At the beginning of the twentieth-century the bicycle was as potent a symbol of speed as the car, and the subject of as many Cubist and Futurist art works. Yet by 1943, Pevsner could say bicycle sheds were not architecture, something he could not have said about buildings for cars, which by then had become symbols of what was being hailed as The Machine Age.
The past decade has seen a reversal in attitudes, with the prestige of cars being tainted by the size of their ecological footprints, and bicycles being catered for with award winning end-of-trip storage facilities. Referring to these and other examples, the paper argues bicycles are replacing cars as paragons that embody principles many architects are striving toward, such as irreducibility, frugality, and archetypal perfection. Strategies being used by architects to glorify cycling are illuminated here, by referring back to strategies previous generations used to glorify driving.
While the impact on architecture of the cultural ascention of cycling, calls for the machine age to be reconsidered, there is a sense in which nothing has changed. Architects’ interest in bicycles is consistent with their long standing preoccupation with time as a spatial dimension, something Sigfried Giedion first noticed.
Architectural culture affirmed, and was inspired by, car culture throughout the twentieth-century. By showing that was the case in a variety of ways, like the way the functional requirements of buildings were expanded to accommodate cars, or buildings were made to be car-like, or people’s heart-strings were pulled by architects who knew they loved cars so presented buildings in a way that evoked cars, this essay will set the ground for a consideration of an emerging new inspiration to architects: bicycles. Considering ways car love influenced architecture, makes it easier to see ways architects have started to lionize cycling.
A lot of research has been devoted to the impact urban design has had on car use and bike use. This essay takes an alternative tack, in that it only looks at individual buildings, not road and cycle path networks, or the issue of density. By drawing attention to the fact that architects designing individual buildings, could be as destructive as town planners and urban designers when it came to promoting car use, by for example creating an image of the good life where cars sat front and center, we can begin to see how architects today might be causing a shift, whetting people’s appetite for a lifestyle that incorporates cycling.
There is no shortage of examples of well known buildings that glorified cars by making them a part of the architectural program. Giaccomo Matte-Trucco’s Fiat Factory in Turin is a standout, having a banked oval test track where completed cars could race around on the roof. While Matte-Trucco was a naval engineer, his building owes something to the Italian Futurists’ intoxication with the speed of cars, that they expressed in paintings, and manifestos. The factory also features a double helix spiral car ramp inside, for the movement of vehicles up, through and then out of the factory as they are assembled, tested, then sent out to be sold.
Albert Laprade and L. E. Bazin’s Le Marbeauf Showroon in Paris (1929) did something similar, allowing buyers to drive their old car in one door, and their new Citroen out of the other. The centerpiece of Bazin’s building was a 6 level display stack of cars surrounding an atrium, to dazzle passersby.
It is one thing to design the circulation of a car showroom or factory around the cumbersome turning circles of cars, but quite another to accommodate cars when designing the plan of the house, where traditionally the circulation needs agile human bodies were all that designers had to consider. Admittedly, Le Corbusier’s The Villa Savoy does not accommodate car access to various levels in the manner of the examples above, but its plan nonetheless is distorted considerably for the sake of a car. The radius of a semi-circular wall at ground level, and the column grid running up through the house, are determined by the turning circle and width of a Voisin car that can be driven into the volume of the house-proper. When the car’s steering is turned to full lock, it can hug that curved wall and turn through a full 180 degrees. Ostensibly the undercroft to this raised house, becomes one long porte-cochere. By bringing cars into the house, when they could as easily have stopped at the door, Le Corbusier created an image of modern living that speaks as loudly to driving, as it does human ambulation.
By the time of the post-war era of car fueled urban sprawl, hardly a house was featured in the architectural press where the roof covering the occupants was not extended or stylistically replicated to also cover their car. Pierre Koenig’s Bailey House in car loving Los Angeles epitomizes the times, having an entrance itinerary that is purely vehicular. That is, the house is not designed to receive pedestrians, so much as it is designed to receive drivers. The carport is presented m
ore like an edicule, flanked by a water feature, giving the car unquestioned pride of place.
