The Architect and the Bicycle

When we were 21, my friend Anna and I flew to New Orleans and spent a week walking around the city. In contrast to the bleak east coast cities where we lived at the time, New Orleans seemed magical, a place where adventures and coincidences cascaded like dominoes every time we walked down a new street.

One evening we ended up drinking beer with a musician in his courtyard apartment. When he had to leave, he pointed us to an open art gallery event in a nearby neighborhood. The street was closed to cars and jammed with people. We wandered down it drinking wine from plastic cups and stopping into galleries as the mood struck us.

A young man standing in one gallery doorway leapt out at us. “Come in here! You’ve got to see this!” he exclaimed to me urgently. He took my arm and we followed him, giggling, into a room full of people and art. He insisted, with fervent, slurred speech, that I admire not the art but the walls and the displays and the sunken rivets that held the displays together. He was an architect, he told me, and he had designed and built this space.

He invited us to drive with him through the city—his luxury tour bus with a full bar was awaiting our pleasure, he said. We agreed, and climbed aboard what turned out to be an old school bus converted into a ramshackle support vehicle for his brother, a bicycle racer who had retired just a week ago. A group of laughing, dauntingly attractive adults were passing around a bottle of tequila. The architect passed out immediately, and our first stop was to drop him off at his house; then Anna and I were whisked off to a bar and another bar and finally a club where we danced until early in the morning.  

After I returned home, the architect and I exchanged a few emails. He asked what objects were important to me, and I sat in the rocking chair in my sparsely decorated studio apartment in New Haven and anxiously considered how to reply. The only thing I could think of that really made me happy was the old three speed bicycle I’d recently salvaged from my parents’ garage. This seemed cool enough to share with this mythical figure out of my dreamy adventure the week before, so I typed it out and hit send.

In exchange, he told me a story: There was a famous architect who used to ride his bicycle around the city and shout at people walking past that they were going too slowly to truly see the world around them, and insist that they should get bicycles too. Bicycling’s speed and full field of vision provided, he believed, the only way to truly take in a city’s landscape.

Our correspondence quickly dwindled, but the story stuck with me. The email is long gone and now I do not remember the bicycling architect’s name, if in fact I ever knew it. Many years later, after technology made such questions askable from your phone while waiting at the dentist’s office, I searched, but found nothing. This one bit of data is lost, or at least hidden from me, amid the white noise of the information superhighway, where searches for architects and bicycles turn up hundreds of thousands of results, impractical to sift through.

Or perhaps this information was never converted to searchable text. It could exist in a dusty book, or it could have been a fourth- or fifth-hand dinner party anecdote. You used to get all your cultural information from sources like this, gaining access through the accidents of history, privilege, and character that led you to be in certain rooms at certain times with certain other people—“moving in certain circles” is the phrase that spatially describes how you used to learn charming anecdotes about quirky architects. In this case, that must still be how it’s done.

It’s possible that I can’t find a trace of this story because it isn’t true. Mythical and nonfiction stories alike are created in the same way, based on a foundation of truth or hope or fear and elaborated within a structure, the way you walk down a street when the street is there, or into an art gallery when the door is opened for you. Given different structures, different storytellers, New Orleans is not a magical domain of joyous public life and civil society but a squalid, corrupt, crime-ridden hellhole. Both these views are true; both are false. Maybe the bicycling architect himself was an invention, one of the rivets that held together my drunken architect’s imagination, as true and false as the promise of the luxury party bus, and as whatever it was he told himself about me that spurred him to pull me briefly into his world.

The possibility that this story is a myth didn’t occur to me for 15 years. But by this point, it doesn’t matter. The myth is ingrained. I’m living out the bicycling architect’s mandate. My work as a writer and activist is to provide a new set of myths, a new framework for both seeing and imagining the world. And while I don’t yell at passersby to get bikes (tempting as this sometimes is), I do spend my days trying to share what I see from atop a moving bike, and the vision and hope that this view gives me.

Starting a century ago, but particularly in the last 15 years, we’ve rebuilt much of our world for cars. Travel just a few miles from the center of New Orleans, or any other city for that matter, and your view from a bicycle becomes a terrible vision of apocalyptic proportions. A landscape built for cars can only be taken in properly at automotive speed; at best it is a rhythmic blur of branded shapes and colors, big boxes and parking lots. As we increasingly build and live and work in this type of place, finding the sort of human scale encounters you might get walking through a New Orleans neighborhood is like trying to access a specific story by googling two common nouns.

Getting on a bicycle in a world built at human speed is one of life’s chief pleasures. Searching for information on the Internet often gives me that same feeling of access, mastery, openness, adventure as bicycling down a street that’s designed to make it easy—until I can’t find something. Then all I can see is a world of barriers of spam and nonsense. Biking in a world built for cars is the same way. The view is terrible but valuable, providing a first hand view of the cracks in the landscape we have built. The view from a car is a false story about the world—you see the major landmarks truly, but the details are omitted and along with them the potential for interaction, empathy, human-scale encounters with the other people who fill the street. On a bicycle, you can see the rivets as well as the artwork, and perhaps this is what makes it the ideal vehicle of an architect, whose livelihood depends upon appreciation and need for such details.

It isn’t just architects who rely on our ability to roam about with our eyes open to the world’s details and stories. The wide-eyed twenty year olds of the world, like I was, need spaces where people can freely mix on a human scale, where the white noise of strip malls and information highways can be parsed down into anecdotes and encounters. This is where coincidences are made, where myths are formed, where your whole life can be shaped by a sunken rivet and a made up story.