How does a 1,000-mile bike ride through the Mexican desert translate into a thesis at the Harvard Graduate School of Design? For Michael Meo, it’s about architecture as experience.
“My passion has always been participatory design, basically designing processes to bring people into the process of creating design change,” said Meo, a tall, athletic California native who will graduate in May with a master’s degree in architecture.
Like many GSD students, Meo has designed numerous buildings during his time at Harvard. But when it came to his defining project he longed to create something else, something “real, and complicated, and messy.” And mobile. His vision “involved all the rigor of any building production you’d see [at the GSD], but with this sticky, messy, social complexity.”
For almost three weeks, from the end of 2015 into 2016, Meo led 22 cyclists on a grueling trek the length of the Baja California Peninsula in Mexico. The riders, ranging in age from 12 to 55, formed an eclectic group; some were deaf, some were blind, some were amputees. They logged close to 100 miles a day, camped along the route, and pushed the limits of their physical abilities.
They also helped Meo push the definition of architect.
“As a designer I like to step back and think about solutions because sometimes you don’t have to build a building. Sometimes it’s crafting a story, it’s reframing a problem, it’s designing a system, it’s designing a toolset, it’s enabling an experience.”
The thesis, captured in a documentary set to screen at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Lowell Lecture Hall, built on a project Meo carried out last year with grant support from the GSD’s Mexican Cities Initiative and the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. That work explored the “bike as a tool of urban resilience in Mexico City,” said Meo, who, with his research partner, GSD student Carlos Hernández-Tellez, studied how people in one of the densest cities of the world were using their bikes as a means of “surviving and thriving.”
To find their subjects, the pair simply started pedaling.
“As a researcher, it’s really important that you immerse yourself in the daily life of the subject,” said Meo. “It’s not just about participatory observation, it’s about participating directly.”
Riding with backpacks crammed with mapping gear, cameras, and notebooks, Meo and Hernández-Tellez crisscrossed the city for eight to 10 hours a day, interviewing any cyclist willing to talk: a hipster on a bike worth thousands; a kid who fished his ride from a dumpster; the head of Mexico City’s bike-share program; delivery workers, mechanics, and commuters. Each encounter led to new introductions, and a wider network.
“It just grew like wildfire,” said Meo.
When it was time to head back to Harvard, Meo knew his work wasn’t finished. Instead of planning a building, he wanted to craft his thesis around a cycling experience, and for people from all walks of life. In a way, he was picking up where his younger self had left off, 10 years before.
A shy kid from a San Francisco suburb, Meo had his first taste of independence at 12 when his parents let him bike the 8-mile route to school. In that moment, cycling became his “way of perceiving the world.”
That perspective deepened on the first of many long-distance treks. After graduating from high school, Meo put an ad on Craigslist for a one-way ride to Canada. When some local punk rockers responded, Meo threw his bike and his backpack into their touring van, recently purchased from the California state prison system, and rode along. The journey lasted to Washington State, where Meo hopped out on the side of the road and started the long ride home. During that 800-mile coastal trek, something clicked.
“I felt the transformative nature of the bike,” he said, “the ability that it has to transform your perception of accessibility and scale and distance and obviously mobility.”
So last summer, with that life-changing trip in mind, Meo stayed in Mexico City and started building.