The prevalence of this type of thinking in the post war era, effectively stigmatized any mode of coming or going to and from houses, other than via a car. Participation in the good life, as the good life was presented in the architectural press, demanded that one own a car and be licensed to drive it. Little wonder driving proved so symbolic to second-wave Feminists. Unless they could drive, women were excluded from the life to which the middle classes agreed all should aspire. Later we’ll see how calls to bring bicycles into architectural programs, is legitimizing this more ecologically palatable mode of commuting, not to the point where driving is in turn stigmatized the way walking and cycling once were, but in a way that represents a profound move away from the thinking of post-war architects like Koenig, and Le Corbusier before him.
Others have written about ways urban design—specifically urban consolidation and the incorporation of cycling infrastructure—are being used to promote bicycle use. However, this particular inquiry is focused on a shift toward bike love, from car love, among designers of individual projects. Le Corbusier’s Voisin plan for Paris, named in honor of the car maker Gabriel Voison, is only of passing interest therefore, while buildings that were designed to look like, or in deeper ways be like cars, can tell us something about ways bicycle design itself might now be inspiring some architects.
The top of architect William Van Alen’s Chrysler Building in New York (1930), looks like a car, having the same kind of pressed metal panels, giving it a streamlined and heroic appearance. Despite this, the building is out of step with most car-like architecture of the twentieth-century, insofar as those panels were each specially fabricated. Attitudes of most architects of the Machine Age were tied up with the promise of mass production, to provide quality mass produced buildings to all, in the manner of the Model-T Ford.
Emblematic of that thinking is Le Corbusier’s Maison "Citrohan", which demonstrated an idea Le Corbusier had written about in Vers Une Architecture, that if the same approach to mass production were applied to building as was being applied to the making of cars, then it too could be liberating. The name "Citrohan" was a play on the Citroën car, France’s answer to the Model-T Ford. Like the car, the house would not be an exquisite one-off. Quality and value would be achieved by offering clients less choice, especially where such fixtures as balustrades, window frames, and stair rungs would be concerned. Such items were all to be mass produced, making them cheaper, yet still very well made.
The fact that the analogy between car and house seems somewhat stretched, informing the making of fixtures, not the whole house, tells us Le Corbusier was probably as concerned with finding the right rhetoric with which to present his work to a car smitten populace, as he was concerned with literally assembling houses the way cars are assembled. All the talk about cars among architects of this century gone, was pitched at people’s hearts. After all architects are usually very adept when it comes to zeroing in upon their clients’ aspirations.
Le Corbusier’s catch cry about houses being ideal machines for living in, the way cars are ideal driving machines, reminds us that cars were a paragon in architects’ aesthetic imaginations at least since the time of the poet Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto. Marinetti heralded a new age of fascination with speed, time and flux, evidenced by numerous artistic movements throughout Europe in the early twentieth-century.
Looking to turn-of-the century movements in art, can help us see beyond Modern architects’ car love, to a deeper concern. The architectural commentator Sigfried Giedion noted that cubist painters—Le Corbusier among them—sought to represent time as the fourth dimension, along the lines of ideas circulating in the wake of Einstein’s discoveries. Cubists did this by painting objects from multiple view points, that the viewer could not have occupied at the one time. In this way The Cubists could capture in the plane of one painting, the time taken to progress from view point to view point. The Futurists meanwhile were looking for their own ways of capturing the idea of time in an image. To paint objects that embodied time and motion—like nudes descending staircases, moving cars, a
nd moving bicycles—was to become an habitual quest for the Futurists.
Why, if their deeper concern was a new cosmology in which time was an actual dimension—like forward and backward, up and down, and side to side—did Architects of Giedion’s "new tradition", run so enthusiastically with just one of the moving subjects of their artist contemporaries’ paintings and photos, namely, the car? As many images had explored the dynamics of fast moving runners, horses, and cyclists, as had captured cars motion. Why go to lengths Le Corbusier went to with his Villa Savoye to accommodate moving cars, and not not similarly distort houses to accommodate running, horse riding or cycling? It is not as though cars had made these modes of transportation invisible. Until the later half of the twentieth-century bicycles, for instance, remained a more common means of commuting than cars, horses were ubiquitous, and running was being glorified through The Modern Olympics.
