May 31st, 2010

All the Smithsons needed were cyclists

In the late 1950s the seminal British architects, Peter and Alison Smithson, led a push for artificial ground planes one level up from the city. Pedestrians would walk about on landscaped, picturesque networks, while cars would drive on the old streets below. Architects had been trying to get us up into the air since Le Corbusier—who named himself after a bird—had started putting his houses on stilts. It was The Smithsons though, who were there when the dream started to become a nightmarish reality. 

The problem with The Smithson's idea, was it relied on neighbouring land owners all redeveloping their sites in the same manner, within a short time frame. Otherwise those elevated ground planes would be fragments of a network that would remain incomplete, and not worth pedestrians' energy to go up and look. Even where the idea could be achieved, for example Southbank in London, was a landscape of pavers and planter boxes such a step up from the ground plane?

My collaborator in the profession, C.B.King, was telling me over lunch how he imagined disused upper level office spaces in Newcastle being taken up with bicycle related functions—secure bike parking mainly—with interlinking bridges over the streets. At first, all I could think of was how lifeless every false ground plane I've seen is. That was until I was reminded that "cyclespace" (that's my invention that kids) is the result of a third kind of player: the cyclist. Elevated routes are boring and fatiguing for people on foot. Cars, meanwhile, are prohibited. They are, by my own definition, cyclespace! The High Line in New York, although it prohibits cyclists at the moment, will eventually bore pedestrians to the point where it is given over to cyclists. By that stage my concept of cyclespace will be so famous, everyone will understand why the change happened.

Back to C.B.King's vision. From memory I think he was talking of something like this, a high level bicycle fly-over connecting land in front of the new GHD and NIB buildings to the safe cycling streets of Cooks Hill. As I'm drawing it here, it would fly right over the art school and between the GHD and NIB towers, hitting a tower-like bike parking station built on the median strip on Honeysuckle Drive, itself connected by ramps picking up bike traffic alongside the harbour. The big opportunity is to revitalise the Old Star Hotel precinct that the system would pass through. Gym? Sports medicine? Allied health? Health food? Bike shop? Rooftop cafe?