What sustainable architects can do for unsustainable cities, by promoting bike transport (Part 2… in progress)

An architect dreaming of a future when sprawling car cities will be relying mostly on bikes, could easily imagine what new kinds of buildings they would need to provide for that day. People arriving on sophisticated bikes built for long 10 or 20km journeys, or perhaps electric-assist bikes, might find secure bike parking facilities, showers, and fresh laundered clothes. For those who have not travelled so far, there would nonetheless be well patrolled bike racks. Such conveniences would be in abundance, because everyone coming to buildings in a bicycling future would have a bike with them. Shopping malls would be ride-through. Offices workers would all keep their bikes by their desks. Bike love would be indulged, just as car love was indulged in the 60s.

For now though, the bike loving architect designs for bicycling rates as they are: less than 2% in most sprawling car cities.

That is not how architects who were dreaming of a future with cars, were designing when cars were still just a rarity. Walter Gropius designed the Bauhaus as a gateway bridging a road, decades before that road (now Bauhausplatz) came into existence. The autobahn network was then just a proposal. It would be forty years, before Germany could be called a nation of drivers. Gropius was like a one armed conductor, wanting architecture to be a part of a symphony with freeways and cars, when in 1926, there were very few cars, and no freeways at all.

We find a similar story with The Villa Savoye, designed by Le Corbusier in 1928. It is based on a fantasy, that serpentine roadways have become so ubiquitous in the late 1920s, that houses should include loops for cars to pass under and through. It is a premature vision.

Le Corbusier dreamed about a car-borne society, the way many dream now of everybody on bikes. He bought a car from his friend Gabriel Voisin and photographed it in front of his houses, in a sense wishing to push those houses into a future he could then only guess at. At the same time he was designing a car, and redesigning Paris for cars.

Gropius and Le Corbusier belonged to a generation of architects who so assiduously designed buildings as destinations for cars, that by the time freeways were being built, the architectural historian Sigfried Giedion could write a book about Avant-garde buildings being parts of that system. The central idea of Space, Time and Architecture, is that freeways cause us to measure distance in time (like saying it’s 4 hours from New York to Washington) and that somehow architecture was partied to this new conception of space.

Giedion has a lot to say about Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, as well as paintings by Picasso, that represent time. One can apprehend Picasso’s Portrait of Dora Maar in an instant, but it captures two moments in time, the moment when Picasso was standing in front of the subject, and the moment he was seeing her from one side.

Giedion’s is a remarkable book that helps explain time as a kind of absent presence in architecture (something that’s so conspicuous by its absence as to invite us to look for it, even if it’s not actually there). But Space, Time and Architecture also had a diabolical influence. For one, it completely ignored a parallel Modernist tradition in Scandinavia. Second, it gave Utopianism a bad name, by backing a really damaging vision, of cars and sprawl.

Giedion put any speculative builder of a drive-in spec home in league with Einstein. By 1981, Tom Wolfe could fairly dismiss Modernist rhetoric and style as elitist and false in From Bauhaus to Our House. More damaging still, was the ramification of Charles Jencks’s observation that Modernism ended when Pruitt Igoe, one of its utopian schemes, had to be demolished in 1972 because of the social disharmony it was abetting.

The 1980s would be the decade it was decided architects should never try to impose utopian visions again. We can see architects have the power to make visions real, but disasters like Pruit Igoe teach us the folly of using that power. We have lived through a period of poststructuralist reticence.

With the following section I will show evidence of a new wave of Utopian architecture, and with that argue utopianism has a different emblem this time: the bicycle. With Part 3 of this essay I will show how architects of this new Utopian spirit are doing all the same things to promote bikes, that their forebears did (with evident success) to promote cars, when cars were still rare.

4 Comments

  1. Edward says:

    This is really good Dr Behooving. Is this part of the new book or just for our reading pleasure here?

    • Steven says:

      No, it’s not from the book. It’s just a new way I thought of to hopefully get architects thinking more about cycling.

  2. Luke says:

    I’m learning and interested. Did Italian futurists have any influence on architects and urban design? All those speeding cars etc?

    • Steven says:

      I’ve got quotes somewhere saying they set the tone for the twentieth-century, in architecture, etc..

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