By day, Joe Nocella works in a tall, 1950s building in Midtown Manhattan for architecture giant HOK, creating virtual models of construction projects. By night, and on weekends, he repairs to his small, unheated shop, 718 Cyclery, on the edge of Brooklyn's Park Slope neighbourhood, where he builds real bikes – involving equally demanding schedules, clients and just-in-time supply-chain coordination. Not to mention the occasional punter coming through the door with a dusty mountain bike that hasn't seen the light of day in years.
Like many New York cyclists of a certain age, Nocella was a bike messenger in the 1980s until he had a career-ending collision. His riding quietly ebbed as he morphed into a father and nine-to-five architect. A few years ago, however, he had another quintessential New York bike experience: His was stolen. Instead of heading to a bike shop, he decided to put one together himself.
So enamoured was he of the process – the hunt for parts, the solving of mechanical puzzles – he built another. This drew concern from his wife (bike storage challenges space-conscious New Yorkers) and interest from his neighbour. "He asked, 'you build bikes now?'." He did, it seemed. "That's how it started. I never made a business plan, I just let it see where it would take me."
There was something larger. He was drawn to architecture, perhaps like many in his trade, through a desire to reconcile in himself some left-and-right brain schism of art and technology. But in his job, he found his work limited almost entirely to the screen, working on increasingly abstract projects. In bikes, he found that mix he had missed, the precision of threading sizes melded with the beauty of frame geometry. "It's like architecture, but it's smaller and I can touch it and it's done in an hour – as opposed to a building which take seven years, and then it gets cancelled."
Nocella's story is almost archetypal these days – witness the popularity of Matthew Crawford's The Case for Working With Your Hands, in which the disaffected author quits his job at a think-tank to pursue his true passion, motorcycle repair, leaving behind the creeping passivity wrought by corporate teamwork where "the individual feels that, alone, he is without any effect".
Other shops are sprouting in Brooklyn, such as Bespoke in the Fort Greene neighbourhood, which offers custom builds and popular wheel-building classes. And who was I, as a person who spends days shifting bits around the internet, to be immune to this same hunger for physicality, this desire to understand how things work?
Which is how I found myself one evening in Nocella's shop to do a "collaborative build" of a bicycle. Nocella wants to remove that haughty intimidation so often found in bike shops and to bring people into the build process. "In the age of buying the same iPod that everyone else has," Nocella says, "people really like this idea that this is mine, that I designed it."