An idol in troubled times: why we fetishise old bikes and recycled materials

I don’t save for retirement. I plan to die of old age while giving a lecture (so stay awake in the back row—you might just be there on that day!) But for so long as the world is in this terrible state with car dependence and road death tolls, I feel I aught to keep working.

“But what if you’re making things worse?” you may say. If I’m working to make bike transport safe and appealing to everyday people, then I don’t see that as a problem.

UTAS bike parking

And anyway, going to work is such a pleasure. Not only do I get to ride there and back, but the work environment is fantastic too. You know, before I even arrived at the University of Tasmania, they had put the student bike parking indoors. I knew I was dealing with civilised people. Many of the staff ride to work, and not just on Ride2Work day. One of my colleagues, an avid cyclist, was just completing this bike parking project when I arrived.

Bike-hub_800px
So I have found a great work environment, where my particular fascination with architecture and bikes is taken quite seriously. Tolerating discomfort in travel for the greater good of society and the environment, is as natural to peoples thinking here, as the idea that building users should tolerate a little thermal discomfort for the sake of the planet. Reducing the transport energy intensity of buildings, by encouraging cycling, is the next logical step on a sustainability course this school embarked upon heavily, while others I won’t mention are still only paying lip service.

Ashleigh and JacquelineSo I’m quite enlivened by the company I’m keeping here. A week from now I’ll have some incredible Bike City projects to show you, designed by my current students. In the meantime I have an opportunity to showcase a student project completed before I arrived, by Ashleigh Elliot (on the left) with one of her interior architecture lecturers, my colleague Jacqueline Power, in the red top. (I’m sorry for perpetuating stereotypes about interior architects… let’s leave it to Billy Chrystal to pass the obvious compliments).

treadlie bus 3

As a vintage bike buff, ever struggling to find parts she needs, Ashleigh had the idea of turning a standard metro bus into a mobile bicycle repair shop travelling from town to town, bringing new life to old bikes. She imagined someone like Treadlie Magazine liking the idea of running a bike repair and info service, visiting schools and town fairs, spreading the bike craze, brake pads and magazine subscriptions wherever they went. After a few laps in their bus of Tasmania, Australia… the world perhaps… Treadlie would have taught every kid how to fix a puncture and adjust their own brakes. And who knows, the world could be better. (Student projects with social agendas are another reason I like my job.)

treadlie bus 2

But in the same way that rusty old bikes need designer-clad riders and fancy accoutrements to make you think “chic” and not “sheesk”, this good fairy bike-bus would need to be stylish.  A little more stylish than, say, the busses I remember riding to school on.

Treadlie Bus 1
Reading the materials specifications in Ashleigh’s design statement, I was struck by the way recycling often surpasses utility and economy, and becomes a kind of story telling. The wheel tracks holding the bikes up in the display end of the bus, want to tell you about their past life as gutters. The shelving and bike tool shadow board have a story to tell about a past life as wooden crates. These, as well as recycled mini-orb and plywood sheets, get sanded, polished then finished as though they are heading for third lives as jewellery.

bike anklet

I’m sure this is what we do when we lovingly restore older bikes. We are restoring them into idols to pray to. “Dear old bike, lead us not into unsustainable consumption, and deliver us from global warming, for thine is kingdom, etc etc..” Environmentalism is a new religion, with bikes and recycling as two of its idols. The votive dimension of our environmental concern becomes evident when we look at the things we choose to make from our idols, like jewellery or symbolic buildings. Many thanks to Ashleigh Elliot for letting her symbolic building be an object for my rumination upon the aesthetic predilections of this troubled age.

About Steven

I'm on a mission to put cycling on the agendas of architects, urban designers and fellow academics, who see the potential for bicycles to change cities and buildings. My PhD is in architectural history and my interdisciplinary research spans art theory, philosophy and cultural studies. I teach architectural history and theory and design studio at The University of Tasmania, Australia, and formerly worked as an architect designing large public housing projects in Singapore. My favourite bikes are a titanium racing bike I use for racing, a Velorbis retro commuter for riding to cafes and work, a single speed ultra light Brompton that I take with me when I travel on planes, a 29er hard tail mountain bike that I get lost on in remote places, an old track bike that scares me, a 1984 Colnago Super with all original campagnolo components that is plugged into a virtual realm that I train in, and a Dutch-made Bakfiets, that could easily replace half of the bikes I just mentioned.
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2 Responses to An idol in troubled times: why we fetishise old bikes and recycled materials

  1. Lukas says:

    Steven,

    How timely your post! I need one of those buses to come and teach me some skills. My old, yet un-stylish, commuter hybrid has worn out gears and needs to be turned into a project with very reduced gearing, a new handlebar and some new paint. Any tips?

    This may also mean that I will have to invest in a replacement. Not an easy task. I will have to re-read your old bike type casting posts!

    • Steven says:

      Well just maybe Treadlie will trace the source of the doubling of traffic to their website, and contact Ashleigh to buy those plans.
      But anyway, you live near Dan the Bike Man http://newcastlebikeecologycentre.blogspot.com.au/
      He’ll lend you a spanner and give you old parts. And you can paint your old bike with gaffer tape for that bike messenger look.
      Otherwise, I’m not the one to ask about mechanical issues. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance left an impression on me, that means I’m embarrassingly inept on the tools.

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