Design driven

According to a new title, architecture and automobile design have been having a relationship for some time. Matthew Valentine catches the gossip.

We’ve all heard designers maligned as frustrated architects but it would appear that, especially when cars are involved, many architects are in fact frustrated designers.

According to author Ivan Margolius, in his new book Automobiles by Architects, most would jump at the chance to part exchange their drawing boards and polonecks for an inspection pit and overalls. To a man (and, in this case, they are mostly men) they are stark raving mad about cars.

This won’t come as an enormous shock. In fact, the relationship between car design and architecture is a long established one; the famous Rolls Royce radiator grill was directly inspired by Greek columns a century ago and the same phallic accusations are thrust upon both skyscrapers and car bonnets. But Margolius’ book collates a large selection of motoring projects carried out by architects, and mixes in some entertaining gossip and trivia.

Frank Lloyd Wright was a keen driver, owning a string of desirable and expensive cars he couldn’t really afford. Telling dealers, “You know it is a very valuable advertisement for your company if you publish in the newspapers that Frank Lloyd Wright has bought the new Cord,” he obtained two models from the upmarket manufacturer at an impressive discount. One of these was the celebrated Cord 810, regularly voted one of the best-looking cars ever by readers of motoring magazines.

The approach seems to have worked elsewhere, too. Wright owned cars from AC, Mercedes, Cadillac, Lincoln, Packard and other makers. He may have started a trend: today most car companies attempt to put new models in celebrities’ hands.

Le Corbusier was a huge fan of machinery in general. A plywood model of one of his car designs graces London’s Design Museum, and his own car, a 10hp Voisin, features in many photographs of his buildings, carefully parked to be visible. He didn’t exactly maintain the car well, though. Czech architect Karel Honzik, a passenger in it, is quoted as saying, “The paint was cracked and almost faded. The windows were broken, fragments of glass tinkled under our shoes.” Progress was hampered by the lack of a functioning second gear, and the passenger was scared by tales of the previous week’s crash. Hardly a machine long for living.

Buckminster Fuller was convinced that cars should be the same shape as an aircraft fuselage, with the addition of a rudder and rear-wheel steering. But early prototypes were, as might be expected, unsafe. He lost financial backers when one overturned during a demonstration at the 1933 Chicago World Fair, killing its driver. The passengers, all prospective customers, were not impressed. But Fuller’s ideas have proved influential since, especially in the study of aerodynamics. Judging by the number of oversized people carriers on today’s roads, he has been influential on styling, too.

In a sense there could be an obvious explanation for the popularity of car design among architects: fame. People can see and appreciate cars everywhere. Even if they stay still cars will come to them, and most can name, at least, Henry Ford and Enzo Ferrari as famous makers of them.

Ask somebody on the bus to name an architect and see how far you get. Margolius quotes John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row as a measure of how heavily the Ford Model T changed lives in the US: “Two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford coil than the clitoris.” Knowledge of architecture probably came a distant third.

Automobiles by Architects is published by Wiley-Academy on 6 April, priced £27.50

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