Drew P A Smith

On Bilbao and Bangle

In 2007, my Masters thesis explored the ways in which automotive designers trick the eye by manipulating environmental light.

In a chapter on the relationship between automotive design and architecture, I drew a parallel between the deconstructivist school, represented by the likes of Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, and the work of Chris Bangle’s team at BMW. I wrote:

Christian Norberg-Schulz, a well known architectural critic, made the observation that “The additive spatial structures of the Renaissance demand a uniform illumination, while Baroque structures based on dominance and contrast admit a more ‘dramatic’ illumination.” (Norberg-Schulz cited in Millet & Barrett 1996). Similar parallels can be drawn between the more contemporary Bauhaus and Deconstructivist (DeCon) schools of architecture.

Bauhaus, and latterly, modernist ideals stated that a form must reflect its primary social importance such as speed or universality of form. This highly rational approach to design naturally gave rise to the adage that form follows function. This is most clearly expressed in the Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe (Figure 35) and finds its automotive equivalent in the Audi TT (Figure 36). The structural elements of these forms present, no matter how dramatic the environmental lighting, a unified aesthetic which do not entertain the play of light across their surfaces.

While automotive design is concerned, in an aesthetic sense, with the flow of light across exterior surfaces, architecture is similarly concerned with the way light works within the building. Thus it can be noted that while the exterior structural form of the Farnsworth house is essentially static in its response to light, the same can not be said of the interior where the entire focus of the the design intent is on the presence and flow of light.

The DeCon school, however, has eschewed the form/function rule and any notion of idealistic representation through form despite having been born of the modernist school of thought.

Figure 36

Frank Gehry has demonstrated this approach to greatest effect with projects such as the Bilbao Guggenheim and the Disney Centre in Los Angeles (Figure 40). These whimsical, fluid forms actively involve environmental light in forming their visual perceptions and demonstrate dramatic changes in perceived form from sunrise to sunset. Under Chris Bangle’s stylistic direction, BMW has demonstrated a close affinity with this school of thought. Bangle himself surmises:

“…when I look at some of the cars that we’re doing, like the Z4, like the 5-Series, they stand out because they marked a turning point in car design away from pure rationalism into rationalism-based emotionalism.”
(Bangle cited in Thomas, 2005)

I went on to write:

Figure 38

The contrast of the effect that the adoption of the DeCon aesthetic has had at BMW is best demonstrated by the 7 Series. Before the appointment of Bangle, the 7 Series reflected the modernist approach to creating a premium sports sedan (Figure 38). The proportions, stance and wedge profile left the observer in no doubt as to the fact that the vehicle in question was a fast, performance-oriented machine.

Figure 39

The design of the new 7 Series (Figure 39), however, rejects the traditional notions of how a sports sedan should appear. While in all respects a more accomplished driving machine than its predecessor, a new set of proportions and surface language concealed these heightened capabilities under a rather bulbous, heavy-set disguise that played, ever so gently, with the accepted norms of how a vehicle’s form should be perceived with its concave sill section and a clearly delineated trunk volume that has the appearance of an afterthought.

Figure 37

The subsequent introduction of the Z4 (Figure 37) pushed this new mode of perception even further by deliberately disrupting the linear flow of light along the body side. The introduction of an unusual combination of heavily sculpted concave and convex surfaces further disrupted the norm by placing a large area of highlight in the lower section of the door that contrasts heavily with the area of shadow above and below.

In the years since their introduction, Bangle’s BMWs have — in some cases — come to represent the absolute zenith of Avantgarde automotive design. But at introduction, these cars often didn’t make sense. They disrupted long-held norms about what a car was meant to look like, much to the consternation of traditionalists.

The era of starchitecture epitomised by Ghery’s museum has been similarly maligned. Such extravagance! Such irrationality! (Criticisms shared with Bangle’s BMWs.) But to stand, for the first time, in the presence of the Bilbao Guggenheim and watch the light play across its interior and exterior surfaces is to be induced in to a state of wonder. It is to be drawn in to a relationship with the building’s environment in a way that so much contemporary architecture fails to achieve.

And then, as I turned to walk back in to the streets of Bilbao, a Maldives blue BMW Z4 drove past. It was a reminder of a time when automotive design could also induce wonder, could also engage with the environment in surprising and playful ways.

It was a beautiful and fitting souvenir of a heady period now long past.