The absent presence of [bicycle] transportation in architecture

With this post I shall return to a standard Behooving Moving discursive theme, that of architecture’s relationship to the bicycle. Can the former learn from the later? Let us step gingerly toward the question, first through the prism of art.

So much public art inspired by bicycles is just so twee, so banal, that I am only prepared to adulterate my blog with a handful of examples. At a glance it is obvious each piece below was commissioned by someone in power, whose brief to their z-grade local artist, said: "hypnotize them all into wanting to ride, so I can have more space on the road for my own chauffeured car!" State propaganda cannot also be "art", or at best barely qualifies.

zzzzzzz, oh what a yawn!

So I would never advocate a didactic or propagandizing form of bicycle inspired architecture, that you will behold and think, "gee, I guess I really do want to cycle." What I am saying, is that to no particular edificatory ends, or with any public health message attached, architects are naturally drawn to the bicycle as a yardstick of excellence, and the embodiment of design principles they would be striving for anyway: frugality; irreducibility; energy efficiency; tradition. Their former yardsticks—cars, planes and ocean liners—do not befit our present age of fossil fueled paranoia. Bicycles, trains and sailboats are the remaining contenders. 

Okay, so not every architect has asked that their work be evaluated according to standards set by machines. Many strove toward principles witnessed in nature. But of those who did choose machines as their yardsticks, overwhelmingly, the preference was for machines of mobility. Why so? An explanation can be drawn from the thought of Jacques Derrida.

Derrida saw occasions when qualities could be so conspicuous by their absence, as to make those absent qualities present somehow. He liked to say that speech is present in writing, because we use writing when we can’t speak. In contemporary parlance: "like speech is so not writing, yo mo fo." (I do so endeavor to appeal to a broad audience with my more intellectual posts).
Buildings can’t move around.                                 At best they can wriggle.

One thing that is painfully absent in buildings, is movement. Put aside aberrant examples like revolving restaurants, some thing or another in Dubai, or Archigram’s Walking City, and you will have to agree, buildings are still. They can’t come to us. They sit and wait for our coming to them. The idea of transportation, therefore, is present in architecture by virtue of the fact that transportation is so very absent. Just as a piece of writing embodies the speech for which it’s a stand-in, a building embodies the transportation means necessary to bring people hither. Whenever I see photographs of award winning houses, in remote locations, being praised for their thermal mass, rainwater tanks and solar cells on the roof, the first thing I think of, is that which is absent from pictures like those, namely, the owners’ gas guzzling four-wheel-drive cars.
With transportation being conspicuous by its absence in architecture, it is not surprising to find a litany of architects seeking to represent transportation through their designs. What could be more fixed to its site than a pyramid in Egypt? But these were designed to transport souls to the stars. Hindu temples, like that at Konark, have stone wheels to make them look as though they are chariots. In medieval churches the impulse to represent this quality of movement, so absent in buildings that are forced to stay put, can be seen in ambulatories like U-bends, or labyrinth patterns on floors, all conceived as stages along The Way of St James; the church was a portion of a much longer pilgrimage route. And what was the first quality Sant’Elia desired for Futurist buildings? He dreamed of them being as changing and bustling as shipyards. By the 1930s, buildings in the Streamline Moderne style actually did look just like the ocean liners that transported people between them. In each of the examples here listed, plus hundreds more that I might list if lists made good reading, the underlying meaning of architecture concerns that which architecture can never do, move. Architects are as compelled to make movement present in buildings, as painters are driven to put depth in their canvasses, or novelists are to make letters on paper stimulate the remaining four senses. Whatever is most conspicuous by its absence from any art form, is often what the artist is most eager to capture. 

I’m satisfied what I’ve said isn’t just sophistry. I’ve read arguments imbibing Derrida’s absent/presence hypothesis that really, were no more than elegant arguments. But to my mind, it does in this case explain why architects often seek to represent movement, and more specifically have been besotted by ocean liners and cars. This slight revelation will be added to an earlier essay I have recently started to work on some more, after it was rejected by an editor, on spurious grounds naturally.

To finish this post properly, I should really cite examples of buildings where the absent presence of bicycle transportation is evident. The earlier post mentioned bike parking stations… (to be continued, after I’ve slept)

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