The one simple question that stumped me.

I have indeed been quiet of late. Circumstances prevent me from speaking quite so freely about life’s discontents; at least not without nipping at a few hands that feed me. Exciting new things on the horizon are likewise hard to report on, without counting eggs before they are hatched. 

What I can say is that I am in the final stages of completing a book with a very supportive publisher and time to focus on a work that speaks for itself. That way, I figure, the interviews will go smoother.

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I am still haunted by a curly question Tracy Metz asked me when I was busy promoting Cycle Space: “So what does all this [cycling] have to do with architecture?” (My7 recollection of her precise words aren’t as clear as the image I still have of her red bejewelled glasses).

She had read my book, so knew I had ploughed every cross-over between architectural and bike planning “discourse”. In my mind I had found fifty or a hundred ways that architectural thinking could be brought to bear on the problem of increasing the bike modal share. But I didn’t have one succinct answer. In a sense Cycle Space lacked that conclusion.

Hence the need for a follow-up book, which will lead to a few interviews and talks and all that, but this time not another full-time research/teaching position. Rather I will be aiming for a stint as a practitioner and part-time academic. In time, no doubt, I will go back to wroughting universities for funds to present half a dozen conference papers per year on the stupidest piss-take subjects I can imagine, but for now I am possessed by the almost child-like belief that I can do good for the world. I am at the point of forgoing the great wage a university will let me take in exchange for my soul, for a mixture of teaching and practice—something I thought I would never return to after completing my doctorate.

But this followup book is not just a brochure for launching an office. It has been written as a way of redeeming myself. An interview with Tracy Metz is as close as any author on cycling can get, really, to acknowledgment by the world’s literati. Alright, so she might not be Melvyn Bragg (who is so cool he inspires Brooks Saddles ads), but she is leagues apart from those 40K p.a. journalists who a lot of us feel chuffed to meet normally. And I had no decent answer to her most decent question!

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Tracy, I’m ready now with an answer. The relevance of bike planning to architecture, is that bike planning does not stop at the bike rack. It doesn’t even stop at the 5-star EOT (end-of-trip) facility on the ground floor.

Bike planning doesn’t stop until it has changed architecture.

Just as cars really flourished once they had changed the way cities were planned (cities now have new kinds of houses that you enter via garages and strip development for everything else), the real potential of cycling can’t even be known until cycling gives rise to its own development paradigm with special new bike-centric buildings.

If Tracy asks why, I can tell her that new ride-inside building types will eliminate all that slow schlepping of bodies and luggage that you get with buildings designed amidst car parks. For that reason a bike city will be a lot faster (that, and the lack of congestion in the rest of the city). My point is made best if I draw an analogy to internet modems: we used to get excited by the half second it took a photo to cross the ocean, but then we realised our dial up modems delayed that photo’s passage from our wall to our screen by as much as a minute. If we counted the time it takes to walk from the car park, bus stop, or indeed the bike rack (all modems of some sort) we would realise existing types of buildings and the transportation means they support are giving us the urban mobility equivalent of dial-up connections. We can move with speed across space, but are frustrated by slow starts and ends to each journey.  

Modem

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If Tracy asks how, I’ll tell her we’ll design the purpose built bicycle city and all its buildings with something called Rationalistic design. Some things can be designed by Empirical methods. Say you wanted to convert an old urban district to support a balance of driving, walking and cycling. The way to do that would be to find the nearest comparable city in Denmark or the Netherlands and copy their road engineering—a simple cut-and-paste job that someone like David Hembrow could help with. The problem comes when you can’t imagine design as anything more than replication. As much as I admire David’s work, he is anchored to his empirical observations from the Netherlands the way Helen Keller would have been to her imaginings; neither out of choice though.

Rationalistic design is an architectural niche, I’ll admit. The unique contribution of my own PhD is it helped to define to it. I did that by drawing attention to something the architect Louis Kahn told a Cooper Union audience in 1960. He said an architect needs to be like Socrates when contemplating the type/Idea/Form/or “form” that corresponds to a building[1]. He meant you have to clear your mind of all precedents and work from first principles. Of course I say all that so much better in my forthcoming book—my subtle hint to set aside money to buy it.

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[1] Cassette recording, “The Scope of Architecture at The Cooper Union Hall, 1-20-60”, Louis I. Kahn, Collection, University of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

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