Cars, Culture, and the Modern World

Sophia Relph is a mechanical engineer who researches fluid mechanics by day, and writes about cars by night. This blog intends to not only explore the physical and mechanical nature of automobiles, but to investigate their cultural significance and the meaning they impart as texts and works of art.

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Thoughts on how modern buildings, cars, and places create space for human interaction

Word count: 1416 (~8 minutes), Last modified: Thu, 23 May 2019 14:27:33 GMT

In the "Information Age" the language and techniques that we use to define our built environment have changed. This is driven partly by the socioeconomic ramifications of late-stage capitalism, but also by the changing nature of business, personal lives, and politics, brought about by the Internet and its associated technological fallout. This leads to a divide between the physical artifacts of the pre-Internet, pre-Y2K world, and those that came after. One major delimiter between architecture and design of the 20th and 21st centuries (these time periods serving as a stand-in for the pre-Internet and post-Internet world) is that in the 20th century, designers saw places and things as things that, by their own virtue, gave value and significance to the people they interacted with and the places they inhabited. This led to architectural styles like brutalism and international style, that seek to create edifices that, through their form, styling, and the spaces they create, send a message about the building and the people inside it. This is evidenced by such classic works of the 1900s like New York's Penn Station and Washington DC's Union Station, grand monuments to the ability of man to traverse the world under his terms; vast echoing halls are built not only to house people and ticket agents and commuter trains but also to be a palace of the people, where the working woman is a queen in her own right. Consider also the college campuses and civic buildings of the 1950s and 1960s, whose spare, efficient forms communicated both purpose and identity, not necessarily of the person, but of the building: consider the iconic Theme Building from the grounds of LAX, or the Dulles Airport terminal, one of Eero Saarinen's greatest works, or campuses like UMass Dartmouth of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County: through cohesion of style and design language, they create identities for themselves that people interact with. Going to work is a dialogue. Leaving on a business trip is a conversation with the building through which you depart; your travel experience is flavored by the buildings and spaces you pass through.

On the other hand, 21st century design seems to focus less on buildings being evaluated or analyzed by their own merits and more on how people interact with the spaces those buildings create. Here, the central conceit is the idea that greater significance is created through spaces that facilitate human interaction (not necessarily with other humans, but spaces to actively exist, work, and play in) than is created through a building that seeks to define its own identity that is then applied to the people within. This results in things like open plan houses and offices, and the big common study areas of the St John building or Iribe building compared to the closed off carrels of McKeldin Library (apologies for the University of Maryland-specific references). Consider also the Newseum, with its masses of open-air artifacts, compared to the Museum of American History, with its closed-off spaces and monolithic styling. Or compare the current California Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park, an interactive monument to green design, where the visitor's ability to interact with the environment is prioritized higher than with the old facility, that followed the stodgy, tweed-trousers approach of early 1900s academia. In the new building, everything is walk-through, compared to the museum-esque approach of the old building.

When cars are considered as edifices of their own, this analysis can be carried over to them.

In the 20th century, the functionality of the car, and its form and function as an independent work was paramount. Car advertisements focused on how the car looks and behaves, and interior design reflected an ergonomic model that places the dashboard and controls in front of the driver, rather than around them. Consider cars like the mid-1950s Chevrolet Bel Air, with its odd, symmetrical dashboard styling, confident gaping grill, and the pedestrian-lethal supersonic eagle hood ornament (it actually has a hooked beak! if you ever see a Bel Air, check out the hood ornament!). Far more stock was given to the style and aesthetic of the car than to its interactions with the driver. Consider also the AMC Pacer, with its space-age style but old-fashioned straight six, settled for when AMC's rotary engine deal fizzled. The technology-oriented thought of the 1980s started to buck this pattern, with electronic dashboard and increasingly sophisticated user interfaces, but ultimately, those existed as part of the car's aesthetic; the high-tech digital speedometers and CRT multifunction displays (would you like a rudimentary fuel range estimate, or an oil temperature readout?) served more to make the car feel contemporary, advanced, and stylish, than to make the driver at home. We can see this with the rounder, more aerodynamic styling and design language of the 1990s: everything returned to easy-to-read dials and gauges, forgoing the futuristic digital readouts for familiar, quick-to-understand user interfaces, as we concerned ourselves more with the sleek, minimal-yet-functional aesthetic of the mid 1990s. Cars of the 1900s put more stock in their identities than in the way the driver interacts with them.

However, in the 21st century, we instead treat cars as things that create and give access to spaces for people to exist in. The car itself is a space for work, play, and other aspects of life; "driver-centric" interiors surround the driver and create a space that feels both safe and controlled. The car is designed as an extension of the driver's will, rather than a thing that you give throttle and steering commands to. Gauge clusters see the return of the multifunction display and digital speedometers, this time with navigation and media capabilities, as well as smaller shifters that select gears just by being bumped or flicked, rather than big, clumsy shifters that make the driver feel as though she is asking the car for another gear. New cars have more meaning when next to, or surrounding, their driver. A Nissan Altima could be a sensible, yet affordable, daily driver for a supermarket manager, but it could also be a prestigious, aggressive grand tourer for the up-and-coming young professional to weave up the interstate in. A Dodge Challenger could be a stoplight dragster for the spunky youth who cares more about horsepower and a T-grip shifter than about turbochargers and cat deletes, but it could also be a cushy daily commuter for the older gentleman who, as he thanks his Challenger for its forgiving ride, remembers the time he took his high school sweetheart for joyrides in his 4-4-2.

This is also reflected in the growing prevalence of back-seat climate controls for family-oriented vehicles, and the prevalence of large moonroofs in modern cars as well. The moonroof provides another way for the passengers to interact with the place they're passing through, and greater control over the light and information that enter the space they occupy. Backseat climate controls give passengers a way to change their environment, some measure of control over their space (see Regular Car Reviews' video on the Subaru Ascent for an analysis of this focused on the experiences of children). Cars are no longer seen as things we travel in, but places that we occupy as we traverse our world. Just like our homes, or our workplaces, or libraries or airports or anywhere else, cars are places where we feel, live, love, and die. Old cars weren't designed for that, but we're beginning to analyze them as places and artifacts as well.

The modern car also opens up space; take one recent Hyundai Kona ad for example, where a happy, 20-something couple hops in their 160hp, low ground clearance, front wheel drive "crossover utility vehicle" (we all know it's just a hatchback) and take it offroading to go rock climbing; the ad implies that this space, this place for living, was made accessible by the car. Many of the car advertisements we see now are focused on how they make the driver feel, and the possibilities they offer. Older car advertisements, like their wares, advertise the functionality, style, and aesthetic of the car, but not its people. Older cars are styled and designed, both ergonomically and aesthetically, to be their own works, standing for themselves, with their own identities. Modern cars still do this, but are designed to house a greater gestalt, a car-and-driver (ha!) combination that means more, knows more, does more than just the driver or the car by themselves.