Today marks the 5 year anniversary of my first ever blog post. I wrote it the day after my 42nd birthday, exactly 2 years after my insalubrious mid life crisis—brought on I’m sure by too little cycling. It’s hard to believe a whole 7 years has gone by since I cracked up and wanted a sport car. I had my hair long and a was wearing a silver chain around my neck—it was a very cliched way to turn 40. Except for the night club performances. They were unique.
Harder to believe still is that only 5 years have passed since I got my life back on track with a superior plan to buy bikes and transform my city. God knows where the sports car plan would have taken me—to the outer suburbs I guess—but the plan I enacted has taken me all over the world researching and speaking to a body of work that has given my life a sense of real purpose.
I’m so glad I was born late enough to witness the information age—and I don’t just mean for those photos of Jennifer Lawrence. I mean for the opportunity to know for sure what I could only guess when I was in high school, that a few of the ideas I leave in my sketchbooks might belong to me and no one before me. Like every Australian school kid I was assured by my teachers that anything I could imagine had been said by Shakespeare or done in America. Having ideas was only delaying our lives in the mines. Here’s the home town: a coal port with houses for miners.
Well screw my old teachers! From studios I have led and doodles I have done after, ideas have come to the surface that, if you ask me, have the elegance of mathematical solutions. I could write dozens. City ÷ Bike = Velotopia, a 15km diameter vaguely-nuclear city where 90% of trips are by bike.
Street ÷ Bike = Mogul Field, the idea that you make beelines beneath buildings and rise up to activity mounds. Building ÷ Bike = Helical Block, an apartment that you ascend via lifts but descend via spiralling aerial streets. It’s only because we live in an information age that I know for sure these are original, and only because of the information age too that I’ve received invitations to present these ideas at some incredible places, confirming (to me and my mum) that they are of use.
Here’s why I think mine are useful ideas. If you have ever listened to Hans Rosling talk about industrialised, developing and ultra poor nations, you will know he breaks the world’s seven billion people into 4 camps: the 1 billion of us in the first-world who can just afford to travel by plane; the next billion in the newly industrialised world who can just afford to travel by car; the next three billion in the developing world who can barely afford to travel by bike; and the remaining two billion in the third world who are scraping just to buy shoes.
While Rosling is clearly using mode choice as an emblem for all kinds of consumption—eating, clothing etc.—he would surely know transport is up there as a big time polluter and consumer of finite resources. None of our actions hurt the planet so much, aside perhaps from the way we actually construct and operate buildings. But then, in the West, the way that we build is determined by our use of the car. We build with ample garaging and lots of space between buildings. So really, transport and architecture come as a package.
What we have therefore, is five of the world’s seven billion people dreaming of a building-and-car double deal, and we’ll all be dead if they get if. It would better for the planet if all five billion craved Canadian cherries, air-flown on ice, delivered direct to their Nigerian mega-malls, or wherever they shop over there. Canadian cherries we’re able to do. It’s our style of buildings and cities that we cannot allow them to share in, because buildings and cities like ours require cars to be comfortably lived in.
I find it strange then, that whenever bourgeois dinner time conversation turns to ways we might each reduce our personal impact on the planet to levels the whole world can share in, that people want to talk about cherries, or matters of similar import. Or we talk about leaving the car and taking our bikes, as though cycling is a matter of choice.
My darlings, while ever we continue to build hospitals and schools on top of hills, and places to work on the other side of horizons, and ensure that all of our buildings have enormous garages and are plumbed in to racetrack-style roads, cycling is hardly a choice. It’s a chore. “Hey there Mr. Indian peasant, have I got a funky white-guy chore to entice you!” I really can’t see that catching on.
So let’s get our ducks in a line. Three of the world’s seven billion are currently getting by riding bicycles and another two billion think owning a bike would be heaven. Our role as the rich ones is to stop making those 5 billion jealous, by ditching our cars and settling on cycling. First though we have to stop building cities that are natural to drive in and which make cycling feel like some kind of pious performance.
