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October 10, 2012
by Bill Millard

The 2013 Ford Fusion parked outside the Center for Architecture.

Daniel Fox

(l-r) Donald Albrecht, Jill Lerner, FAIA, Jeff Nield, and Rick Bell, FAIA

Daniel Fox

Event: Fords and Architecture
Location: Center for Architecture, 10.03.2012
Speakers: Rick Bell, FAIA, Executive Director, AIANY (moderator); Jeff Nield, Manager, Strategic Design Vision and Futuring, Ford Motor Company; Jill Lerner, FAIA, Principal, Kohn Pedersen Fox; Donald Albrecht, Curator of Architecture and Design, Museum of the City of New York; Cynthia Phifer Kracauer, AIA, LEED, Managing Director, AIANY (introduction)
Organizers: Ford Motor Company and AIANY
Sponsor: Ford Motor Company

We know what they do to the atmosphere, to cities, to human lungs and bones. The conundrum is that cars are still not only indispensable in most of the U.S. – both for individuals wanting full participation in civic life and for the economy in general – but, at their best, unavoidably cool. If the U.S. auto industry can adapt successfully to an era when buyers value sustainability and efficiency as well as horsepower, suggested a special Archtober panel, it’ll be in part because of design that revives the mojo of iconic ’65 Mustangs and ’57 Thunderbirds and confers it on advanced vehicles as well: hybrids, electrics, maybe even autonomous models.

Even in a city where the dominant mobility choice is pedestrian – and in an era of climate change, green urbanism, PlaNYC, and widespread awareness of the downsides of Robert Moses-era urban design – few of us are immune to the appeal of a well-designed car. Automotive design helped inspire Le Corbusier imagine his “machines for living”; the streamlined contours of buildings by Jørn Utzon, Ai Weiwei, Herzog & de Meuron, and others, as Ford’s photo installation in Tafel Hall for this event made clear, bear unmistakable resemblances to Detroit’s signature product.

As opening remarks by Rick Bell, FAIA, suggested, architectural and automotive design both strive for the Vitruvian virtues of firmness, commodity, and delight. Cars, he noted, help define national and personal images; “people still define themselves by what they drive,” expressing values from their first car onward. His unavoidable pun on cold fusion, a long-sought holy grail among physicists, generates the phrase “cool fusion,” a concept whose implications extend well beyond the name of an advanced model.

With an icy-green new Fusion parked tantalizingly in front of the Center for Architecture, implying that future hybrids can be not only as eco-responsible as a Prius but as sporty as an Aston Martin (this model definitely looked like it could accommodate the 007 twin-machine-gun option), three architects and a Ford designer offered an invited audience their insights into common ground between these realms.

Donald Albrecht, curator of the Museum of the City’s recent “Cars, Culture, and the City” exhibition, spoke of his first car (a 1969 Volvo) in terms of the minimalism of Eero Saarinen and Kevin Roche, along with outlining the linkages between Henry Ford’s assembly lines and modern office procedures.

Jill Lerner, FAIA (first car, a Ford Pinto), recalled working on Detroit’s Walter B. Ford College for Creative Studies, a design academy with a strong pipeline into the automotive field. She not only finds parallels between the two professions in the areas of aesthetics and emotional connection, but notes that technological advances commonly migrate between them (neoprene seals, for example, were developed by the auto industry, then applied to buildings’ fenestration). Comparing the energy-performance monitoring of a Prius to smart-building technologies that offer occupants informative feedback and control, she suggested a series of developments along multiple dimensions related to individual options (e.g., family-scale fleets of multiple cars for specific purposes). Mass customization, diversification, and precise information management, it seems, have thoroughly replaced the standardization embodied by Ford’s Model T.

Ford’s Jeff Nield also underscored parallel aims between architects and auto designers, noting that “in both cases, you want to put a person or a group of people in an environment that they’re comfortable in for a long period of time.” Responding to inquiries about cars’ adaptation to changing demographics, he described “how to get more out of less” as a high-priority aim at Ford; just as “a skyscraper is a brilliant solution to having a very small footprint,” automakers are maximizing efficiencies in spatial footprint, fuel use, and other variables.

A recurring theme, however, was that beauty trumps rationality in people’s relations to cars. “We’re differentiating ourselves,” Nield said, through “studying what makes a beautiful automobile timeless. We want our products to stand the test of time visually and aesthetically. Our goal right now at Ford is to design beautiful cars that customers fall in love with. And underneath that is a very impressive efficiency and power-train story, but that is really where our design director J Mays is taking the brand. We’re at a time where we can be responsible but also have the romantic and dramatic vehicle.”

There is much to say, and much being said elsewhere, about the auto’s history of crowding other mobility options out of public space; about externalities and subsidies; about urban driver behavior and accountability. Your humble reporter (full disclosure: first car, 1970 Ford Maverick; second car, ditto; current ride, antique Fuji 12-speed) found it refreshing, on this occasion, to step aside from those concerns and consider beauty for a while. It’s essential to nearly everyone’s experience of built space, whether that space stands still or rolls; though it’s an off-limits topic in some circles, it’s at the center of auto designers’ thinking. No serious consideration of transportation can ignore it.

Audience comments, particularly by Dale Cohen, Assoc. AIA, and Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, returned to factors that make people fall in or out of love with cars: no car of the last two decades, Cohen noted, inspires the love we gave up for classic T-birds, and Zipcars, Brown suggested, offer alternatives to the “psychological baggage” of auto ownership. The 2013 Fusion, Nield suggests, is the American hybrid with a chance to reintroduce romance.

On the other hand, the Zipcar system may make serial flings preferable to automotive monogamy altogether. Technologies like the Google Driverless Car are providing reasons to rethink whether the individual experience of driving is all that lovable anyway; perhaps it’s become dull enough to delegate to robots. At any rate, the most admirable vehicles, as with buildings, will be the ones that respond to a broad, complex definition of beauty.

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