Are automotive aesthetics in our genes?

A mostly political Weblog.
Jan. 10 2006 4:40 PM

I Can't Help Hating Chris Bangle

It's in my genes!

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I hadn't realized the extent to which the debate on how to combat avian flu recapitulates the debate over American foreign policy, with some health experts (let's call them "liberals") arguing for reliance on multinational organizations to fight flu outbreaks in the poor Third World countries that are the breeding grounds for this natural terror. Others think this is a do-gooders' fantasy and argue for a more selfish, unilateral "moat" strategy. Here's Dr. Henry Miller of the Hoover Institution:

If national governments are incapable of appropriate, timely actions to prevent or respond to a potential pandemic of avian flu, to whom could we delegate responsibility? The World Health Organization, perhaps -- a component of the inept, self-serving, scientifically challenged, politically correct, unaccountable United Nations, which gave us the Iraq oil-for-food scandal and its continuing coverup ... Is there anyone so naive to believe that the UN can keep politics out of scientific and medical decisions?

One difference is that, in the flu debate, the "liberals" aren't asking us to rely on the distant prospect of Third World countries developing flourishing economies that lift them out of poverty. They're only asking for a limited infrastructure that lets health workers chopper in, distribute medicine and kill farm animals. ... And it's the liberal position, in this case, that draws on the natural human instinct to retaliate, tit for tat. "Fight the flu over there so we don't have to fight it over here!"--that's the flu-lib cry.  ... I don't see an analogue to the idealistic neoconservative position, though. Democracy--either of people or of viruses--isn't going to make the flu go away, right? Nor is anyone (as far as I know) proposing to overthrow governments in order to establish more sanitary conditions. ...  12:52 P.M.

Thefocus of evil in the auto styling world, BMW design chief Chris Bangle, lectured at the L.A. Auto Show last Thursday.  I knew I thought Bangle's cars were ugly--or, rather, unappealingly contrived. But what about the theory? Talking was obviously his strong suit.  Why not go?

Several hundred mainly industry types attended. Bangle seemed a pleasant enough fellow--either he's relatively laid back for a meticulous egomaniac, or he does a good job of faking it. He promised his slide show would "rock and roll," and it almost did. My notes aren't precise enough to allow for a lot of direct quotes, but he had four main themes:

1. Car design has closed the gap on architecture. Bauhaus modernism arrived in the 1920s, when cars were still in a near-baroque phase. Autos didn't get Bauhausy until the 50s. Bangle proudly noted that it  took only six years for him to echo the complex curves of Frank Gehry's Bilbao museum in the BMW Z4 sports car.

2. Car design is technologically driven--specifically by the tooling.  It's all about "what kind of shapes you can get out of tools." At the moment, the big tool is "multiple axis surfacing," which allowed BMW to create its previously "impossible" convex and concave steel panels."  Bangle was especially proud of the "digital" technology behind the wrinkles in a new BMW's hood.

3. Car design, and maybe appreciation of car design, is an elite occupation. Bangle noted that anyone with a computer and Photoshop could now alter BMW's designs.** But just because you can buy a cheap machine and bake bread at home "doesn't make you a master baker."  This was accompanied by lots of references to "professionalism," "skill level," the ability to understand visual grammar and reach the "highest audience."

4. We should see beyond the single car and see how each product fits into the broad sweep of aesth etic progress. Bangle ridiculed designers who just come up with something they think is "cool."  Instead each design has a place in the "biggest single aesthetic undertaking in human history."

To which kf responds: 

1. Why do cars have to follow buildings?  Bangle didn't seem like a cantankerous visionary as much as an insecure follower. Why be so proud that you managed to ape Bilbao in only 6 years?  (Later, in the Q &A, Bangle lamented that his team had difficulty designing a cell phone antennae for BMW because there were no "precedents" to follow from racing cars. Why does he need "precedents"?). You'd think auto design might lead architecture rather than the other way around, cars being a fresher development, in the broad sweep of things, than buildings.

2. Tools are tools: Just because you can make new shapes doesn't mean that they will always be appealing. Bangle interspersed his slide show with photos of beautiful and fashionable women, mainly Audrey Hepburn, which had the effect of subtly subverting his pitch. The design of women, after all, hasn't changed all that much over centuries. Yet they still retain their brand appeal! That's because the attraction is built into our genes. Maybe there are other aesthetic parameters in our genes--a preference for smooth and symmetrical shapes over pockmarked and asymmetrical shapes, for example. (In the environment of our evolution, pockmarks=disease, right?) Hence the smooth, voluptuous  Pontiac Solstice. Bangle seems eager to let changes in tooling technology lead him to rapidly create clever shapes that our nimble brains may appreciate on an intellectual level but that our relatively unchanging genes don't let us appreciate on an emotional level. Hence the BMW 3 series.

3. Cool is cool. Deskwork doesn't often produce beauty: Would you rather buy a design from a) sophisticated scholars who urge you to see how it fits into the broad history of aesthetics or b) blindered adolescents who say, "Hey, this is cool"? I'll take (b). It's mighty convenient for an executive who designs ugly cars to ask us to look at them in their grand intellectual context. ... And is aesthetic evolution the result of bold moves by self-conscious theorists like Bangle or the competition of lots of little, "cool" designs by people who quite unaware of how their work compared with that of Archimedes and Vermeer? I'd say the latter, which would make aesthetic evolution more analogous to actual, un-self-conscious Darwinian evolution.

4. Survival of the coolest! In this context, Bangle's loud professionalism seems more like the brittle defense of a man who doesn't want to be judged "fit" or "unfit" in a chaotic battle for popular and artistic survival--someone who'd rather be declared an aesthetic visionary mainly because he's got the job of chief of design for BMW--and who cares what you think anyway?

**--Usually for the better  (scroll down).

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