The elegant device as a paragon for city planning

This might seem arcane, but it’s obvious that every architectural or urban design act refers back to a pinnacle.

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 neighborhoods are the hands, etc.) or simply by copying proportions, architecture and city planning took their authority from the body.

The elegant device as a paragon for city planning

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.

Most bicycle advocates interested in urban design align with the camp that takes the European city as its pinnacle, for the obvious reason that old city centers 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 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.

The elegant device as a paragon for city planning

We need some smart common ground. We need a paragon that they respect from an engineering mindset, that we recognize 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 machine design 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 like 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 private cars. 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 an old mate (I mean old comrade) Iakov Chernikhov shows how the emphasis was on the logic of engineering, but without all the speed and thrills you get in Futurist art.

The elegant device as a paragon for city planning

Note that the last image is of a bayonet fitting. A simple “turn to lock” mechanism. Whether you live for the day when cars will all fly or when everyone tends the neighborhood garden, I am sure you can appreciate such a smart 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. I would want to pack one or two hand tools, my La Pavoni manual espresso machine, my acoustic guitar, a few of my favorite 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 consider some simple devices 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 elegant device as a paragon for city planning

The building types and new urban development patterns you will find on this blog, 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 of thinking about there! The book is nearly finished, my comrades.

Leave a Comment