Viennese whirl: the architect who is spoilt for choice when he goes for a spin, Tim Dawson (2011)
First published thesundaytimes.co.uk March 2011
Eight years ago Michael Embacher decided that he was sick of having his shiny new bicycles stolen. Why not buy second-hand, reasoned the Viennese architect? So he had a look on eBay. “I could not believe what a variety of bicycles there was out there”, he says. “That’s when I started my collection”.
Since then, he has amassed 210 push bikes which now live in carefully ordered rows in the attic above his studio. And 100 of them illustrate a new book devoted to his collection published this week by Thames and Hudson (£19.95).
It makes for an extraordinary read. There are racers and recumbent; folders and fixies. There is a trike, a trailer and a track bike that played a starring role in the Barcelona Olympics. It is arguably the most comprehensive and visually satisfying books of bicycle portraits ever published.
“As a product, the bicycle is perfect”, he says. “For transport, for fun, for health, for saving our world – it has not been bettered. I just wanted to document how many different designs there could be of one product.”
It is a dizzying survey. There are classics – the Colnagos, Bianchis, not to mention the Baines and the Mercians. There are bikes designed for convenience, such as the Moulton and the Bike Friday. And there are one offs, prototypes and designs that should never have been built, not to mention bicycles whose touch of brilliance was married to crazy mistakes. A Garin from 1952, for example, features novel brakes. They are activated by pressing together the handlebars – eliminating the need for brake levers, but making it impossible to stop while cornering.
“I tried to collect them in the book so that one followed the other – picking up themes”, explains Embacher. So it is that a couple of curve-tubed time-trial specials from thirty years ago follow one another in a section with some classic road-racing bikes and then a traditionally-lugged Bob Jackson and a racing tandem.
But not only is the collection almost bewildering in its range, the photography, by Bernhard Angerer is fabulous. It is all too easy to picture machines in such a way that the viewer is left wondering exactly where a tube, or that cable runs, or how something fits together. Not here. Every page features a perfect essay in taking photos that can be easily understood.
The illustration that left me feeling the most envious is the one reproduced above – Embacher, with his collection. The 12-person practice that he runs has offices in Vienna and, by lucky chance, occupies part of a building owned by a Swiss former racing cyclist. “He lets me use the attic space for free on condition that when he is in town he can come and enjoy the bikes”.
Indeed, all of the bikes are ridden regularly by Embacher and his wife. An old-school bicycle mechanic visits the collection fortnightly to keep everything in tip top condition and the Embacher’s are to be seen in the Viennese environs throughout the week on an ever changing range of two-wheeled exotica.
Austrian enthusiasts have also had the opportunity to see the larger part of the collection in one place when it was exhibited at an art gallery in Vienna – 12,000 took the opportunity to have a look. There will be a further exhibition in the Tyrol this summer, but attempts to find a British venue for such a show have, to date, borne no fruit.
It is a shame, because putting bicycles on show could free up space. Attic accommodation is finite and today when Embacher buys a new bicycle, he has to sell one of the existing collection to make space. As a result, he is purchasing rather less frenetically than in the early years. “It is just as well. The prices of collectible bicycles has rocketed in recent years – there is no way that I could afford this collection today”. Even so, he confesses that one of two of his bikes have cost “about the same as a small family car”.
TD Mar 11