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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Monday November 12 2007

While I’m on the subject of bulges, Patrick Smith of Der Spiegel, complains, a lot, about the aesthetics of the Airbus A380.  He quotes previous quotes by his good self proudly:

“Without question the most hideous airliner ever conceived”
“The worst-looking piece of major industrial design of the past 50 years”
“A huge steroidal porpoise”
“The ponderous, beluga-headed Airbus”
“An aesthetic abomination”
“Oversized, homely, decadent”

One of the regular things about criticism is that critics often understand something better than the puff-merchants.  They fix on the thing that distinguishes whatever it is and they hate it, while the puffers play that down, and say no, we don’t see that, hear that, or whatever.  But the truth is that the thing that the haters hate is definitely there.  And the A380 definitely does have just the look that Patrick Smith objects to:

image

Picture from here.

But I think that Smith zeros in on the very thing that could actually make the A380 a huge aesthetic success.

Aesthetically, everything depends on whether the A380 is a commercial and popular success.  If it is, and if people learn to like it and everything it will stand for and symbolise – even cheaper, even longer-haul travel, made pleasant with shrewd handling of the interior, then people will come to like the look of this monster, because they will associate how it looks with good stuff.

Which means that they will notice the most distinctive external feature of the A380 and like that.  And that is the bulge on the top, the baluga-headed steroidal porpoise look.  Smith’s brief explanation of why he hates this thing will be the reason everybody else loves it:

Most of that ugliness is the fault of the plane’s bulging forehead, a trait that resulted from an engineering decision to place the cockpit below the upper deck. It is useful to think of a jetliner as a sort of horizontal skyscraper. To recall the words of architecture critic Paul Goldberger, writing in a 2005 issue of the New Yorker: “Most architects who design skyscrapers focus on two aesthetic problems. How to meet the ground and how to meet the sky - the top and the bottom, in other words.” With airplanes, as with office towers, the observer’s gaze is drawn instinctively to their extremities, and their attractiveness, or lack thereof, is personified through the sculpting of the nose and tail sections. Not that the A380’s tail is anything special either, but it’s hard to get past that forehead.

If - if - the A380 takes off commercially, as opposed to just literally taking off the way it has already, that forehead will be what everybody will come to love.  Without that weird forehead, there would be nothing special and recognisable about this airplane.  With it, it has personality.  Goofy but lovable, if you already love it for other reasons, like a younger brother who isn’t very clever or pretty, but who is a great trier and who has a good heart.

Me being me, what the A380 reminds me of is one of the two giants in Das Rheingold.  The thing is, Wagner giants have to be sung by mere mortals with their mouths unimpeded, but they have to look big and weird.  So, what better bigness and weirdness than a big bulging dome on top?