June 20th, 2011

Florentine architecture graced by old bikes

Architects are so in the habit of camouflaging their car parks that sometimes they mistakingly hide bicycle parking as well. Thus I call your attention to a different sensibility existing before the inventions of cars. In the age of the Florentine palazzo, wealthy families like the Medicis and Strozzis did not wish that their grand homes would sit like lonely temples on main street. They built benches to encourage regular folk to hang out, clutter up the joint, show their support, and linger a while. Symbolically, they attached iron rings for so that people might chain up their horses.

Allow me to illustrate my point with some photos I have taken, during my recent travels, of architecture enhanced by bikes in their midst: 
From left: Cooper Union NYC; Foundling Hospital in Florence; the Graduate School of Design in Cambridge MA; Palazzo Strozzi 

It flatters a building to have lots of bikes chained outside. The same can't be said about cars, since crowds of cars take up acres of space. Bicycles though, are more like people showing their support to the Strozzis, by sitting around the base of their palazzo.
Left: photos I took this morning in front of palazzo Rucellai. Right:Matteo Renzi

Florence, by the way, is terrific. This is the third June in a row I have come here—as part of a little racket I've made for myself, leading architectural history tours around Greece and Italy. In that time I've watched the pedestrianised area expand like a fire, thanks to the visionary leadership of Matteo Renzi. He told some residents who were complaining about having to walk from their cars, that they are not mermaids. They can walk, or better still, cycle. Notably Italian thinking has never been polluted with this American idea that non-powered bikes are vehicles, to be banned from pedestrian areas.