It’s about here that others get snagged. While ever we have the resources to drive, why would we even waste time conceiving a purpose-built bicycling environment? The pious among us might like the idea, but piety is rarely infectious. It’s something one gets from being morally better, not from making everyone moral. The first-world won’t build the bike city just to be nice. There has to be some other reward.
So what carrots can be held out to the first-world, to attract them to a purpose-built bicycle city? More Canadian Cherries? God, our bellies are bursting from those things already. The only thing we affluent folk want for, is time. We have moved into cities with so much junk that now we can’t move. The appeal of the purpose built bicycle city is that moving in to it is an occasion to take a lot of things cluttering our cities off to the tip, for example, our cars.
If you don’t know my theoretical design work, my latest efforts are neatly summed up in this recent piece in ArchDaily. With my work I use a Rationalistic design method to conceive bicycling environments based on first-principles, such as the way bikes slow down as they rise onto mounds and regain their speed as they ride back down and away. Something similar was done in the inter-war period when designers were imagining a built environment especially designed for the car.
Based on that historical echo I’ve been accused of being as myopic as Le Corbusier, which is really not fair. For one, Corb spoke against architects who were more interested in cars than in people, among whom we might include: Geoffrey Jellicoe; Ludwig Hilberseimer; and Harvey Wiley Corbett. (Tom Vanderbilt has a great quote from Corb here). But more importantly Corb was hardly unique in using reason to design cities and buildings around his pet mode of transport. A lot of streets in Australia are as wide as bullock team’s turning circle.
The streets of Fez in Morocco are no narrower or steeper than a donkey can handle. Venice, or course, was entirely designed around boats. Manhattan was ingeniously designed to lead pedestrians past shops on the avenues. The zigzagging streets leading into the hills beside Launceston, where I live currently, have gradients determined by trams. By being rational, Le Corbusier was just being human. His only mistake was putting a very irrational tool, the automobile, at the centre of his otherwise rational visions.
Five years after starting a bike blog, that’s where I’m at: being proactive about saving the world. Under other circumstances I would agree if you said I was deluded, but the speaking and publishing opportunities I have been given don’t really tally with such a judgement. Until recently I would have dismissed all of this as utopian dreaming, but I went back to my history on that and learned that utopian dreams are behind every other functioning model of spatial production. Here’s a brief summary.
And now for the bombshell. As you will know, my stock-in-trade is as an architectural educator and general dog’s-body academic, balancing the conflicting demands of students, the architectural profession, and a new breed of senior managers who I stereotype as old chemists and criminologists who got bored with their fields so drifted into senior management. They now find themselves learning to swim in the corporate ocean, where they wear Floaties:
My connection to academia runs really deep. I take architectural theory seriously enough that I’ll be taking up arms against all the Deleuzians when the counter-Deleuzian struggle begins. However, with regards to my aforementioned “sense of real purpose” it is not to uphold an epistemological position, much less prop up a bunch of institutions ran by failed chemists.
With the evolving design of my website (especially this page) it should be apparent that I am making myself available for professional consultancy, clear in the knowledge that I may be end up as one of those half-time academics who practice. I’ll never stop publishing, peer reviewing, supervising PhD candidates, safeguarding history and all those things that make academia great. It’s the interminable reporting I’ll be happy to ditch. So do put my name out there!
Thank you so much to my regular readers. I received a lovely email from an advertiser to tell me he is now selling caps all over the world thanks to my blog. He was especially flattered to have sold one to someone in Paris, where, as we know, they are really quite fussy when it comes to their clothes. Thank you to those who had faith to publish my work or fly me to forums to speak. A huge thanks to everyone who left a comment this year. The best ones always play on my mind and keep me awake and even if my automatic response is to be snarky I am ultimately grateful for the insights you give me.