Automotive Design as a Laboratory for Disciplinary Dynamics

It may be a clichi to notice that the disciplinary boundaries of architecture have been loosened by advances in information technology, but it is not obvious what the resulting effects will finally be. These boundaries have been tested before, most notably in the recurring debate between autonomy and engagement, but always with an underlying disciplinary steadiness taken for granted. This assumption is shaken by the emerging picture of a smooth, mobile world of flows where boundaries are impediments rather than identities. Contemporary architectural discourse is heavy with popular culture, from the ironic rationality of Dutch design to the desperate envy of Nike and the culture of branding, but the question of architecture\’s own particular form of knowledge has remained largely unexamined. Yet, it is easy to imagine that these other perspectives, focused on architecture, might offer architects a fresh view of what would otherwise be too close or familiar to notice.The question of how to tell a good thing from a bad thing lies at the heart of all boundary issues in design. The primary function of the discipline is to enable such judgments without a trivializing or paralyzing strictness to functional standards. In this studio, automotive design will serve as a laboratory for examining the issue of judgment, in particular the notion of \”sophistication,\” as a way of understanding how the discipline acts as a framework for such discrimination. Sophistication is rare in the products of the automotive industry; its difference from the novelty, exoticism or exuberance that otherwise might stand for goodness in judgments about design is more obvious in cars than buildings. The student will develop an understanding of the dynamics of such judgment through the analysis of various iconic cars, their signature characteristics, design evolution and dissemination. This understanding will then be tested through the design of a car, and transferred to architecture with the design of a showroom and dealership for the sale and service of that car. In contrast to a recent MIT/Gehry studio on what might seem to be a similar theme, this studio will be interested less in the functional design of the car, or in the urban implications of that design. While such issues are important, this is a studio about architecture, not problem-solving or engineering or branding. In this studio the focus will be on visual design and the questions it can raise about judgment, sophistication, meaning, etc that are important to architecture. The design of a car rather than a building allows these issues to come to the foreground, untroubled by the moral confusion of pure formalism in architecture, and be examined for their contribution to disciplinary identity.