“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.)
(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.”
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.