August 11th, 2011

Turning this hobby into a duty

Regular readers will well know my propensity to joke around, but I'm not joking now. I've had a few genuine responses to my call for help, from architects and urban planners. All are geniuses, by which I mean, they share my enthusiasm for the future of bicycle transit. I shouldn't be surprised, really. I could never have been the only one to have thought cities stood to be improved, if design professionals were serious about the needs of a bicycle-born population. 

From Left: cycling inside Frankfurt Airport; riding up to frankfurt vendor in Frankfurt Airport; Bike storage in former bank vault in Portland

But who am I, that I should be worth anyone's time, to lend assistance? Honestly, two years ago, I would have said, nobody. However, since then I have devoted all my time, and lots of my money, to studying cycling from every angle an architect or urban designer could possibly look at the subject. I'm also willing (make that eager) to organize the efforts all fellow architects and urban designers, who share my passion for cycling, into a body of work with more clout than the sum of its pieces.

From left: VM Houses by BIG; Washington Bike Station; eyes on the bike racks at Wholefoods in Boston

In the coming weeks I will be launching an online magazine, edited by a long term follower of this blog (soon to be revealed). It will be a forum to showcase built works and ideas for hyper bike friendly cities and buildings. In time, there will be exhibitions, books, a venerable arsenal of social media levers pulling this way and that, and whatever else we collectively throw at the issue. And let us not forget, we have allies in fields like geography, film, politics, engineering, public health, the environmentalist movement, etc..  

From Left: ramped access balcony at 8-House; VMX architects' bike store at Amsterdam Central; Benthem Crouwel Architects' Exhibition center in Amsterdam

Can I bore you with my bio? I've been blogging about bikes and architecture for the past 2 years. I've just finished a research trip studying the state of cycling, from an architects' standpoint, that took me to Singapore, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Portland OR, Chicago, Washington DC, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Athens, Rome, Ravenna, Florence, and Copenhagen. I'm an architectural academic with 12 years teaching and research experience (PhD, grants, publications, etc..). I've held visiting positions in the Dept. of Philosophy at Columbia and briefly at the Harvard School of Public Health. I know this is probably all sounding tedious, so I'll tell you what I think counts most of all: like you, I am a bike nut. I've been a keen club racer for 20 years, and use my stable of bikes the way most people would use a car. I'm into plain clothes urban commuting, mountain biking, taking my Brompton on trains and planes, riding with my kids, and the whole lycra thing during races. I don't play favourites with types of cyclists. If I had places to store them, I would buy a velomobile, a fixie and a box-bike tomorrow.  

From Left: Telling the White House what I've got planned; McDonalds bike station Chicago; Lower East Side; Cube House Rotterdam; Arriving by bike at Washington Airport.

So we want to make buildings and cities that encourage cycling over every other mode, because only cycling is egalitarian, healthy and green. And we know we're making no headway at all, in emulating Holland and Denmark. Life not dependent on cars has slipped from living memory in cities elsewhere. Universal segregated bike paths are too alien a concept for voters. I've concluded that the best way forward, is to ignore (for now) the network of streets car drivers are using, and instead unearth the neglected, erased, overgrown and forgotten networks of waterways and rail easements that were important back when (most of) our cities revolved around industry. If we map them, we'll usually find those old buried routes intersect with the big brownfield sites that are steadily being "reclaimed" (usually with apartments). If every former industrial rail line and waterway could be used as the basis of a bike route, flying over or under the cars as required, and if cars were kept away from all the brownfield urban redevelopment zones, cyclists would have their own "separatist zones", in which to pursue lives totally invested in cycling. Those separatist bicycling zones, I think, would eventually inspire their host cities to really ramp up their bicycle usage. Then, we'll claim Main Street. 

From Left: Ramped entry of Le Corbusier's Carpenter Center at Harvard; someone cycling home during floods in Copenhagen; elegant dormitory bike racks at Harvard.

As an architectural educator/historian/theorist, I'm excited by the opportunities to reveal the forgotten spines of our cities, to build infrastructure that transgresses norms for the sake of an agreed good, and to spearhead a new wave of functionalist architecture. I'm imagining infants schools where parents have nowhere to park out the front, and where kids bring their bikes into class. I'm imagining multi-storey buildings with no stairs or lifts, only ramped access balconies that you can ride on. I'm imagining bike racks in the most prominent places, to at once grace buildings with bikes, but also to put eyes on the bikes, as a form of passive surveillance to deter thieves.
From Left: staff bikes at MVRDV office in Rotterdam; Cube House in Rotterdam; Giant's concept store in Boston.

We won't just make buildings that are possible to ride through. They will be fun to ride through; they will speak of the dynamics of cycling, its frugality, and maybe even the way bikes are made. Oh, and our bike routes will be undercover. I don't know about you, but I'm tired of getting rained on, while those lazy drivers stay dry. We'll actually conceive the tendrils of our separatist zones, built in the shadow of industry, as buildings of sorts, knowing our bikes will shrink these cities to the size of big buildings. 

From left: BIG's 8-House in Copenhagen; A long way to nearest subway from the Lower East Side, New York; A bicycle passing a Googie style diner in New York. 

Can you help me flesh out this vision? While I've been honing my writing and lecturing skills, I really have let my architectural presentation skills fall by the wayside. I mean, I can whip up a nice pencil sketch, but not images to capture the public imagination. I'm as open minded about architectural styles as I am about riding styles, so would give you absolute creative freedom. Just "don't be boring dahling", as Zha Zha Gabor would have said. I guess I should say as well, that I'm not looking for "outsider architecture". Best you be someone who has graduated from architecture school, or who is getting good grades in design. We aren't envisioning hicksville.

From Left: DIY Portland style (hicksville); Portland Rail Trail; eyes on the bike racks at Gehry's Stata Center at MIT—plus he's provided a bike maintenance stand. 

So that you know, I'm not one to pass off others design work as my own (besides, no one would be believe me in any case). If you put the time into designing, I actually want to give you honors, help make you famous, and help win you commissions. And finally, for those of you who prefer to be given a context to work from, stay tuned for some site information that I am gathering. The photos accompanying this post, are offered as inspirational primers. I took them all during my most recent trip.

xox Dr. Behooving.