Friday, July 28, 2006

The Ideological Antecedents of The British Motor Show

Review: The British Motor Show 2006, The Excel Centre.

In his splendidly titled essay The Ideological Antecedents of the Rolls-Royce Radiator, Erwin Panofsky compared the design of a Rolls- Royce to the English Picturesque tradition. Essentially, the radiator represented the Neo-Classical country house while the curvaceous body work represented the surrounding landscape. I mention this because, for the most part, car design hasn’t been written about by design critics and remains the preserve of people like Jeremy Clarkson. This is odd because for architects especially, car design has long represented a kind of pure technical dream, an engineering-led antidote to architecture’s stylistic vagaries. Le Corbusier famously extolled the merits of the motor car and included his own car in photographs of his houses; the two being yoked together as symbiotic arbiters of the new age.

Now, whilst I may be no Erwin Panofsky, I’d like to think I’m not exactly Jeremy Clarkson either. So, I thought I might start an appraisal of contemporary car design at the British International Motor Show. Housed in the new Excel centre (think massive retail shed meets Heathrow Terminal 5) it’s supposed to be the motor industry’s UK showcase. Initially though, it’s pretty disappointing. There are none of the kind of slightly absurd “cars of the future” one might expect, and it’s all rather humdrum in a new Ford Ka sort of way. No hover cars travelling on air, or solar panelled vehicles running silently for mile after mile on the energy of a light bulb. Nope, it looks at first like a glorified garage forecourt; popular everyday cars forlornly rotating on their plinths, buffed by an army of feather duster wielding attendants.

All the major manufacturers have displays, the designs of which are intended to subtly reinforce their brand values. So Aston Martin, Jaguar and Range Rover all have individual stands despite being part of the same giant Ford conglomerate. And whilst Aston Martin self-consciously deal in a slightly fusty, old school sophistication, the (basically identical) Jaguar goes for a slicker metropolitan chic with a stand resembling a fashionable bar circa 1997. The Ford stand, on the other hand, bludgeons the visitor with a ubiquitous car show aesthetic of multiple screens and crap music.

At the happening SUV end of the spectrum, the cars just seem to get bigger and bigger, regardless of functional reason, aesthetic restraint or ecological responsibility. Hummer, Chrysler and Range Rover compete to have their enormous vehicles drooled over by disturbingly Columbine style teenagers. The Range Rover Sport 4.8 V8 (with Ebony Sports seats, hand- polished, lined oak interior and Zermatt silver finish) for instance, costs £62,797, does 12.4 miles to the gallon and could wipe out an entire school bus in one missed gear change. The styling is a mixture of surgically enhanced utility vehicle and blinged up minibus. Even Bentley have recast their old fashioned gent’s tourer into a prop for an R&B video. One can imagine the salesman in HR Owen trying to flog the new and hugely ostentatious Continental Flying Spur: “Yes, Mr Diddy, the Connolly leather interior would indeed be most comfortable for one’s ‘bitches’”.

There is other stuff to keep the car buff happy too: automotive art (“I’m not a total philistine. Honestly, I like paintings too. Just paintings that have cars in”), personalised number plates, flying jackets, very large exhaust pipes. There are also stands selling badges, stickers and toy cars that are as likely to be bought by middle aged men as young boys – which pretty much describes the demographic attending. There are also a few Posh and Becks-like couples wandering around in expensive leisurewear, hoping perhaps to live out a Hart to Hart fantasy of high speed lane swapping on the M25 in matching Ferraris.

Having said all that, the enthusiasm with which I head for the giant eight lane Scalextric set is quite disturbing. As is the humourless way I set about demolishing the opposition in my race, the average age of whom is approximately eight. Yeah, car enthusiasm tends to encourage a collapsing of childhood and middle age. It’s the preserve of people for whom the car represents some kind of simplistic vision of freedom, presumably from the constraints of family. And perhaps this is why, as a form of escapism it also escapes serious analysis. People who enthuse about cars tend to enthuse about the same things: speed, cc’s chrome wheel trims. Either deeply dull or childishly enthusiastic, car writing is stuck between detailing luggage capacity or finding new ways to say: “Gosh, this is really fast!”. Lacking any serious critical discussion, car design hasn’t ever developed a language to describe itself or what it does.

Like Le Corbusier before her, Zaha Hadid has had a go at being a car designer and her eponymously titled Z.Car is featured at the Motor Show. Predictably enough, it’s a cheesily retro-futurist vehicle, a magic marker drawing from the 1970s brought to life. In Panofskian terms, it’s ideological antecedents are the space race imagery of the 1960’s mixed with the smooth surfaces of contemporary computer rendering. In Jeremy Clarkson’s world it’s merely a bit slow and slightly weird looking.

The British International Motor Show was at Excel, London, 20-30 July

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