The elegant device as a paragon for city planning.

This might seem arcane, but it’s actually quite obvious that every architectural or urban design act refers back to a paragon of some kind.

In Renaissance times it was the body. Whether through analogy (e.g.: the civic administration building is the head, the church is the heart, the neighbourhoods are the hands, etc) or simply by copying proportions, architecture and city planning took its authority from the body.

In the Enlightenment period it was “the primitive hut“, an imaginary progenitor of the Greek temple. Architects like Claude Ledoux were striving for an elementary architecture of beams, columns, walls and pure geometrical plan forms that somehow referred to architecture’s absolute origins.


In modern times we have had two rival paragons, the machine (as in Le Corbusier’s call for the house to be a “machine for living in”) and the traditional European city, much lauded by the Kriers, Rossi and most recently Gehl.

paragons in architecture

Most bicycle advocates with any interest in urban design align with the camp that takes the European city as its paragon, for the obvious reason that old city centres in Europe have the highest bike modal shares.

The conflict we are witnessing these days between engineers and developers on the one hand wanting fast roads and mega-malls out beside highways, and community garden types on the other wanting to reclaim old districts as doctors’-wives’ ghettos, stems from us having two rival paragons. From my point of view as an architectural historian, it seems essential that we break out of this impasse. Until we do, one side of each council meeting will be shaking their heads at our calls for more cycling and walking. They think more about self-driving or flying cars. They want scenes from science fiction. We want period dramas. Both positions are flawed.

We need some smart common ground. We need a paragon that they respect from an engineering mindset, that we recognise as humane. Now before you neckbeards say Rohloff Speedhub let me tell you about a moment in the story of the machine age, before capitalists and speed freaks allowed it to spin out of control.


By the mid 1920s the idea that architecture and city planning should be approached in the same manner as one might approach the design of a machine, had swept across Europe and the US. You’ve got Gropius in Germany, Le Corbusier in France, Buckminster Fuller in the US, etc.. However, there are some nuanced variations in certain regions. In Italy, the nation of High Renaissance sphere-in-cube churches, Giuseppe Terragni was doing buildings that looked as though they had popped from machines, but with geometric rather than picturesque qualities.


The regional difference in Russia was there weren’t so many wealthy bohemians with their own private cars. In fact half the nation was close to starvation. Machines didn’t speak to Russian Constructivist architects about speeding or flying, but rebuilding society and maybe surviving. A series of drawings of machines by old mate (I mean old comrade) Iakov Chernikhov show how the emphasis was on the logic of engineering, but without all the speed thrills you get in Futurist art.

machine study jpg


Note that last image of a bayonet fitting. A simple “turn to lock” mechanism. Regardless of whether you live for the day when cars will all fly, or when everyone tends the neighbourhood garden, I am sure you can appreciate such an elegant device.

If I had to pack my life into a few cases to go on a plane, it wouldn’t grieve me to say goodbye to my white goods. What I would want to pack are one or two hand tools, my La Pavoni manual espresso machine, my acoustic guitar, a few of my favourite kitchen utensils, and of course one or two of my most precious bikes.

Or think of it this way, how you are more likely to judge the quality of a house by the quality of its simple devices, like the taps or door hardware. If buying an electric garage opener or air-conditioner you go for the cheapest. With simple devices you go for the best.

The traditional European city is a simple device, but one that humanity has outgrown. It doesn’t take account of some simple devices that came along later, like the bike or the wheelchair. It is blind too to the benefits of living in a city of millions, not thousands, and the access to markets that large cities give us—or would give us, if we had some way of ensuring quick transport connections.

The building types and new urban development patterns you will find on this blog, but more particularly in my next book, are simple devices. I have tried to imagine a city of 6,000,000 people enjoying faster transport connections across the whole city than anyone enjoys in a car-centric or train-centric city. Rather than powered machines like lifts, air-conditioners, rail carriages or cars, I’ve looked for elegant architectural solutions that revolve around simple devices, especially bicycles.

What I have found is that the more one increases permeability at the ground level (think piloti, fine grids and the likes), and density (think Manhattan), while limiting the encumbrance to cycling posed by large machines (trucks, cars, etc.) the more elegant a city becomes as a human connection device.

Along with that comes the need to bring bikes to end destinations: shops, board rooms, work desks, kitchens, etc.. Mode travel studies, for every mode, are not capturing the time it takes to get from parking areas, ground floor lift lobbies or stations to actual destinations. This is like ignoring the time it takes for a downloaded movie to get to your screen from your modem.

A bit to think about there! The book is nearly finished my comrades.


