Sunday, December 4, 2011

Automobiles and Architecture

Section analysis of Le Corbusier's Voiture Minimum (from the book Voiture Minimum. Le Corbusier and the Automobile by Antonio Amado Lorenzo)

The time has come for me and my wife to get a new car. Buying a car is not something I look forward to because there’s always the fear that we will spend more than we should or end up with a vehicle we’re less than happy with. My dread of buyer’s remorse hovers menacingly over the entire affair. There’s also my predisposition to paralyzing over-analysis, a byproduct of my background and training as an architect. It’s a draining and angst-ridden experience.(1)

Do we really need a new car? We’ve always had two (we even had three vehicles between the two of us for a brief while). If we could truly be responsible stewards of the environment, we’d make do with only one. Cars pollute. They’re rapacious consumers of non-renewable resources. They isolate us from our communities by fostering an alienating and unsustainable landscape of placeless strip malls and freeway interchanges. And yet North Americans are addicted to their autos.

Regrettably, we’re no exceptions. We do rely on two cars because our individual commitments and schedules require them. The dilemma in this country is that our urban environments are not conducive to abandoning our motoring ways nor has there been the will to develop comprehensive alternative modes of transportation that might overcome the primacy of the automobile.

On the plus side, we do eke out every mile possible from each one we’ve owned. Our new vehicle will replace a now decrepit 1989 Honda Civic DX 4-door sedan. It’s served us very well for over 23 years (we purchased it new in 1988) but its time has come. Our other car is a 2001 Subaru Outback wagon, which we hope will be serviceable for nearly as long.

Being an architect, I tend to obsess more about form and function than the average car buyer. For me, purchasing a new car is similar to the process of architectural design. Like a building design problem, we need to settle upon a functional brief, a program so to speak. What kind of vehicle do we need? What model do we want? Are we looking for a coupe, a sedan, or an SUV? How important is performance? How much can we afford to spend?    

Then there is the matter of design. I cannot separate appearance from utility. They should be mutually supportive. I find beauty in the elegant resolution of problems, wherein the maximum effect is achieved with an economy of means. I appreciate the prudent application of innovative concepts, so I favor cutting- but not bleeding-edge technologies. I try to avoid the whims of style and fashion; instead, I prefer more timeless and organic notions of what looks good such as those based upon proportion, symmetry, and harmony. I abhor self-indulgence and opulence for its own sake.

Buildings convey meaning and so do automobiles. The dawn of the motoring age famously inspired the architecture of Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright among others.(2)  In his book Automobiles by Architects, Ivan Margolius wrote about how the seductive beauty of the latest car models beguiled and influenced the early modernists:

“A number of well-known architects liked to pair the architecture of their houses with their favorite automobiles in order to illustrate the close functional and aesthetic relationship between them. Some believed that their cars had to 'look becoming to' their architecture, and included automobiles in perspective views and photographs of their completed buildings, the result being a harmonizing composition of the two elements that stressed their close affinity.”

Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Car

Le Corbusier and noteworthy architects since have understood the iconic power of automobiles to symbolize the prevailing zeitgeist. Many applied the principles of automotive technology and design to their architecture. Some like Corb, Wright, Walter Gropius, Buckminster Fuller, and most recently Zaha Hadid even proposed their own motorcar designs.

Zaha Hadid's Z.Car

Because they are (usually) less expensive than buildings and automotive design evolves more quickly than architecture, it’s possible that cars more precisely reflect who their owners are at a given station in their lives than, say, the owners’ homes. Architects are notoriously image-conscious; by association, their choice of wheels probably says something about the kind of architects they are.

So, what type of car should my wife and I buy? What kind of architect am I?

I’m image-conscious but it’s not my goal to purchase a vehicle to make a statement or as a status symbol. This is much more of a problem-solving exercise: we need to replace an old car with a new one that similarly provides economical, safe, and functional transportation. I do however want it to look good at the same time.

We’re leaning toward purchasing a hybrid vehicle, specifically the 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid sedan. We’ve considered and test-driven several other vehicles, including the Honda Insight, Toyota Prius, Ford Escape Hybrid, and Ford Fusion Hybrid. The bottom line is that it appears the Civic offers us the best combination of features we’re looking for.

The Civic Hybrid’s fuel economy is very good (44 city/44 highway/44 combined EPA rating) but not as good as the Prius. Nevertheless, the Civic’s combination of handling, style, and fuel economy swayed us. If our own past experience is any guide, Honda will again live up to its reputation for reliability and we’ll enjoy many years of happy driving if we end up purchasing one.

We originally thought we’d get a Prius but quickly changed our mind. Contrary to some reviews I read, we did not find the Prius accelerated, stopped, or maneuvered as well as the Civic Hybrid. The Prius felt sluggish off the line and Toyota’s regenerative braking system exhibited excessive fade. It also felt much heavier than the Civic, most notably in turns. The deciding factor, however, was the Prius’ incredibly poor rear and rear quarter window visibility. It simply felt unsafe driving the vehicle. The Prius is a bad design in this regard.

In hindsight I don’t think the Prius is an aesthetically pleasing car. This opinion is admittedly colored by our experience test-driving the vehicle. Regardless, it is somewhat clunky looking and patently different. It’s commonly known Toyota developed the Prius’ signature look so everyone instantly correlates the car with a sustainably minded ethos that aspires to save the planet by consuming less gasoline and generating fewer emissions.

Conversely, the Civic’s appearance is by no means idiosyncratic. If anything, the design borders on the generic for compact sedans. If you didn’t know what to look for, you wouldn’t recognize that the car is a hybrid. On the other hand, I find its form pleasingly spare and absent of pretense. It looks aerodynamic because it is. The Civic most closely matches what we’re looking for.

We did consider a conventional Honda Civic as well. Why spend thousands more for a hybrid if a conventional motor delivers only a marginal fuel economy penalty? It’s questionable whether we’d make up the cost difference in fuel savings over the life of the car. Nevertheless, we’re betting on the likelihood of rising gasoline prices in the future, which seems inevitable. Gloomily pessimistic, sure, but I fear paying more at the pump will be the least of our worries as humankind moves forward.

The 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid

I’m hardly an automotive enthusiast. On the other hand, being an architect means I do have a level of discernment useful to evaluating the merits of various car models. The ability to appreciate good design has universal applications. The skills required to evaluate architecture are equally applicable to the design of cars. We’ve done our research and allowed both sides of our brains to have their say. I’m hopeful we will have made the correct choice when we purchase the Honda Civic Hybrid.

(1) With the explosion of car buying and comparison information available on the Internet, the experience needn’t be as stressful as it almost always used to be. Access to pricing information helps to level the playing field.

(2) Le Corbusier’s enthrallment for les voitures was rooted in his fascination with industrial production processes and modern technology. He went so far as to dub his mass-produced single-family house prototype—his “machine for living”—the Maison Citrohan, a homonymic play on the name of the automaker Citroen. Frank Lloyd Wright’s love affair with the automobile prompted a different response. For better or worse, Wright foresaw how the car would open up the American landscape and how the freedom it promised would come to be regarded a birthright. His wider vision became Broadacre City, which if fully realized would have been the apotheosis of suburban sprawl: a totally automobile-reliant development pattern.


Ella said...

Quite interesting and informative.Thanks for sharing.

Savannah Autos

Richard said...

Excellent observations as it relates to your NW area of the U.S.