Racing through the 20th century, not in a Porsche, but a porch
The sight of a road protester, reluctantly confessing to bbc2's Traffic series that he had been forced to buy a car because he could not keep up with the fast-moving world of roads protest using unreliable trains, buses and bicycles, must have been a low point in the creation of an integrated transport policy. Adding irony to irony, the protester looked old enough to belong to the generation that popped champagne corks at the opening of England's first motorway, and never dreamed of objecting to the M1 or Spaghetti Junction. Disappointingly, he was not questioned about his stance at that time, even though long-shot-of-stationary-traffic- on-motorway, cut-to-close-up-of-smoking-exhaust-pipe, is fast becoming as predictable a cliche as the wide-angle close-up of the bse-related cow.
But, as the dialectic principle tells us, the more traffic documentaries there are, the sooner will there be an end to the parroting of glib psycho- babble about 'love affairs with' and 'addiction to' motor cars. Instead, narrators will have to concede that the best starting point for joined- up thinking on transport must be the recognition that everybody either has a car or wants one.
Coincidentally, this is the starting point of the current mammoth, labyrinthine exhibition about cars at the rca called 'Moving Objects', which features macho sports cars, evolutionary collections of door mirrors and lamp clusters, and enigmatic quotations from American design gurus and French semiologists.
Where the road protester was forced to become a motorist by the rigours of the protest calendar, cars at the rca are celebrated as rolling sculpture. Each one is portrayed as an irresistibly attractive object, and not an invention that represents the only working model for mass personal mobility. Stephen Bayley, director of 'Moving Objects', clearly believes in the power of the presence of designer automobiles. Beautiful cars speak for themselves; they are no more to be questioned than beautiful women. And this, by and large, is the belief of the motor industry, whose response to concerted attack by environmentalists has been to solve a million small problems - miniaturised air conditioning, safety equipment, in-car entertainment, traction control and so on - while leaving the central problem of the future viability of private transport to be solved by the politics of increasing car ownership.
The glue that holds both these interpretations of car power together is a concept supplied by Richard Buckminster Fuller 30 years ago, when he offered a unique explanation for the evolution of the car as a satellite of the home. Writing of the mechanisation of agriculture in the first half of our century in his 1969 pamphlet 'Utopia or Oblivion', he noted that as machines had replaced farm buildings, so had increased leisure enabled farmers to take the time to add porches to their houses. Once enclosed with glass windows and placed upon wheels, these porches became cars. 'In a very real sense', Fuller wrote, 'the automobile was always part of the house, a part broken off, like hydra cells going off on a life of their own. ... Because we are conditioned to think of the house as static, we fail to realise that the automobile is as much a part of the house as was the stable or the woodshed.'
This is a valuable insight, even today, for we still fail to realise the strength of this connection relative to the more superficial attractions of practicality or seductive shape. The question is, will we continue to underestimate it when 'mobile porches' come under direct threat? Surely then the role of the car as an integral part of the home will reassert itself and its owner will defend it with a ferocity matched only by a threat to the dwelling itself.
'Once enclosed with glass windows and placed upon wheels, these porches became cars.'