Why bicycling is the architect’s soup can

In any country except for the Netherlands (where cycling is passé), construction work for the bicycle is symbolic, shockingly so. It invites controversy. People say, “for bikes?” in the incredulous way pagans would have looked at the first churches in Rome and said, “What? You built this, for the Christians? The people we’ve been feeding to lions?”

Iconic architecture has its own budget, completely unrelated to cycling. The business case for it is couched in terms of hotel bookings, not mode shares. And it is always looking for new ways to “garner controversy”, as Charles Jencks said in Iconic Building. For those among us who aren’t so fixated on bike infrastructure that we can’t see opportunities elsewhere, this is great news for cyclists. The policy turn toward us, in this age of environmental awareness, makes us a little like Christians when Constantine had his conversion. So let’s get our heads around iconic building so we might steer it our way.

Iconic building—a pursuit that has been with us since empires began—has been through a baroque phase, that is, an obsession with colour and form. The name that springs to everyones mind is Frank Gehry.

That direction has now been exhausted. There is nothing left to be done with colour or shape that will make us ask, “How did they do that?” The day every country got its Frank Gehry, was like the day every country got a painting by Jackson Pollock.

Once everything had been done with abstraction and painterly abandon, the art world turned to incredulous subjects, like soup cans.

Right now the architectural world is likewise in search of incredulous subjects, and what could be more baffling, to the masses, than a building all about cycling? That’s the mode the masses have been running over in cars. It’s like the religion Romans were feeding to lions. It fits the bill, perfectly, as a subject to be celebrated by architects aiming to shock.

I received an email, only last week, from a young architect in Puerto Rico, who has been thinking this way. Skip to page 26 of his portfolio, and you will find an iconic building (a building that would shock, because it’s about bikes) built over a building for cars, just as the first Christian churches were built over sites of the former religions. I get a lot of nice emails from young architects pursuing the same direction as I am, but not so many from people like Hansel Pellot, who are on course to be leaders of this profession. If you care about cycling, you should make them your friends! 

 

Some of my readers, I am well aware, will bemoan late capitalism and the society of the spectacle, and bleat for the next hundred years about the inadequacy of our budgets for bike infrastructure. There’s another trick though, and that’s working with capitalism towards longer term goals that will see capital weakened.

 

About Hansel Pellot:

Hansel Pellot is a junior architect an cycling enthusiast. He graduated from the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico in 2017 and is currently working at Marvel Marchand architects, where he participates on projects from Puerto Rico and New York. In the early years of his career he worked as a bike carrier, when he developed a passion for cycling and a great interest in making bike-friendly cities in his country. 

1 Comment

  1. troy says:

    Genius. Love the attention to detail, like the chain-link scale on the diagrams!

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