The hermit crab principle

Early Christians in Rome found shells left abandoned, in the form of Roman basilicas. They moved the entrance from the side to the end, and viola: the latin cross church. The Southern Indian—”Dravidian”—temple form was likewise found, not invented. Southern Indians hastily built fortifying walls between temples they already had, to protect against attacks from the North. What had been small temples, now became gates, or “cow gates” (they say “gopurum”). Suddenly, the main temple of worship (the “Vimana”) found itself within a fortified ring, around which a bigger ring would later be built, to accommodate the growth of the town. Around those rings, even bigger rings would later be built, with taller and taller cow gates. Later still, in other towns, the annular form of those early complexes, was replicated from scratch. The history of architecture is largely a series of accidents. Rarely is a new building type conceived from scratch for a particular purpose. More often, people see types of buildings built by people before them, and adapt them to their own particular needs.

We have all just lived through an age or urban reclamation of massive former industrial sites in our cities, paid for by our own pensions funds—who had to put our money somewhere, correct? I can hardly think of a city in an OECD country, without a new district, frozen in time in 2008, when the tap was finally turned off on that cash.

As a cyclist, I think these places are great. Most were built with wide non-vehicular promenades from one end to the other. These weren’t planned as bike thoroughfares, but that’s what many of them are becoming, as bike numbers rise. Neither were the iconic, form-driven buildings, that were conceived by architects to give these brownfields some zing, intended to look better at bicycle speed, than walking pace—but they do! Do you know, every day, pedestrians are mugged at the foot of Guggenheim in Bilboa? Far better to appreciate its sculptural form on a bike.

It would appear to have happened again. A new group (growing numbers of people on bikes) have stumbled upon landscapes and buildings that were not built for us, but which are nonetheless useful and good. Though historical patterns don’t always repeat, let’s imagine they do. Let’s imagine a brownfield site is redeveloped with cyclists in mind as the end-users. Would it not be natural, for it to resemble the brownfield reclamations of the early 2000s, with sculptural freestanding buildings dotting broad plazas?

Comments are closed.