Ford + Architecture? Yes, Please.
October 3, 2012
Where architecture meets automobile design
Make no mistake, the automotive industry is a creative industry, on par with that of architecture and other similarly tech-and-craft fields. Generations of architects have enthusiastically ceded this point, often going to pains to make aesthetic ties from their buildings to cars and the streamlined, aerodynamic forms that defined them. Today, as design practices of all fields are diverging at an incredible rate, the gap between the world of architecture and that of the car seems to be rapidly closing. Still, how similar are these two spheres of production? And how can we detect the features of one once they are embedded in the other?
These are some questions that framed the “Fords and Architecture” panel discussion held this morning at New York’s Center for Architecture. The event was meant as a sort of “kick-off” to Archtober, the city’s month-long celebration of architecture, and which brought together an interesting panel of speakers, including Jill Lerner, principal at Kohn Pederson and Fox, and Donald Albrecht, curator of architecture and design the Museum of the City of New York. The pair was joined by Jeff Nield, manager, Strategic Design Vision and Futuring for Ford (greatest title ever), with the general discussion moderated by Rick Bell, executive director AIA New York. Continue.
While the environmental impact of both industries was covered extensively by each of the participants, these issues accompanied a greater discussion regarding the design of buildings and automobiles and how they comes to fulfill the desires of their occupants/users. Bell outlined the conversation by speaking about the similarities between architecture and car design, suggesting that perennial principles of proportion, beauty, and comfort remain paramount to both practices. Nield concurred, as did his panel mates, by saying that Ford was entering a “new phase” wherein the craft and drama of classic American cars–think the inimitable 1957 Ford Thunderbird–are coupled with a design responsibility to engender a sustainable lifestyle.
Nield would later elaborate on his point, saying that Ford’s goal was to make, or rather, craft a car that a consumer “can fall in love with”–such as the 2013 Ford Fusion–in the manner as one can love a city square or a corner coffee shop. This led to another interesting interlude, with the panel investigating how both buildings and cars can encourage social interaction. Lerner noted how contemporary architecture has reacted more sensitively to the street than its predecessors had. Albrecht agreed, adding that this development has fostered a more nuanced social transition from within and outside of a building. People meet in architecture all the time, but the experience is made all the more enjoyable in good architecture.
Interior, 2013 Ford Fusion
The car, on the other hand, would seem to negate the type of social activity that architects and planners so value. That’s not exactly true, Nield pointed out; on the contrary, as the traditional dynamic of the nuclear family unit deteriorates, the car is the “last frontier” for intimate socialization. As he explained, the interior of the car conditions “fantastic human connections” that simply can’t be found in many other venues. The future of Ford design, Nield promised, would “see a return to traditional social interaction”, as designers continue ways to give exciting form to the “social aspect of the road trip”.
The 2013 Ford Fusion
But this focus on social mobility extends not only to the relationship between pedestrian-and-car or car-and-occupant, but also to car-and-car. Changing market demographics have pushed for a shrinking of car sizes, with consumers increasingly opting for smaller cars rather than invite the environmental and economical ramifications of large, inefficient vehicles. The problem figures significantly in the design of Ford cars, said Nield. “As cars get smaller, the way we drive will change”, a formula that has obvious urban implications. “Driver-assisted technologies”, like the kind Ford continues to develop, promise not only to alter the way drivers navigate the city, but also to enable cars with the wherewithal to react to surrounding vehicles. “Think of a school of fish”, Nield said, where each fish constantly reacts to the location and movement of its neighbors.
Still, beyond these considerations, it should be remembered that cars, moreso than buildings, are objects to be desired. As consumers become more and more “design-savvy”, as Lerner put it, people will “pay more for design” because they understand how good design enriches their lives. Albrecht followed this by saying that cars one-up architecture, or buildings at least, in the way that they can more effectively appeal to the user on an emotional level. Which circles back to Ford’s goal of “bringing the love” back to car design. All designers must, Nield advised, keep their hand “on the pulse” of changing ideals, on both the issues and aesthetic shifts that capture the spirit of any time period.