It seems reasonable to speculate, that architects were more smitten by cars, because cars were more powerful. Only now is consideration being given to where cars’ power actually came from, non-renewable sources, and where some of it goes when it is spent: the atmosphere as greenhouse gasses. The power that attracted society to cars, is the power society has become reluctant to squander.
A Contemporary Paragon
Now that the prestige of driving is tainted by the environmental damage entailed, and cycling has become an expression of so many people’s concern for the environment and their health and wellbeing, bicycles would seem to provide a more fitting paragon for architects, than cars. Instead of saying the house is a machine for living in, in the resource hungry way that cars are machines from getting around in, we could well imagine ecologically concerned architects viewing the house as a tool for the optimization of frugal living, in the way the bicycle optimally coverts stored calories into propulsion. It would be less fitting today to think of houses as "machines", dragging in non-renewable energy for heating or cooling, than to think of the house as a piece of equipment of sorts, making as frugal a use of limited resources as bicycles do with their riders’ limited wattage. Like cycling equipment, we can imagine bike-like houses being highly refined. We can imagine them being stripped back to essentials, as bicycles are. They might all be quite similar, or "archetypal", the way bikes tend to be with their subtle variations on the diamond shaped frame.
Cars and buildings of the Machine Age, could afford to be more energy hungry than bicycles, or buildings whose architects look to bicycles as yardsticks of excellence. By extension, the Machine Age could tolerate more superfluity than The Bicycle Age might tolerate when it comes building design. In the Machine Age, a little superfluity could be powered along with cheap fossil fuel energy. In the Bicycle Age, every gust of wind works with or against what little energy users can deliver from their own legs.
The argument taking shape here, that bicycles are the natural successor to cars as yardsticks of excellence in the architectural imagination, would fall down entirely if there was no evidence of a shift taking place. Perhaps architects no longer need paragons, or maybe other philosophical agendas have become much more important. We’ll see with the remainder of this essay that signs of a shift, admittedly, are slight. However, in the 1930s when the car was just taking hold, signs that such a thing was taking place would not have been obvious either, given hardly a car-inspired building had been built at that time. The examples presented below have been selected because something about their underlying thinking can be related back to examples of car-loving architecture given above. That is so attention may be drawn to the way an image promoted through the design of one building, can shape peoples’ desire for one mode of transport over another. We’ll see that similar architectural strategies to those that helped popularize driving, are being used to glorify cycling as a the new, ideal way to commute.
Making Bicycles Part of the Architectural Program
Perturbed by the cost of building more roads and/or train lines, planners worldwide are looking at making their cities more conducive to cycling, like Amsterdam, where 28% of journeys are taken by bike, as opposed to figures in the order of 1-2% in cities dominated by individual car use. Lower densities though, mean longer, sweatier commutes, on faster and thus more expensive bicycles. End of journey secure bike parking stations, often with public showers and changing room areas, are being seen as one answer.
bike parking station
Bike stations are a new building type where the cultural ascension of cycling is being manifest architecturally, the way peoples’ fascination with the automobile was manifest with buildings like the Fiat Factory in Turin, or the Le Marbeauf Showroon in Paris. Unlikely though it may seem, one city spearheading their building, is Chicago, where one could hardly imagine car culture yielding to bike culture. Yet it is in Chicago where architects Muller & Muller were recently commissioned to design a parking station in Millennium Park for 300 bikes, plus showers and lockers and a bicycle parts shop where repairs can be done. The project had a fabulous budget of USD$3,000,000, or $10,000 per bike! Whichever way those figures are viewed, the symbolic aspects of this building cannot be denied. It was commissioned not only to accommodate cycling, but to glorify cycling as a publicly sanctioned, indeed noble, means of commuting.
