uses. The words “bike ramp” never appeared on the plans.
That’s not say the 8-House is not an incredible building. Like BIG’s VM Houses in Copenhagen and W57 in New York, the 8-House makes other apartment buildings look utterly simplistic, as though stick figures of mum dad and the dog should appear in the artists’ impressions. Rather than introducing complications for their own sake, the way Moshe Safdie did with Habitat 67, or making inhabitants players in social experiments, as the Russian Constructivists and LeCorbusier were prone to do with their apartments, BIG’s apartment blocks take on the real challenges of this building type: privacy, views, cross-ventilation and community building. What they don’t do is design for bikes the way I have been doing, on my own, and through design studios I run in university settings.
Thanks Mikael for including me in the discussion, and thanks Bjarke for taking time out from your life as the world’s leading architect to join the discussion. For the (historical) record this was my own tweet to these two Great Danes of the design world
My bike access building types can be found among my other design propositions. It can’t been long before a developer, city or like minded consortium decides to share in this vision. By the way, I’ve been careful with mine to run access galleries on the courtyard side of perimeter blocks to minimise the risk of anyone skidding into glass balustrades.