Design on the move

Architects have designed some pretty shocking cars in their time, but Buckminster Fuller took it a bit more seriously with his three-wheeled Dymaxion
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The Independent Online

Years ago, when I was a writer for Chris Tarrant (it's a long story, all right?), one of the things that convinced me of his basic soundness was the fact that, not so very much earlier, he'd been reduced to living in his car. He'd apparently rather enjoyed it, and had even managed to get his post delivered there. I don't know what kind of car it was, but somehow I always imagine it was a big clunky Ford Granada or the like, certainly nothing sleek or sculptural.

Years ago, when I was a writer for Chris Tarrant (it's a long story, all right?), one of the things that convinced me of his basic soundness was the fact that, not so very much earlier, he'd been reduced to living in his car. He'd apparently rather enjoyed it, and had even managed to get his post delivered there. I don't know what kind of car it was, but somehow I always imagine it was a big clunky Ford Granada or the like, certainly nothing sleek or sculptural.

And I began to think of Le Corbusier's much-quoted line about a house being a machine for living in, and it seems perfectly logical that if your house is going to be a machine, it might as well be a machine on wheels that can take you places. There's also that twaddle from Roland Barthes about cars being "almost the exact equivalent" of Gothic cathedrals, so you can see why architects might have some affinity with cars. A building is a great way for an architect to impose his will on a single site or environment, but with a car he can impose his will all over the place.

Ivan Margolius, in his exhaustive recent book Automobiles by Architects (Wiley-Academy, £27.50) from which the illustrations above are taken, gives details of various weird vehicles created by architects. Some of these vehicles, such as Frank Lloyd Wright's Road Machine, which looks like Cinderella's coach, or Renzo Piano's Flying Carpet experimental truck, which was to be made largely out of ferro-cement, never made it off the drawing-board, and you can understand why. Some that did, such as Norman Foster's solar electric vehicle for Kew Gardens, or Walter Gropius's diesel railcar, make you think they were wise not to give up the day jobs.

London's Design Museum holds in its permanent collection a car designed by Le Corbusier called the Voiture Minimum. It looks like a Beetle and comes from much the same period. It was designed for a competition, which it didn't win, and even though it's only a plywood mock-up, you can still tell that his heart wasn't really in it.

Buckminster Fuller, whose work is celebrated in an exhibition on the lower floor of the museum, took car design a lot more seriously. One of the most fascinating exhibits shows some film footage of Fuller's pod-shaped, three-wheeled Dymaxion car of 1933. There are plenty of photographs of this car around, and I remember seeing the thing itself displayed in a motor museum in Reno, but I'd always had trouble imagining it in motion. Yet there it is, on screen, sweeping through Depression-era New York traffic looking like a space vehicle from some science-fiction movie.

Perhaps this is only to be expected from the man who coined the term "Spaceship Earth". Fuller's architecture was always "here to go". His first patent, in 1928, was for a prefabricated tower block that could be delivered to any location in the world via airship. Forty years or so later, he came up with the idea of Tetra City - a floating metropolis for a million inhabitants.

American hippies loved Fuller's espousal of mobility; an impulse that would lead some of them to hit the road in VW Campers. If they put down roots at all, it might well have been in one of Fuller's geodesic domes. They might have been surprised to learn that in 1940, he designed something called the Mechanical Wing - a collapsible trailer, containing a bath, toilet and kitchen, but no beds. It looks as square as anything that could be found on an English caravan site. Much hipper, and not unlike the Dymaxion car, are the streamlined, aluminium-bodied Airstream trailers. They too date from the 1930s, although they weren't conceived by an architect but rather by Wally Byam, who originally built them in his backyard.

The news is that various cutting-edge California architects are incorporating vintage Airstreams into their projects. Felderman & Keatinge Associates used one as a waiting-room at MTV's Santa Monica HQ, and three of them are used as editing suites at Pinnacle Studios in Los Angeles.

A man called Tom Hawver claims to be working on a project to create a community of people living in Airstreams on the rooftops of Manhattan. Certainly there are plenty of New York apartments that seem no roomier than a decent-sized saloon car.

There's a gorgeously underplayed scene in David Cronenberg's Crash, where the deranged car-crash addicted Vaughan shows his quite spacious workshop to the "hero" James Ballard, who says, "Do you live here?" Quietly, and with complete finality, Vaughan replies, "I live in my car."

Well, his car does happen to be a very cool 1963 Lincoln convertible, more stylish and monumental than most of the cars, and indeed houses, that the majority of us are ever likely to own. It was also John F Kennedy's death car. A car can be a machine for dying in as well as living in.

Geoff Nicholson's new novel, 'Bedlam Burning', is published by Gollancz, £16.99

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