Chicago’s other facility of this kind belongs to a nation-wide franchise, Bikestation. Having a duty to the prominent location beside Union Station, and a duty too to cycling as a cause, architects KPG Design Studio have responded with a kind of cathedral, having a form that recalls Coop Himmelblau’s Rooftop Office in Vienna, realized in etched tempered glass, polished concrete, steel cabling and other cues that this is to be read as a work of contemporary architecture, as culturally invested and formidable as any museum. According the to designer, Donald Paine, an oblique reference to the arc of a bicycle wheel is supposedly made by the arc of the roof.
When Nikolaus Pevsner said, "A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture,” (An Outline of European Architecture, 1943), he might have called car sheds mere buildings, had so many buildings for cars not been raised to the status of architecture by the time of his writing. Today Pevsner would be forced to find some other example of "building", other than bike sheds, which have clearly attained the status of an architectural type, having aesthetic and symbolic intent. One indication of the cultural impact upon Chicago of buildings like these, is that since their construction the new bike market there has expanded to embrace high end European city bike brands not available elsewhere in the US, like Abici and Velorbis. Given the role architecture has played in promoting Chicago’s bike culture, it is most likely not a coincidence that these prestigious brands, as well as Danish cargo bikes and other signs of a vibrant bike culture, are sold in Chicago by an a
rchitectural firm, Norsman Architects, with a bike store as a sideline.
In Britain, interest in the new type peaked in 2006, with an international design competition, “Reinventing the Bike Shed”, ran by New London Architecture. Towers hoisting bikes out of thieves’ reach were popular solutions. The bike shed has since emerged as a type in England, one celebrated example being Sarah Wigglesworth’s Bermondsey Bike Store, shortlisted for the AJ Ramboll Whitbybird Small Projects Award 2009 for its architectural merit. Cities with already high rates of bicycle use, not surprisingly, have the best facilities of all. Groningen in Holland has a sculptural concrete station for 4000 bikes, while in the Dutch town of Apeldoorn there is an elevated station for 600 bikes sheathed in translucent glass.
Insofar as bicycles are generators of programs now, for works of high architecture, it can be said a relationship exists between cycling and architecture, akin to that which architects have traditionally fostered with cars. But while the aforementioned bike-sheds are sophisticated, and thus architectural, there is no explicit sense in which they celebrate the elegance of bicycle making the way, for example, Le Corbusier claimed his Maison "Citrohan" would celebrate the way cars are manufactured on assembly-lines.
When Moots, manufacturers of high performance titanium frames, commissioned Johannson Architects to design new headquarters and display rooms, they got a building their architects describe as analogous to the Moots bikes. Exposed steel tubular trusses are the most obvious cue, followed by materials used in bikes Moots make, like teflon coatings for window canopies, and door hardware made from titanium. Their bikes’ decals meanwhile are the pattern for the building’s bold signage. Granted, this is a building the architectural world will ignore. What it reflects though is an appropriation of imagery from a design field with greener connotations than car design, paralleling something the Pittwater School of Australian architects have been doing with buildings informed by sailboat design for about 20 years now.
After cars, Modernism’s next great fascination was with ocean liners: huge, fossil fuel driven machines, inspiring buildings criticized in recent decades as being dislocated from the urban fabric of the cities in which they’ve been built. If the car’s modest counterpart is the bicycle, then the green answer to the ocean liner would be a yacht. Thus we find Richard Leplastrier speaking of a timber boat he’s designed as though it were part of his architectural portfolio, and Peter Stutchbury adapting hardware manufactured for yachting for use in his buildings. The cross over is so thorough, that sailing hardware suppliers Ronstan, now also have a whole range of architectural products.
The architectural bike sheds mentioned above, are among the larger examples of this emerging new type, and tend not to be bike-like in the way they’re produced. Where tectonic synergies between architecture and bicycle design are being witnessed, is in the design of smaller, mass-produced bike sheds. The Bike Dispenser, for example, is a long bike shed that automatically dispenses rental bikes via a bike shaped opening. These bike sheds of sorts, have a mass produced, industrial design aesthetic, much like the bikes they dispense. The bigloo stores users’ bikes on a carousel and returns it to them when they identify themselves using a smart card and key pad. This bike shed too has mass produced high gloss components achieved via the logic of industrial design. The sheds are dominated by bold lettering, not unlike decals on a bicycle down tube. The same company build the biceberg, a chic version of much larger bike silos beneath Kasai Station in Tokyo. Again, large letters like bike decals, and a mode of construction owing more to industrial design thinking than the creation of one-off buildings, creates what is arguably a bike-like aesthetic.
