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Interview: Bikes, architecture, and "Cycle Space" with Steven Fleming

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on May 25th, 2011 at 4:01 pm

"100 years ago architects were fascinated by cars and how cars would transform cities... Now, architects are quite naturally looking at bicycles."

Steven Fleming is an architectural historian, lecturer, theorist, and urban planning philosopher with a thing for bicycles. The well-traveled academic (he calls Newcastle, Australia home) is currently researching a book on what he calls, "Cycle Space," a nascent field of his creation that looks at the connections between architecture and bicycles in cities around the world.

Like many smart bicycle thinkers tend to do, Fleming put Portland on his list of must-see cities. We sat down for a chat last week surrounded by exquisite handmade bicycles and photography at the Het Fairwheel Podium Gallery in downtown Portland. (When you read his quotes below, say them to yourself with a strong Australian accent.)

Steven Fleming.
(Photos © J. Maus)

Fleming's interest in urban planning was sparked by famed Danish architect and planner Jan Gehl. After graduating from architecture school and employed as an architect in Singapore, Fleming heard Gehl give a talk in 1994. "When I heard that," Fleming recalled, "I thought, that's the absolute opposite of what we're being asked to design!"

Inspired by Gehl, Fleming left his job in Singapore and began work on his PhD in urban planning. But then, Fleming says, "I got waylayed... I sort of drifted into architectural history, art theory, and I've put a heavy foot in the philosophy camp as well."

Fast forward to 2009 when Fleming — who has "always been into bikes" including a stint as a serious competitive racer — started a blog about cycling. "I started the blog as a joke, a bit of stress relief, coming out of a mid-life crisis. I thought, you know, I'm just going to live carfree and write this blog about bikes and how I think they're better."

"Bicycles are utterly frugal, energy efficient, almost irreducible in the way they go together, they're perfectly designed... So they are a really strong emblem for architects."

Then a funny thing happened.

"Six months into the blog I started thinking about bikes and architecture and urban design and art theory and philosophy. And then strangely, my worlds came together."

He started writing and presenting papers on this unique meld of topics and now Fleming has a book deal from a highly regard publisher (the Netherlands Architectural Institute) to explore "Cycle Space" even further. Below is an edited version of our chat...

So, what's Portland got to do with it?

"The reason I'm here and in this gallery is because bicycles in this city are being custom built and designed with love and skill and intelligence in a way that architects design buildings for people when they really get things right.

Porltand is a beacon to so many other cities. It's easy for people to dismiss Holland or Denmark, but not Portland.

Holland and Denmark were Calvinist strongholds originally, so anti-materialism has been a driver of cycling all along. The prime minister of Holland demonstratively rides his bicycle to work to let people know he's down-to-earth and wants to save a few bucks. Whereas, most other countries are materialistic, mine [Australia] included. I'm a part of that. I've got a bike collection. I love bikes.

In Portland, the whole idea of there being $20,000 bicycles that are an expression of yourself the same way as a prestige car might be, I think that speaks volumes because if you're seeing the top-end of town cycle and collecting exquisite bikes and wanting to ride them, then working classes look to that and aspire to that and so I think prestige has a role to play. It had a huge role to play in the expansion of cars... It was a classy thing to drive cars, so it's quite appropriate that we use all the strategies of class and cultural capital to wrap that around cycling and make it more prestigious than driving. And not because you're riding a $20 bike like as you might in Holland. That works in Holland, but I think in consumer societies it's better to be riding a $20,000 bike."

Why do bikes have such appeal to architects?

"I think David [Haines] the photographer here said, 'Cars are the new cigarettes.'... 100 years ago architects were fascinated by cars and how cars would transform cities and they were designing buildings that celebrated cars and looked like cars. Now, architects are quite naturally looking at bicycles. A lot of architects are very interested in bicycles, they're always thinking about how the world could be and should be, so it just so happens that a lot more architects cycle than a lot of other professions."

How does that interest manifest itself in architecture?

"On a simple level, you've got codes, the LEED system, parking requirements... On a practical level architects have to solve those problems: How do you get them up stairs? How do you store them?

But also, architects in their aesthetics always like to start from the First Principal. Bicycles are utterly frugal, energy efficient, almost irreducible in the way they go together, they're perfectly designed. There's not all that much room to move without making them worse. So they are a really strong emblem for architects. They're the sorts of things architects want to achieve with their buildings; frugality, perfection, elegance, personality, aspiration, fun."

Your book's working title, and your term for this new field is "Cycle Space." What exactly is that?

"There are different ways to see cities. If you're a cyclist, you might not know the names of some of the roads, you might not know certain landmarks. If you're a driver though, you don't know the landmarks by which the cyclist navigates and maps out the city in their head... And now we've got this fantastic explosion in bike share in a pretty short period of time and a huge bike culture has grown up around that. We're living in this time when those of us who have been cycling for a long time and seeing the world through those eyes, I think we've got something to offer. People are going to begin to ask us what we know.

We talk about hegemonies in architecture. The car domination is the typical hegemony. But thankfully, we live in this post-modernist age when smaller voices all have a part as well. And even if cyclists only ever make up 10% of the transport share, our voices deserve to be heard and we've got a way of seeing the world that is valid."

Is there something in the architectural world that is similar to how you are approaching bicycles?

"Yes. The term 'Cycle Space' is sort of ripped off from a book written a few years ago called Queer Space by a guy name Aaron Betsky. He was a part of the homosexual community and he recognized that there was this thing called queer space and if you're part of that community you see cities differently. He started to say well, if you're going to see the city that way you can actually see the design of buildings in a particular way as well. That's been a pretty strong influence."

