Driven architecture: as the wheel dies, the live-in car comes of age
Czech media philosopher Vilem Flusser, who died in a tragic motor accident 10 years ago this month, left behind him many remarkable insights.One of the most tantalising was his assertion that 'as technology develops, the wheel dies out, as it did in nature'.
At one time this seemed difficult to take seriously, but a lot can happen in 10 years and these days there must be a fair number of drivers who have been sufficiently traumatised by traffic jams to be ready to take a second look at any theory that involves wheels 'dying out'. Not least because latest figures from the motor industry show that more new cars have been sold in the UK in 2001 than ever before, with 200,000 leaving the forecourt in October alone.
We all know what this means as far as traffic density is concerned, but to square up to Flusser's prediction we need to extrapolate lengthening journey times to the point not just where traffic is stationary (that point is frequently reached on a daily basis) but where the centre of gravity of every journey has swung away from childish anticipation of its completion - 'Are we nearly there yet?' - towards that point of no return where the journey has become a state of being instead of an event.
In other words, where the experience of road travel in your own car has become more like rail travel, and even more like air travel, 'we recommend that you keep your seat belt fastened at all times' - a kind of static imprisonment in the midst of movement where the wheel really has died out.
From the point of view of strategic marketing such a null point may have already been reached, although it could be argued that the manufacturers of motor vehicles started elaborating the non-movementrelated parts of their machines many years ago, so all that has really happened is that they have now ceased to elaborate the movement-related parts as well. Nowadays standardised platforms take care of all that, leaving the interior environment as the new frontier for ideas.
Servicing this aspect of the motoring experience in the expectation of long periods of stationary imprisonment not only presents a fascinating vocabulary of new design challenges - not just music and drinks holders now but refrigerators, rotating seats, eating tables and inevitably some sort of high-tech toilet - but more importantly guarantees that the number of Ford Transitsized MPVs on the road is certain to increase, and the number of small cars to dwindle. Whether the design studios of the grand motor manufacturers are up to all the PhD plumbing, wiring and threedimensional design involved is probably not in any doubt.After all, these are the people who mastered comfortable seats, electric windows and non-leaking sunroofs long before the construction industry.
The real question concerns the destination of the high-standard miniaturisation of household servicing that will result. At the Mercedes-Benz level, these vehicles will be better equipped than fivestar hotel rooms and more comfortable than today's customised limousines or motor homes. They may have been designed to sit out long waits on blocked motorways but they will have the potential to become an alternative housing system on wheels that, far from being impoverished, will be production line, built by a leading-edge globalised industry for the first time.
Ever since Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, architects have been interested in getting the motor industry to make houses as well as cars. Now it looks as though the real breakthrough may only come when cars turn themselves into houses 'and the wheel dies out, as it did in nature'.