Another, more abstract way to ask if a build
ing is bike-like, is to ask if it adheres to similar design principles to those guiding designers of bikes. One preoccupation of many designer of bikes, is weight, and how to shed it without sacrificing power transfer or durability. First by butting tubes, then by developing alloys, and now by using nano carbon fiber construction, each year designers have shaved more grams from the diamond shaped frame. The obsession is a result of the pitifully low energy inputs coming from even the strongest of riders, if compared to the power motors can generate. The nearest corollary in architectural thinking, is structural rationalism, an idea generally credited to Viollet-le-Duc, which states that structures attain beauty and elegance as they approach a point where no material could be taken away and not cause the structure to fail. Many buildings are informed by the principle, which Le Corbusier viewed in relation to aeronautical engineering, but which could be viewed in relation to bicycle design if the building in question were a velodrome.
Ryder sjph Architects boast that their dome for the Sydney Olympic Velodrome weighs only 40kg per square meter, despite its very large 150x100m span. The roof provides a spectacle of minimum mass engineering like the one taking place on the track. Just as wind tunnel and fluid dynamic computer modeling go into making bikes and their riders aerodynamic, engineers Ove Arup devised a buoyancy driven heat stack to generate airflow past seating areas. With the building, as for the bikes it contains, a big investment of brain power during design, means a more efficient use of power during operation. The building’s beauty resides in its frugal use of material and energy, qualities valued by designers and buyers of bikes.
The most conspicuous way that buildings are becoming like bikes, is entirely coincidental. Simple though they may seem, the angles at which tubes are welded or braised to each other in bike frames, vary considerably and are in fact very complex. A bottom bracket, for instance, has lugs for a down tube, seat tube, and two chain-stay tubes, of different diameters and precise angles in three spatial planes. The joints are not unlike those architects are pursuing with complex exoskeletal steel structures, such as those designed by LAB at Federation Square, Melbourne. For architects, joining lengths of steel at complex and varying angles is being achieved via computer aided manufacturing, where frame builders have been joining tubes this way for decades, thanks to companies who supply them with an enormous range or lugged brackets, capable of receiving tubes of all sizes from every possible angle. To a frame builder, Federation Square might resemble a tracing of bike frames over the sky.
When historians look back at design trends of a decade, they rarely avoid the locus of fashion. The decade just past, is the one that saw fashion houses all having their own brand of bike (Binachi bikes at Armani, for instance), displayed in shopfronts carrying the cache, in many cases, of big name architects, Rem Koolhaas ideally. In that sense the 2000s were when bikes and named buildings were contrived as the new black, through a series of cross marketing deals. Meanwhile, frugality, or "sustainability" as it is branded, attained the status of an architectural orthodoxy, subscribed to by architects generally. These alliances are consistent, of course, with a cultural turn toward anything healthy, natural and green, and away from anything which might smack of a big carbon footprint, like driving.
While there is no direct, cycling and architecture are linked by their association with fashion.
From a broad art history perspective, the emergence of bicycles as a prospective yardstick and motif, can be seen as a fresh start to a trajectory set in motion by the Futurists and early Modernists. If we understand architects’ broader mission as one of embracing time as a spatial dimension, rather than designing car-like buildings befitting an age of energy hungry machines, we might notice how artists of their time not only painted pictures of automobiles, freeways and aircraft. They were concerned with anything moving, or having some inherent attachment to the notion of time. Bicycles were a common motif. Understanding that radical changes associated with Modernism were afoot before cheap oil and cars steered in architects in that particular direction, and thus understanding that bicycles could well have been emblems for progress, opens the way for considering bicycles as a new, frugal, green kind of alternative paragon for design principles architects are now more concerned with.
The Conference where I will present all this guff