Drawing of the 8 House in Copenhagen by Big.

If cycle space is a different way of seeing, then what does it look like in physical form? In the way buildings are designed?

"We'll have lots of ramps [laughs]. But seriously, there's a building in Denmark at the moment that is 10 stories high and the access balcony spirals so you can cycle all the way home. You can literally come out of your apartment on the 10th floor and just ride right out onto the street. That's one sort of over-the-top measure, to say, what can we really do with bikes?

There are also things about the aesthetics of bicycles that can inform architecture, and I think it differs from place to place. In Holland, people are very practical and matter of fact; they like to cycle because they can do it for a dollar a year. Here in Portland, it's really a different culture, I think there's a real tongue-and-cheek attitude in this city, where people like to be different from the rest of America for its own sake.

The Portland Building [designed by Michael Graves to house City administration] caused a huge furor in the architectural community 20 years ago. It pissed off people extraordinarily because of all the decoration and things like that. And the story I always heard was that people who lived here kind of liked it and I'm sure they liked the fact it was irritating the establishment. And cycling is irritating as well. I think a lot of cyclists like the fact that they overtake all the cars when the bridges are up and it's annoying to a country that's so hooked on gas."

How do your peers respond to your ideas about bicycling and architecture?

"Typically I get a laugh. They say, 'So you like bikes huh? You don't want to be in architecture anymore, you just want to use your job to write about bikes!' But, the publishers don't see it that way."

"Cycle Space" is due out in about 18 months... depending on where Fleming's travels, and his thoughts, take him.

You can follow Fleming's thoughts and adventures via Twitter and on his blog.

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Comments
  • are May 25, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    "in consumer societies it is better to [withdraw from the consumer society]"

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  • 9watts May 25, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    when you think about all the smart people who have recognized the elegance of the bicycle it is hard not to want to be part of that.

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  • captainkarma May 25, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    $20,000 spent on nutritious school lunches would be awesome. I fart in the general direction of bourgeois bikers behaving badly.

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  • spare_wheel May 25, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    $20,000!

    are they lugged with a gold alloy?

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    • Alan 1.0 May 27, 2011 at 10:59 am

      arborium frame, unobtanium fork and drillium gruppo

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  • Bob_M May 26, 2011 at 8:04 am

    Look on the Forum in General Discussion. I posted a photo of a gold plated bike with diamond encrusted lugs. Likely more like $75,000.
    Makes a Renovo with Campy Record grupo look practical.

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  • SilkySlim May 26, 2011 at 9:24 am

    I definitely had a dream last night about living in that figure 8 building, and having a huge, circuitous climb leading to my door. Kind of cool, but I woke up tired.

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  • eljefe May 26, 2011 at 10:24 am

    "if you're seeing the top-end of town cycle and collecting exquisite bikes and wanting to ride them, then working classes look to that and aspire to that"

    Count me as one guy who can afford a $20,000 but just isn't interested. If this guy had talked to one working-class Portlander during his visit, he would have found disgust, not aspiration. It's not surprising that an Australian wouldn't understand our class dynamics when we don't understand them ourselves.

    By the way, the Portland Building is famous not just for its aesthetics, but for its extremely low cost to build. Maybe that's why the locals liked it.

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  • Dan Kaufman May 26, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    Jonathan, thanks for inspiring us to get our Steven Fleming video finished.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-3y5wIclOmQ

    Kirsten and I had the the pleasure of taking him on a tour to look at interesting bike storage and access solutions around Portland when he was here a few weeks ago. Steven is a great guy and I hope he has huge success with his book and other endeavors.

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  • steven fleming May 28, 2011 at 11:07 am

    !st, thanks to Jonathan for covering my thoughts and my visit. Thanks too for comments reminding me of anti-consumarist sentiments among many in Portland (and everywhere actually). For the record, I don't own any 20K bikes. If you all buy my book though...:) But seriously, I met the nicest people there. You really have so many great things going on there. Bike advocates in Australia point to your example all of the time.

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  • Mikael May 28, 2011 at 11:34 am

    While the €20 bike analogy may apply to the Netherlands, it's doesn't apply to Denmark. The price that people pay for their bicycles is much higher than in The Netherlands. The Dutch who visit are amazed at how expensive the bicycles are.. .even retro-style upright bicycles. The average bicycle costs about $800-$1000 in Copenhagen. Oh, and Scandinavia are Lutherans, not Calvinists, but hey. Well, used to be... monotheistic religions are soooo last century.

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    • steven fleming May 29, 2011 at 3:23 pm

      Thanks Mikael. The Calvinist remark was made loosely, I'm sorry. You know Copenhagen will be the climax of this trip that I'm on, with this wicked bone shaking Brompton I'm riding :( Thanks though for reading the interview!

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  • Scott June 2, 2011 at 11:52 am

    Just returned from a 7-day boat-bike tour of southern Netherlands. Collector roads designed for 2-way traffic: one lane for cars, two lanes for bikes. Everyone makes it work and cars defer (by Dutch law) to cyclists. Whether Calvin or Luther or Buddha, it's a Dutch cultural norm to cooperate w one another. I think it comes from the system control of water, nationwide, through cooperation and planning. The public bike paths connect just like the waterways: in systems, for the benefit of all.

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  • Wouter June 9, 2011 at 9:42 am

    I really wonder where the idea comes from that Dutch people ride $20 bikes. The average new bike in The Netherlands costs €1.000 ($1,500). True, there are a lot of second hand bikes around. They start at around €130 ($190) for the simplest kind. It really does not become cheaper than that. Unless you buy a stolen bike from a junkie (which is a crime).

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