March 3rd, 2011

Buildings might be better if we built them like bicycles.

Oh to be famous. I reached my majority at the tender age of 18 (as everyone does, I suppose), but in my case the joy of now being able to enter bloody bars legally was tinged with regret. I had turned 18 without being recognised as a child prodigy. Child prodigiousness never would be conferred upon me. And no doubt I will be told I have cancer before anyone tells me I'm great. Documentaries made about me after I'm gone, will have to make do with a few words from my children, because no doco makers are taking the opportunity to interview me now, before I'm of note.

I teach architecture students and sometimes ask for a show of hands: "Who wants to be famous?" Every class has one. Usually a guy, hoping no doubt fame will afford him an unfair quota of occasions to breed. I understand entirely, why males should want to be famous. But as an architect? Truly, that is naive.

Contemporary architectural practice does not produce stars. Stars produce themselves, with money from their parents, spent on publicists and similar nonsense. The job of designing buildings has become too collaborative, and too lacking in volition, for any one person to shine, no matter how hard working or talented. I have been thinking just how similar the two tasks be, that of designing buildings, and the designing of bikes. The portable bike C.B. King and I are presently prototyping, will be fitted with parts from dozens of makers. We are just designing the frame, that like the frame of a building, will have other people's products secured—tightly, let's hope. Just as an architect may have to change a facade system at the last minute, we may have to swap Campagnolo cranks for Sugino ones, if Campagnolo stop making theirs.  

We are not like Andrew Ritchie, who had to instate a whole blooming factory in order to realize his Brompton design, on which every part belongs to his concept. We are innovating, sure, but within the narrow constituencies set by what parts we can buy. Like today's architects, we're dealing with supply chains beyond our control.

Myself though, I have read The Tao of Pooh [Bear]. I know to find happiness in the world, as the world is, not as it was, or might be. I don't stew about the roads here not being like Denmark's, for instance. And I try to see good, in how things just happen to be. It's a good thing, to my mind, that there are so few famous architects; if history was to frame our opinions, we would have to conclude that famous architects are almost invariably jerks. And could you imagine what it would be like, having to live with Alex Moulton. "Yes dear, small wheels are faster." You would go crazy!

Horizontally integrated manufacturing industries, whether they're making buildings or bikes, produce simply el-schmicko results, again and again. Gates Belt Drives can go on any bike, and are of fabulous quality. Gates belts make Strida belts, that only go onto Stridas, look like parts ripped out of old washing machines. Designers using Gates drives on their bikes don't become famous, like Mark Sanders—who designed Stridas, or so google tells me—but they do make better bikes. The only thing bothering designers, about having to work with proprietary bike or building components, rather than designing their own, is so little glamour stands to be gained from their best efforts. Good design, in these new environments, is not a matter of reinventing the wheel, and taking the accolades. Rather, it involves managing interfaces between all these proprietary systems, not even knowing if some might be swapped during construction, if for example a manufacturer stops making what you have specified. Get it right, and other people's products will shine. Get it wrong, and all that will shine, is light through the cracks.