  1. Nick zintilis says:

    I really learned a bit there. Your Comrad Chernikhov I find very much involved with speed and dreamscape. In Italy I find all this modern building very humane (the proportions) and easy to live.
    When in Amsterdam come see The Stedelijk Museum with Malevitch with the same style as Chernikhov.( like Rietveld and Mondriaan)

    • Steven says:

      I’ve been past the big bath tub. God I’m always so rushed.
      Now to Chernikhov: if his work is about speed my rhetoric is dead in the water. But I don’t think it is. There’s lot’s of soaring and thrusting and heroics. But if you compare his pictures by ones by Umberto Boccioni of cars, cyclists, horses etc., they seem pretty static. (I don’t even know what I’m talking about sometimes).

  2. nikdow says:

    “the more one increases permeability at the ground level (think piloti, fine grids and the likes), and density (think Manhattan), while limiting the encumbrance to cycling posed by large machines (trucks, cars, etc.) the more elegant a city becomes as a human connection device.”
    Sounds like a very good description of back-street Tokyo & other Japanese cities. Very fine grid, very dense, hardly any motorised transport (not just cars – trams get in the way a lot in other cities).
    I’m wondering about the relationship between trams (on street, short trip public transport) and bikes. Seems that cities that have crowded trams, don’t have bike infrastructure. Cities without trams substitute buses. Notice how in Amsterdam the share of bike trips is going up and the share of PT is going down along with cars? Where I live in Melbourne trams are very popular and we are never going to get rid of them so it’s a hopeless cause. They are popular because cycling is ruled out by the dominant paradigm (you said paragon). I found the same thing in Prague, the most anti-cycling city I’ve seen in EU (despite its historical city centre that Jahn Gehl would approve of). In Tokyo they don’t have trams at all. I can get to any destination a Melbourne tram goes to faster and cheaper on my bicycle, and of course a lot faster to all the destinations trams don’t go to, especially in combination with trains. While you can take a bike on the train in a lot of cities (not in Japan though), you generally can’t in a tram because they are space-compromised.
    On the other hand, trams are huge competitors for space on roads, and prevent any discussion of options for bicycles (in my city anyhow). Leave aside their dangerous tracks, the space they guzzle is the big problem. Engineers point out they can move more people in a tram corridor than if the width was allocated to bicycles, but the trams don’t go everywhere like the bicycle and you can’t put a tram on every street like you can a bicycle. They also ignore the extra time you spend taking a journey by walk-tram-walk c.f. direct by bicycle. Fixed rail can move huge numbers in a small space and quickly – that is trains. Trams are a waste of space.
    In Tokyo you have to navigate the street grid, no open ground plane underneath tall buildings on stilts. The downside is longer journeys, but the upside is activated streets with shops, people in their doorways, ground floor windows and something interesting to look at everywhere. I don’t think we need to put the buildings in the air, we just need to put fixed rail underground.
    BTW surface rail in Tokyo is a big problem for bicycle transport because it breaks the permeability. Often the roads that do cross the surface rail are not bicycle friendly as the pressure is on to maximise car volumes on those routes.

    • Steven says:

      Howdie Nik, my writing lately all needs viewing in the context of an ideal model for uptake in rapidly developing cities, not the remediation of existing large cities. 15kph electric carts without roofs would be the only transport machines you would need. Think of those cart people in airports.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hi Steven,
    Have been really enjoying your work of late.
    Heads up that I’ve queued this up to go on the Cycle FB page. Depending on the moderators, it might go up this evening – not sure if main page or inner circle (members forum). Hope it helps generate more interest in your work. If there are ways to help out, eg. directing back to the Cycle-space blog, or other, let me or Ed Hore know.

  4. Scott Aitch says:

    Ah yes. I’d be reluctant to part with my La Pavoni coffee machine too. It’s all bakelite and chrome, with a pressure gauge and a sight glass – and no electric pump to break down and deprive me of my caffeine fix at the worst time! It’s elegant and mechanically simple and “it just works”, unlike the automatic coffee machines that preceded it.
    Likewise, a bicycle is such an elegant and simple machine. So little to go wrong. On the other hand, look at the mechanical complexity of a transport system in which many cars, each having thousands of moving parts, each transports one or two occupants. Oil needs to be refined into petrol or diesel. The Fuel needs to be brought in – by ship, then by truck and finally pumped from the bowser. A constant stream of spare parts and consumables need to be manufactured and delivered to keep each car running. Roads need to be maintained, again using complex and specialised machines – on and on it goes. It seems amazing that such an inefficient transport system built from complex system on top of complex system actually functions as well as it does.
    But what happens in a time of war, or economic crisis – or just a few key unions calling a strike? The whole system can come crashing down. Meantime, we can just keep riding!

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