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Caught in the slipstream

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Carchitecture: When the Car and the City Collide By Jonathan Bell et al. Birkhauser, 2001. 128pp. £24

Frank Lloyd Wright designed a house with a built-in garage in 1904. Two years later came Auguste Perret's soaring Garage Marboeuf in Paris, while Fiat's Lingotto factory, with its rooftop test track, was conceived by 1914.

'Carchitecture' - or the 'landscape of the car' - was alive and flourishing before the 20th century was two decades old.

By its end, the car had reshaped cities, killed tens of millions, and turned streets from places for living, loving and business into corridors thrashed by traffic.

But the car had done far more: it had introduced the man on the Clapham omnibus to the dream of effortless motion in a superb, high-tech environment. It had transformed hearts and minds.

Jonathan Bell and his six co-authors tell this astonishing history with skill and verve.

Facts, arguments, sources and a host of pictures all play their part. If I have any quarrel with the book, it is that the contributors exaggerate the plague of traffic congestion.

Londoners, unless they have the sense to ride bicycles, tend to think it is awful. It probably is, but 60 per cent of Automobile Association members (from all over the country) said in 1997 that they usually enjoyed driving.

Three years later, consultants for the Highways Agency found that increasing numbers of motorway and trunk-road travellers were experiencing no congestion. But the AA also found that longer road journeys, which had been getting quicker since the 1960s, were perceived to be expanding again.

Congestion, it seems, is partly in the mind.

Surely the authors err too in arguing that cars have created suburbs. Kensington, in its day the arch-suburb of the metropolis, was created by the horse-buses, carriages and the Underground. Before that, even Pompeii had its suburbs. Fringe of city development is the result of wealth, not technology. It is where the better-off go to get away from the poor.

How you get to and from the suburbs depends on the prevailing technology.

One theme covered by the book is the relationship between the design and construction of cars and houses. Cars, we are told, are made up of 10,000 bits that take 15 months to design, 15 hours to make, and 15 years to wear out. They are, of course, light years ahead of the technology of a Persimmon estate.

Are the automotive industry's skills transferable? One barrier seems to be the homebuyer's love of, and the planning authority's desire for, regional distinctions.

Another is popular love of kitsch. The message is: forget pods - they do not offer variety.

Look instead to the transfer of systematic planning, just-in-time logistics and standardised components - all packaged up in Spanish Colonial or Tudorbethan.

The authors wisely expect the car to retain its allure. But if, as Le Corbusier said, 'The motor car has killed the great city; the motor car must save the great city', wherein lies salvation?

No faith is put in Lord Rogers' urban renaissance and latte-sipping downtown trendies. Poundbury and America's new urbanism are dismissed for denying the glory of the car. Pedestrianisation, too, is condemned for denying that cars are the red corpuscles of the urban body - even if walking is recognised as essential to urban living.

The authors' answer is a final chapter called 'Destination Unknown'. After a bow to new technologies, information systems, driverless taxis and city cars, talk turns to co-existence, compromise and incremental change. Carchitecture is, they argue, a state of mind: 'The carchitecture of the future will be the environment we drive, not the environment we drive through.' Phew!

Terence Bendixson is secretary of the Independent Transport Commission

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