Thursday, June 11, 2009

More Rocket Baroque

I've been meaning to link to this excellent essay by Naomi Stead for a while, since being alerted to it via Things magazine. Things quite rightly pointed out my ignorance of Reyner Banham's essay on the "Rocket-baroque" phase of the ice cream van when writing my previous post on them. 

Stead's essay on Banham looks at the relationship between his infatuation with ephemeral products of pop culture and his status as an architectural historian. She explores a number of extremely pertinent issues to do with the transient nature of design journalism (and even more so now, blog writing) and the aspirations to timelessness of the historian. Most intriguingly she suggests that it was Banham's immersion in the here-and-now, the seemingly throw-away quality of his prodigious journalistic output, that made him such an important historian.

Banham's interest in ice cream vans* lay in their seeming invisibility to design critics. His attempt to trace the "Rocket baroque" phase of their stylistic development was part of an ongoing project to bring a critical sensibility to everyday objects that generally went overlooked. Ice cream vans are part of a vast landscape of commercial objects that are designed and manufactured away from the glare of art and design culture.

These objects were therefore denied a history, a history that Banham's critical writing was instrumental in uncovering. It was Banham's interest in the objects that resulted from the intersection of pop culture, consumerism and technology - rather than high-art architecture - and his attempt to develop a critical language for looking at them that made him such an interesting and pertinent writer. 

Whilst the outlandish and grotesque designs of custom car owners are hardly invisible, they do exist outside any accepted realm of 'proper' design. Or proper design criticism. In comparison to ice cream vans even they are a marginal enthusiasm, a narrow genre for the most part equally oblivious to notions of good design or, especially, good taste. For which, if for no other reason, they should be celebrated. 

Banham probably wouldn't have approved of the technological redundancy of these vehicles, or, perhaps, their limited, elitist appeal either. Certainly they test the notion of functionality to its limits, some of them only just about capable of being driven and only then to the next prize show. In this sense they are very interesting, 'pure' expressions of design free of commercial or functional constraint, despite their bastardised quality. Classic car shows are pedigree competitions for mongrel design.

Despite the owner's claims to originality and the cliched rhetoric of freedom and self-expression that runs through the custom car world, they are in fact all developed within tight aesthetic constraints from which deviation is frowned upon. And they are un-changing. Like corn dollies or crochet they are an art form that is not moving forward. 

The designs are based on a limited number of types: the elongated limo, the jacked up old timer and the dragster recur. As do the flame paint jobs, lavish amounts of chrome and outlandish projections of the male sexual imagination that adorn them.

Despite, or because of, this they are also fabulous objects, fusions of 50's comic book art, pseudo-medievalism and Rococo ornament. Like the dogs at Crufts they are bred to the point of perversity and beyond. And like dog breeding, along with tattooing and fantasy art, custom cars are, ultimately, a design backwater, a sub-cult with their own incrementally evolving language. A bit like architecture then in some ways.

So, below is a brief photo-essay - partly in tribute to Banham's fabulous Rocket Baroque - of the custom car vernacular. All photos are from this site.

* See his essay Sundae Painters, in A Critic Writes

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