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Portland to Portland Bike Trip: Dispatch 3

By Peter Murray
June 17, 2013
Photo © Grant Smith
Minneapolis Midtown Greenway

British architect, journalist, and cyclist Peter Murray has embarked on a bike ride from Portland, Oregon, to Portland Place in London. As he makes the 4,347-mile journey with a rotating group of participants, he plans to survey the state of cycling in American cities, meet up with members of the design community, and raise funds for Architecture for Humanity and U.K. relief organization Article 25.

Along the way, Murray is filing updates about his progress for Architectural Record. Stay tuned for the final U.S. leg of the journey when Murray arrives in New York City on July 2.

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Everything changed when we got to Minneapolis—the cycling conditions, the landscape, the architecture, the people, and the weather. After days of grinding into headwinds across bare prairie we found ourselves on the Midtown Greenway, constructed on an obsolete rail corridor, that took us effortlessly into the heart of the city. We were met by enthusiastic local cyclists keen to show off their fine biking infrastructure (better we thought than Portland, Oregon) as well as  architectural highlights by Saarinen, Gehry, Nouvel, Herzog & de Meuron, et al. Next to Gehry’s Weisman building I was glad to see that my old friend, keen cyclist and Minnesota University Architecture School alumnus, Bill Pedersen has designed the new Science Teaching Center. Bill is clearly held in great esteem in the city and I couldn’t help thinking that it was about time someone gave him a major cultural project to do there.

As we made our way through Minnesota, passing the junction of the Missouri (which we had been crossing and recrossing for nearly a thousand miles as we retraced the steps of Lewis and Clark ) with the great Mississippi, we rode alongside a very different form of two wheeled vehicle: the Harley Davidson—they were everywhere! They were purposefully noisy and ridden by men of a certain age who clearly didn’t think much of pedal power. Neither did they like to wear crash helmets; some of our riders were very upset to come across a couple of Harley riders, spreadeagled across the road in pools of blood, with nasty head injuries that probably could have been avoided.

The countryside became greener, the hills were shorter but steeper than we had encountered further west and the towns more dense. As we pedaled through Winsconsin we overtook Amish farmers in their horse drawn buggies and made our way to Spring Green and Taliesin East through familiar Welsh-style landscape where Frank Lloyd Wright had roamed as a young boy.

Taliesin was a real treat. Victor Sidy, the dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture gave us a tour of the school and of FLW’s own house. These were early works, added to and amended over time, laden with Wrightian philosophy, details and ideas—explained by Victor with great insight and erudition—a great introduction to our up coming visit to Johnson Wax at Racine, Oak Park, and, in a few weeks, Falling Water.

Although in the UK we understand and respect the work of Wright, it was not until this trip that I understood his real significance in the American architectural culture. "Usonian" takes on a new meaning for me; his are the must-see buildings en route and Wrightian influence is obvious in domestic and commercial buildings across the continent. Although his message fell on dead ears in some of the areas we cycled through. In Wyoming and Montana, exquisitely beautiful landscapes were frequently disfigured by catalog homes with little concern for design or location. How much they could have learnt from FLW’s organic architecture, choice of materials, his craft, and his placing of buildings in the landscape.

One of my keenest memories from Victor’s tour was standing on the brow of the hill (Taliesin is Welsh for "shining brow") around which the Wright house wraps itself. Instead of bestriding the summit, Wright pays due respect to the contours of the site, complementing and enhancing its natural beauty. The ranchers of Wyoming could learn a lot from Wright.

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