November 6th, 2010

Might buildings have bike ramps rather than lifts?

Woolworth's building, NYC, 1926.       Unite De Habitation 1952                 

The Woolworths Building, and tall buildings thereafter, owe their height to Elisha Otis's plummet-proof elevator of 1852. A century later, Le Corbusier gave a tall apartment building wide access corridors, like streets in the sky. Unfortunately, the streets of his Unite De Habitation were not interconnected, the way streets have to be. They were instead isolated, each a dead end, and each reached via the dark, cramped, disorientating vortex of the passenger lift. Shops on those streets failed, and the lack of pedestrian life made them lonely and foreboding places to be. But imagine if a building could have one continuous access balcony, spiraling from the ground floor to the roof! It would not be an isolated little dead end. It might even be social and happy, like a switch back road winding up through a hill side village perhaps. Only who would want to walk its ungainly length?

8-House, Copenhagen, 2010, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG)

Personally, I have trouble walking from my office to the toilet down the hall, a journey I quite often cycle. So I can sympathise! There is no way I would want to walk along a hundred meters of ramp just to go up by one level. In Copenhagen, I would not be alone. People there are used to having wheels to go everywhere. Well there is a thought! How about a continuous spiraling access balcony, that it is not so narrow or steep, that it can't be cycled on, from the ground floor to the upper most flat?

In Bjarke Ingels's 8-House, bike nuts like us will be able to wheel their bikes out of their flats, and be riding, thanks to a wide access balcony gently spiraling its way from the roof to the street. I highly recommend spending some time on their site. The explanations as to how each of their building's forms came to be, would suffice for a whole course in architectural design.
No more of this!                     A spiraling access balcony wide enough to cycle along.            The architect trusting his balustrade.

8-House not only solves the problem of the dead lifeless access corridor, but also that of the passenger lift jammed full of bikes. Pedestrians can take the lift, and leave cyclists to ride. Notably, the gradient on the ramp is very easy, as you can see in this video. That is because the figure-8 form turns the building, effectively, into a very long perimeter block. Whoever wrote the NSW planning document for apartment buildings, SEPP65, and the stipulation that access corridors should serve no more than 6 residences on any level, might reconsider their logic if they went to this building. When I was designing and living in apartment buildings in Singapore, I leaned wide access balconies can be social places. So long as bedroom windows don't open onto them, they can bring social harmony. SEPP65 assumes loiterers with no business there, will be challenged if no more 6 units share the corridor on any level. Well, apartment dwellers tend not to challenge anyone, as far as I can ascertain. Isolating buildings cause people to retreat into their flats and bolt up. It may actually be better treating access balconies as well populated streets, with maximum human surveillance, provided free by those who live there.