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Architects, watch this car

Car design and architecture have been out of step for decades, but one car brings them back together

Jonathan Meades | September/October 2013

You can tell that the new Alfa Romeo 4C has class from the glamour models that were draped over it at the Geneva Motor Show in March. One black, one white, one blonde, one brunette: Alfa is an equal-opportunities employer. And the class? They had clothes on. They were wearing dresses. Almost demure, little black dresses. Which must have been a disappointment for the ogling paunches, questing groins, voracious execs and slavering "lensmen", the de rigueur epithet for photographers in the terminally laddish world of rpm and kph.

So what kind of motor is it that can be launched without several leopard-skin thongs in attendance?

A motor whose headlights verge on the preposterous. They evidently derive from a collision between an ophthalmologist’s trial-frames and one or more of the Sentinels, the yob cephalopods in the "Matrix" movies. A motor, then, which is designed in part to appeal to the most specialist of special-effects nerds. (Probably lives at home with Mum. Has a Tiff Needell poster on bedroom wall.)

A motor whose cabin narrows in such a way that, viewed from the front at five o’clock or seven o’clock, it looks as though it is either suffering duck’s disease or is weighed down by a bloated late-Victorian bustle—the back must have been outsourced to James Tissot. This probably explains the models’ sartorial modesty. What mere human could, after all, compete with such callipygian excess? Still, this troubling revenant from the 1880s is less pronounced when the car is viewed from other angles. 

A motor whose manufacturer realises that design sells, on its own virtues, without the assistance of high-end bimbos who—oh heartbreak!—are not part of the package when you buy the thing. If off-plan luxury apartments, state-of-the-art computers, high-concept sound systems and so on can be sold unadorned in the market place, then why not cars?

Especially a car which positively screams about its quasi-sculptural, quasi-architectural form. And which indeed, if suitably inflated and marginally adjusted (lose those wheels), far surpasses those buildings wrought as examples of "blob" or "fold" architecture—the supposedly biomorphic architecture which harbours pathological fears of right angles, rigorous horizontals and strict verticals. Think of Future Systems’ Selfridges in Birmingham, or Cook and Fournier’s Kunsthaus in Graz.

In the 1920s Le Corbusier was designing white orthogonal villas which exhibited no such fears. When they were photographed he insisted on having his car somewhere in frame. This was in order to emphasise that the dwelling, like the vehicle, was a machine. At the time the incongruity of the two objects was unacknowledged: new building, new car. In retrospect they are as kindred as a pennyfarthing and a spaceship. Much of today’s architecture is so cannibalistic of the early modern movement that Le Corbusier’s villas look freshly made; you can almost smell the paint. Whereas the cars—though Le Corbusier never denied himself the latest models—look palaeolithic.

That (apparently) anachronistic disjunction between automotive and architectural design has dissipated. The Alfa 4C is merely one of many proofs of a sort of coalescence. As well as to cars and buildings, kindred forms are applied to furniture, lighting, garden pods (ie, sheds) and to silly primary-coloured objects with unfathomable functions which people give each other as presents.

The car’s appearance is justified by its designers as being determined by functional demands. They would say that. They always do: no one can ever own up to designing a car (or any utile object) because he or she likes that particular shape—not least because that particular shape is a current fashion and it doesn’t do to fly in the face of fashion. The delightful "three-box" Alfa Giulias of the late 1960s and 1970s—Europe’s most elegant police cars—were as tenaciously rectilinear as Le Corbusier’s 1920s villas. Car design had taken almost 50 years to catch up. The two, however, currently march together.

What if cars take the lead? Architects persistently bemoan the fact that architectural engineering is primitive compared with, for example, the engineering of cars, and they seek to emulate it. But the idea that the often random shapes of the car stylist might impinge on those of buildings has remained largely unconsidered.

The Alfa 4C is blobbier and foldier than the call of duty demands. It possesses a characteristic which the practice of architecture craves: it is a potential source of inspiration. That’s to say it can be ripped off with abandon, impunity, glee. Its grin, its bustle, its rejection of Euclidean geometry, its oxymoronic compact between clumsiness and lissom grace—these are properties to whet the architectural appetite.

The unexpected upside for nerds who have lived so long at home and resolve to venture away from Mum could be this: that volume builders will offer opportunities to meet world-class lingerie models draped fleshily over the furniture in totally luxurious duplex, if not quadruplex, show-flats. It may already have happened.

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