The pedelec as a metaphor for mutant cities of the machine-age

The architectural theorist/historian Kenneth Frampton is best known for teaching architects to mine their own region for wise ways of building, rather than following every international trend. Less known, but even better, is his idea that architects should adopt something he calls a “critical arriere-garde” stance toward technology. In other words, don’t foist machines on your buildings’ users, when good design would achieve the same outcome. I wonder what he would say about the light regulating panels in the Arab Institute in Paris, that stopped working 3 years ago and that will cost too much even for the Arabs to fix? Millions of dollars worth of mechanical irises will forever tell how cloudy it was the moment the whole system failed.


Anyone who has lived with bike transport long enough that cycling is now their habitual choice, is going to have a tight ration of electronic gadgetry on them when riding. Maybe a speedo (I don’t). Maybe a phone. Oh, and lights of course. Anything else is crutch made for newbies as they ween themselves from their dependence on machines for their transport.

This is the problem with e-Bikes. The bicycling newbies who buy them eventually realise that they don’t really need the assistance, at about the same time as the battery permanently carks it. The owner is left pedalling around on some mutant with empty battery holders and a some monster hub.


The e-bike is a metaphor for the machine-age city and machine-age building. Cities that are built up around train stations, or that spread out along highways, depend upon one of two transport systems that always break down. Residents end up pouring their taxes into keeping the machine-transport running, for the same reason e-bike owners end up buying new batteries. If they don’t, it will be apparent to themselves and everyone else that their city, or bike frame, has been mutated by the technology of a particular time. Go and Google “transit oriented development” and you will find hundreds of over-designed concepts like this one:


At least a pedelec can be recycled and used as a meth lab. Cities are a little more permanent. If the machine-age had only produced a few novel cities designed around cars or trains, they could be used in the future as tourist attractions, like Venice. But we’re literally smothering the world with these mutants.

With my next post I will discuss the mutating effect that machines such as elevators and air-conditioners, are having on apartment design.