As I did with Part 1 and Part 2 of this essay, I will be drafting Part 3 as a blog post, so anyone can see my rough drafts and add comments to help me. If that doesn’t appeal, check back in a couple of days. Thanks.
For no understood reason, architects are as attracted to bikes as they are to fine font and thick glasses. Perhaps it is because so many famous architects are from Northern Europe, where more people cycle? Could their preference for office space in old parts of town with less parking perhaps be a factor? As underpaid interns, many would have cycled just to save money on bus fares. Bikes also give underpaid aesthetes an opportunity to own objects that are small but exquisite, a coupling of characteristics that holds for many great buildings. (I just learned Richard Rogers has named the Brompton his all time favourite object!) For some, bikes might mesh well with a utopian vision underpinning their work.
Whatever the combination of reasons, it is a profession with an affinity for bicycle transport, whose university faculty buildings always seem to have more bikes out front that any other buildings on campus, and whose practitioners are beginning to propagandise for cycling, the way early Modernist architects propagandised for driving.
Architects who embrace bikes as emblems of a green future, are not inclined to hide bicycle parking away behind buildings—and that way only please bike thieves. MVRDV’s forthcoming House of Culture and Movement in Frederiksberg, Denmark, will have parked bikes filling the entrance foyer, and festooning the facade during major events.
$3,000,000 was spent recently on a small bike parking facility beside Union Station in Washington. For what it does practically, that bill was enormous. But for a sign to all of america that the government wants to support bicycle transport, $3,000,000 seems about right. It seems fitting too, that it be built from a pallet of materials usually reserved for prime civic buildings.
But architects’ interest in cycling needn’t end with end-of-trip parking facilities. Bill Dunster, a leading thinker on sustainable architecture, proposed bike ramps be the main way of accessing ziggurat blocks in his proposal for London, called Velocity.
Dunster’s idea has since been realised in 8-House, an apartment building on the Southern edge of Copenhagen by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). Residents can cycle all the way home to their tenth storey apartments along access ramps designed especially for cycling.
BIG’s first bike access building was their Danish Pavilion built for Expo 2010 in Shanghai. It’s a double helix that you walk up near the centre, or ride up near the edge, along a path that’s the same colour as the bike lanes in Copenhagen. Thousand of Copenhagen’s free city bikes were made available to expo visitors to use, and maybe rethink China’s move toward car dependence.
The Danish firm JDS Architects, have since included a scaled up version of the Danish Pavilion in their proposal for a new bicycling oriented district of Shanghai, called Bicycle City.
Another spiralling bike access building is Carlo Ratti’s London Cloud, that he proposed be built for the London Olympics. The only way to the top of this tower would have been to have walked up or ridden, via double helix spiralling ramps.
Architects who are really excited by cycling, are designing bikes too, the way Le Corbusier spent time designing a car, his Voiture Minimum. Carlo Ratti—who designed the London Cloud—has been working on a regenerative breaking e-assist hub filled with all kinds of sensors, called the Copenhagen Wheel, that he hopes one day everyone will have on their bikes to share data, and make real time maps, about road bumps and pollution. It won’t work, but it looks good.
Dutch Landscape architects West-8 designed some slightly more functional bikes, made from solid wood, that they want to have strewn around New York’s Governor’s Island, for free use by park visitors. When I interviewed them they told me the sound, feel and weightiness of their solid wood bikes, would provide a phenomenological resonance with the heavily wooded surroundings.
Architecture borrows form the art world by foregrounding meaning, even if that does mean compromising utility. You will not see The West-8 bike at the Olympics. Neither will Ron Arad’s bike win any gold medals. It has wheels designed to look like the roofs of a few of his buildings, and is made from strips of bent steel.
Even when they do aim for function, architects bring their discipline’s thinking along for the ride. Almost every part of architect Josef Mora’s Morabike, is either laser cut stainless steel, or tanned leather. If John Ruskin were alive, he would ride one of these.
But the architect who stands out as the leading promoter of bikes at the moment, hasn’t yet designed his own bike. I’m referring to Bjarke Ingels, who is though in partnership with a bike maker, the famous industrial designer Jens Martin Skibsted, who is behind the bike brand Biomega. We can draw parallels between Ingels’s relationship with Skibsted, and Le Corbusier’s relationship in the 1920s with the car maker, Gabriel Voisin. Corb liked photographing his Voisin brand car and his buildings together, as a way of locating his buildings in an imaginary future when everybody would drive, and places like his Villa Savoye would have motorways connecting them to Paris. His photos helped make that vision happen.
Ingels is often called a utopian architect. I would say, as someone whose focus is cycling, that he lives in a kind of utopia, Copenhagen, that he’s trying to spread to other countries with bike friendly buildings, and a few media tricks borrowed from Corb. When camera crews come to meet him, he jumps on a Copenhagen city bike, or a Biomega, and demonstrates how one should live. He’s not anti car. His Audi sponsored vision of cities with driverless cars tell us that. He’s just very pro-bike.
He approaches designing for bikes from a position he calls “Hedonistic Sustainability”. That’s the idea that people will pay for a green waste facility if its roof is a ski field…
…or will go to the effort of cleaning their harbour if it means they can go swimming…
…or choose cycling over driving if cycling is simply more fun. As a regular cyclist himself, he well knows that few people stick at it to save the planet, or even for preserving their health. One of the fun aspects of cycling, that Ingels’s fellow Dane Jan Gehl often mentions, is the simple pleasure of being seen on the street, something we’re deprived of in cars. Cycling is how we can still be flâneurs even though our cities have become too spread out for an intimate walk.