Autopia: Cars and Culture
Edited by Peter Wollen and Joe Kerr. Reaktion Books, 2002. 400pp. £25
The title alludes to an unreferenced JG Ballard piece from 1986 called 'Autopia or Autogeddon', which itself alludes to both Reyner Banham and its obverse, reflected in Heathcote Williams' bleak prose. In Banham's 1971 vision of post-urban mobility, Los Angeles: the Architecture of Four Ecologies, Autopia is seen as a positive addition to the urban environment in its most complete sense. Meanwhile, Williams' 'Autogeddon' says:
Were an alien visitor To hover a few hundred yards above the planet It could be forgiven for thinking That cars were the dominant life-form, And that human beings were a kind of ambulatory fuel cell, Injected when the car wished to move off, And ejected when they were spent.
Fortunately, this book attempts to dispel the dystopian vision, by referencing Autopia alone.
However, there isn't really a coherent or consistent argument throughout this book. Instead, opinion is valued, even if it is contradictory. The introduction, for example, ends with the words, 'Autopia? I think not.' It doesn't have the same ring as 'the horror, the horror', I suppose, but it is also not the most compelling start to a book dedicated to revelling in the automotive dream.
Separating the world into thrill-seekers and those who avoid danger (not the best way to understand the history of mobility, or even its iconography, in the 20th century), the text seems to endorse the former, although not with any real conviction. Summoning the usual suspects of JG Ballard and Stephen Bayley to conjure their whimsical erotic visions and sexual fantasies does not clinch the argument.
There is much to commend this book, and Joe Kerr's chapter on Motor City is one of them. Too many contributions, though, take 'car culture' too literally, viewing the car through the eyes of film, television, music, poetry and literature, and reflecting back on those same media. For me, this misses the essential materialist analysis. The car as a historically specific tool to convey people from A to B as quickly, efficiently and comfortably as possible, can easily become lost in the socialconstructivist method.
Appreciating cultural forms through comparison with other cultural forms often means that objective reality becomes a little bit of an inconvenience.
In terms of presentation, this is a very enjoyable book, with great photographs and a good mix of authors (quite a few borrowed texts from the dead). The essay 'Motopia: Cities, Cars and Architecture' is a hasty snapshot of the past 100 years of cars' influence on architecture and vice versa, from machines for living in, through River Rouge, to the generic city. These authors conclude by hoping that 'the final act in the relationship of the automobile/urbanism is for them simply to dissolve into each other'. This shows that the biggest problem with cultural critiques is that they are often divorced from political reality.