July 18, 2003
The convergence of cars and architecture

All those car adverts which feature snazzy modern buildings with snazzy modern cars parked in front of them, or, on TV, driving past them, are saying something very interesting about modern buildings, which is that the people designing them have finally worked out how to make them look as snazzy and consumer-appealing as cars have looked ever since about 1940.

Take this advert I'm looking at for the Porsche 911 Carrera, in the latest edition of the April 2003 edition of Wired. (I looked for a link to it, but no luck.) The point is that the Porsche at the front and the snazzy building at the back – it looks like some kind of sports stadium, although of course as with all architecture it could be anything (form in architecture follows fashion, not function) - are both identical in colour, and seemingly encased in the exact same metal. They're both singing from the same song sheet. Each partakes of the other.

Or how about those adverts a few years back for Rovers, driving in front of a cool new German art gallery, designed by a "Britischer architect"? The text was hurrah, the British are coming. For me, the willingness of car people to treat architects as equals instead of embarrassing scum was at least as interesting as the patriotism angle. Finally, modern architecture was cool!

Yes, the architects have cracked it. Modern Movement orthodoxy said that structure and appearance should be inseparable. This was a principle that the car designers were at that same time consciously abandoning, and they were right. Compared those clunky old twenties form-follows-function junkheeps with the high-style big-fins fifties creations. The logic of technology is specialisation. To make a car, or a building, you have a structure to hold it together, and you have a skin outside it to make it look cool, and to be aerodynamic, and to keep out the rain. Cars and buildings now both sport the same curvy sheet metal, and the same curvy, tinted glass.

Since the fifties, car design and building design have been converging. The cars have been getting tighter and boxier and more utilitarian, while the buildings have been getting shinier and curvier and sparklier. Culminating in adverts like that Porsche one where it is acknowledged that, spiritually speaking, they are identical.

As another example, take a look at this building, even now groping its way out of the mud in a big site on Victoria Street, a walk away from where I live. Look at this architect's publicity fake-up. And tell me that this has nothing to do with car design.

Esso_Glen_montage_full.jpg

Not that you can tell how good it will look. Making cars look cool is a doddle compared to making buildings look cool. With cars, you just make it and re-make it and re-re-make it until it is cool. With buildings, you make it, and it has to be cool first time. Difficult. I was an architecture student for a brief happy year and then for another long miserable second year when they made us do actual architecture and I realised that it wasn't for me, and that was the basic thing I learned. Architecture is difficult. But whereas in the sixties, Britischer architects knew almost nothing about how to do architecture, now, there's been a ruthless Darwinian weaning out, and the Lords of Britischer Architecture (basically we're talking Foster and Rogers, but there are plenty of others) are hitting the bullseye almost as a matter of routine. Then, they aspired to a brand new style of which they knew almost nothing, and most of what they did know wasn't so. Now, they know their business and they earn their money.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:35 PM
Category: Architecture