How a 200-year-old precursor to the bicycle remains relevant for today’s architecture students

Release Date: March 4, 2019

“Developing our own laufmaschines in studio will encourage us to research issues of personal transportation, climate resilience and structural techniques. ”
Nick Rajkovich, assistant professor of architecture
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The laufmaschine was a funny looking contraption with an even funnier sounding name. But it was invented by a German nobleman in 1816 in response to a very serious climate crisis that impacted the entire world.

Some 200 years later, this rudimentary precursor to the bicycle remains relevant.

Junior architecture students at the University at Buffalo spent the first three weeks of this semester learning about the laufmaschine (also known as the dandy horse). Then, they designed and built their own vehicles. One intrepid team fashioned theirs out of hockey sticks and skate laces.

In February, they tested them — the class built 15 in all — on a newly opened bike path in the Cleveland Flats area, where they’re proposing designs for a bicycle institute and community center as part of the studio project.

“The laufmaschine was designed 200 years ago in response to a climate crisis. It still holds valuable lessons today because there’s a lot of interest in the bicycle as a carbon-neutral mode of transportation,” explains Nick Rajkovich, assistant professor of architecture in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning, whose research focuses on climate resilience, specifically how buildings and cities need to respond to climate change.

The ‘year without a summer’

The situation was dire in 1815. Mount Tambora in Indonesia exploded in what remains the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history.

The eruption spread nearly 36 cubic miles of ash into the atmosphere, which reduced the amount of sunlight that was able to reach the Earth’s surface. Historians have argued that this led to an approximately 3 degrees Celsius drop in temperature. Crops couldn’t grow. It snowed in the Northeastern U.S. in the summer — 1816 became known as the “year without a summer.”

“It caused people to completely change their modes of transportation because they had to kill off their oxen and horses, which were dying from a lack of food,” Rajkovich says.

This spring, Rajkovich and his faculty co-leads asked their 74 students to think about how climate change is impacting the world today while they examine the laufmaschine and the events of the early 19th century.

“Developing our own laufmaschines in studio will encourage us to research issues of personal transportation, climate resilience and structural techniques,” Rajkovich says.

“The other thing that we’re going to be exploring as part of this project is the idea of climate resilience,” Rajkovich told the class recently. “We’re going to be talking about how buildings need to begin to respond to climate change and how we need to begin to have facilities in different cities that can act as an area of refuge for people in the event that there is some kind of climate-related emergency.”

Photo of a UB architecture student relaxing, with his feet up, on the laufmaschine his team built.

Team member Jaidon Ramirez shows how LoungeMachine got its name, and why it won the People's Choice award in class — mostly because students thought it looked comfortable.

Students let imaginations run wild

Students got pretty creative with their laufmaschines. Team Zamboni, which won the relay-style race the class staged in Cleveland, constructed its vehicle out of hockey sticks, with a goalie pad for the seat.

“Hockey sticks are made in ply, so it’s basically plywood but it’s reinforced with fiberglass resin. When you take a slap shot, right at the point of impact where it takes the most force, it’s reinforced with fiberglass so we said, ‘OK, let’s see how many sticks we need to make a laufmaschine,’” explains architecture student Adara Zullo, who played hockey as a kid in Albany, New York.

The group discovered that while fiberglass is strong, the structure becomes compromised once it’s drilled into. To solve that problem, Zamboni dipped hockey skate laces in fiberglass resin and used Japanese lashing techniques to join the angles together.

Kevin Medina and his team built Impulse, a laufmaschine that deftly incorporates curved wood into the support frame. “The curves kind of show the narrative of something that’s in motion,” says Medina, whose laufmaschine won the faculty award for best design. “An engineering feat with this was the discovery of how we could bend wood at those angles.”

To achieve that, the team soaked pieces of oak, steamed them and then set them on a jig that curved them.

Impulse also fared well in the laufmaschine relay in Cleveland. “It was amazing to see our project come to life,” Medina says of the experience. “And it helped us relate to the site better. It was three weeks of a lot of work, but it was rewarding. I’ve shown it to a lot of people and they’re amazed by it.”

Designing a bicycle institute for Cleveland’s Flats

For the second half of the semester, students will develop designs for a bicycle institute/community center/resilience hub in the Cleveland Flats area.

The bike institute would offer workshop space where people could learn how to fix or build bicycles. There would be additional space in the approximately 23,000-square-foot building for a community center.

As they design their bicycle institutes, students will have to consider how the building will be affected by a changing climate in the decades to come. Cleveland’s average temperature has increased 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s, Rajkovich notes. Meanwhile, there’s been a 20 percent increase in precipitation.

“That’s a lot of water, and it’s a pretty significant amount of change,” he says. “Some of that is attributable to urbanization and building out the city. But part of it is also due to climate change.”

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