Monday, March 18, 2013

Back to the drawing board: another bike rack design

On my way past the State Accident Insurance Fund (SAIF) complex some weeks ago, I observed something I hadn't noticed before: one of the oddest designs for a bicycle rack ever conceived.

The SAIF building is an early 1970's masterpiece of slightly modified concrete brutality, breathing a cold disdain for people and healing even as it houses an organization providing worker's compensation insurance. It took an amazingly self-possessed era to accomplish this feat.

Like a lot of things from this period, many of the building's details don't make sense. The structure seems designed to confuse visitors about where one enters. The grounds are singleminded in contributing neither beauty nor functionality. Instead, a great deal of effort has been expended to communicate a pervasive hostility to both logic and nature. There is a funky, irrational aspect to its front gardens, overrun by ivy in place of the native plants mentioned in the out-of-date but still hopeful signage. Walkways and grading appear designed to confuse and punish. Anti-climax reigns supreme: the jumbled Grand Facade towers above its setting with all the heroism of a plumbing fixture.

The quasi-ceremonial concrete wasteland/piazza in front of the SAIF building lacks the obligatory piece of hideous late 20th century public sculpture, but the bike rack--which seems to be an original part of the plan--makes a plausible bid to fill that void.

Located in a depression signaling ignominy, the rack is made up of a series of rotating hoops mounted on a long pole, two to a side, presumably meant to receive a bike's wheel, and then be attached to the bike via a lock. The rotation of the hoops is perhaps a way to aid in positioning the lock or the bike. Or, it could have been meant to adjust to different-sized bicycles (such as children's bikes, penny-farthings, extension unicycles, and other likely varieties apparently then popular). When empty, the hoops may be turned in fabulous, corkscrew patterns reminiscent of DNA...meaningful if bicycles had DNA.

The problem is that these rotating elements have become stiff over the years, making them difficult to turn for whatever reason. The design also makes it hard to anchor a bike frame using modern short U-locks many folks carry today. A lot of older bike rack designs have this drawback.

The hoops are also prey to being shoved together by vandals, rendering the design even more hopelessly useless and absurd than when first fabricated during Nixon's Imperial Presidency.

I have never seen this design for a bike rack replicated elsewhere, though I suspect it was considered quite "the thing" at some people who didn't ride bikes, or did so in places where theft was largely unknown. This is truly a triumph of optimism over reality, so redolent of the era that produced it and myriad other fantasies now dissolving into rundown silence.

Over time, the materials used to execute this rack and its setting have taken on a decayed futility difficult to describe. The combination of mold, weathered metal, staining, peeling paint, and blank, cracked concrete found here creates a tableau of disillusioned emptiness worthy of Le Corbusier at his most desolate and doctrinaire. 

The rack seems to be trying to say something. Perhaps it speaks of captivity to a poverty of insight, or of post-industrial subservience to faceless bureaucracy, or maybe even a forlorn acceptance of its complete failure as a bike rack. It could be a meditation on what it means to be on worker's compensation, I suppose. Though exactly what that would mean must require a kind of artistic Rosetta stone all its own. Whatever it is trying to say, it manages to do so in an unintentional but oddly jocund manner.

Of course, the joke could be entirely on me: this could actually be a piece of art that I have mistaken for a bike rack! 

All-in-all, though, this rack appears to function far more effectively as poor civic art than effective bicycle storage. 

I have yet to see a bike parked in it.


  1. I love this post as much as I hate brutalist architecture. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Ryan. Writing it has been a particular pleasure, given how much architectural horror was unleashed on Salem's downtown in the 70's and early 80's.

  2. At least the SAIF building has gotten a power wash every now and then. Dirty brutalism is much worse than clean brutalism. Our City Hall and Library are an embarrassing example of dirty brutalism. Shame on our City government for letting not caring, and for letting our Civic Center become a hideous eyesore.

    1. There is an alternative view, Jim. The City Hall/Bunker for the Ages has, in some people's minds, improved with its patina of auto emissions and (recently) Chinese desert fallout. It gives the barest hint that time and erosion may yet have the last word.

      Fresh-washed brutalism creates the illusion that there is something attractive about this type of architecture, something really meant to uplift and affirm the human being rather than stomp pathetic upstarts down into cowed obedience. The SAIF building, with its texturized hopefulness, seeks to elude the worst of brutalism, but might be said to have erred on the side of farcical self-importance.

      The Civic Center is a triumph of a complete vision, a total victory for a mindset awful to contemplate, imperiously convinced of its validity as it stares out seethingly over the city it rules.