Lavish, visionary architecture puts the user in the driving seat
Just when the motor car has finally fetched up at the OK Corral, forced into a dead or alive shoot out with 10,000-shot computerised speed cameras, inflatable sleeping policemen, astronomical petrol prices and zero-tolerance speed cops, along comes a stack of books dealing with car architecture as though it were the most normal thing in the world. Now that they are closing down in their thousands it is suddenly OK to open the gates of art history to the petrol stations, multistorey car parks and swish showrooms of yesteryear. Now that cars have been reduced to the status of criminal accessories, it is time to stick them on the wall and call them art.
Last year a publisher suggested that I should write a book called Fill 'er up , dealing with the influence of cars upon building design. My heart sank. Although I have been a fervent admirer of petrol stations for many years (and once appeared with Sir Terence Conran in a Shell video extolling the virtues of the company's new 'globalized' design), I feared that the publisher had in mind yet another large-format coffee table book with a 5,000 word introduction and 50 worked examples. This is not only an impossible format to breathe life into, it also misses the whole point of car architecture, which is that although cars do, in a lunkheaded sort of way, have an architecture of the kind the book was supposed to be about; in a much more profound way they are themselves architecture.
In size, appearance, cost and every other comparator the car comes exactly midway between fashion (goody! A new suit of clothes), and architecture (oh God! A new house). It is in recognition of this centrality that car architecture keeps its place in one of the standard consumer mantras of our time, when tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people every week intone: 'If we win the Lottery we'll buy a house out of Country Life . If we get a divorce I'll keep the car. If we don't win the Lottery or get a divorce, we'll go out and buy new clothes on the store card.'
Real car architecture is miniaturised visionary architecture. It offers comfort and quality beyond the wildest dreams of potentates. It means construction quality beyond anything the housebuilding industry could ever imagine. It means millimetre shut lines between panels everywhere.
It means enormous power underfoot, low fuel consumption, its own electricity supply, sumptuous carpets, seats perfectly upholstered for comfort and support, air conditioning at the touch of a button, electric windows, wrap around music, no draughts, no leaks, total privacy combined with immediate equality with other road users. It means everything that Barbour, Burberry, socialism and Modern Architecture were supposed to deliver a hundred years ago, but never did.
And all this is without even mentioning the design of this masterpiece of architecture.
There are its great arching screen pillars (discuss), there is its wonderfully compound curved glass and metal. There is its paintwork, of a standard that no building at this sort of price ever aspired to. Cars have thousands of hours of design work piled into them. You can see it at a glance. A team of eight people designed the inside of the driver's door, another eight worked ceaselessly on the ergonomics of the driving position.
The lightest touch on a tiny button will cause a silent pump to spring into action, ejecting a precise detergent mix onto the windscreen while a subtly curved wiper blade - its frequency of operation infinitely adjustable to match any quality or quantity of rain - erases all trace of a visual impediment.
This architecture is better than any building ever built, and we know it.