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Architecture and the car: as the automobile evolved in tandem with modern architecture, it created myths, legends and new building types.

Gabriel Voison (1880-1973) gave up architectural studies to fly, and then to build aircraft for the French air force. After the First World War, Voison turned his hand to car manufacture, and, in partnership with his friend, the architect Noel Noel, planned to build inflatable aircraft hangars and prefabricated housing. Voison did build a sequence of fascinating, and rather expensive, lightweight, aluminium alloy-framed cars over the following fifteen years, although the low-cost aircraft hangars and prefab housing never quite got off the ground, or along the road.

Yet, they very nearly did. Between experimenting and womanising, Voison made friends with the ambitious young architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, Le Corbusier, who was, as his Vers Une Architecture confirms, utterly taken by the forms and technologies of aircraft and automobiles. For the young Le Corbusier, a house was a 'machine for living in', a kind of static car. In the future it would employ all the latest techniques and advances made in the world of Voison.

This aesthetic and social love affair was mutual. Voison became one of Le Corbusier's early patrons, paying, for example, for the Pavillon d'Esprit Nouveau at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs held in Paris. Corbu's pavilion was one constructed module from his ideal Maisons Citrohan, a prefabricated apartment block that he envisaged being mass-produced across French and even global cities. The name Maisons Citrohan was a curious pun on Citroen, the car manufacturer which had yet to design and produce that architects' favourite, the 2CV, a masterpiece of low-cost prefabrication. Quite what Voison thought of the name Citrohan is anyone's guess, but the car maker was clearly unoffended as he lent Le Corbusier cars in succeeding years. Indeed, as Le Corbusier was only too careful to point out, the driveway of his seminal Villa Savoye (1929) at Poissy was laid out according to the turning circle of a 1929 model Voison. Voison cars, in fact, appeared in photographs of many early Le Corbusier buildings: Corbu's was, in its own way, as close a relationship with a car manufacturer as was Albert Kahn's with Ford.

In the same year Villa Savoye was completed, 5.3 million automobiles were made in Detroit, the foremost industrial centre in the United States. Le Corbusier, a Swiss craftsman turned Parisian journalist and polemical architect, might have talked in awe of the aesthetic of industrial enterprise, but Albert Kahn (1869-1942) was the incarnate spirit of industrial enterprise-made-architecture. Henry Ford, a virulent anti-semite and Albert Kahn, a German Jewish emigre from Westphalia, were, despite their differences, made for one another; their business relationship spanned thirty years, and revolutionised both automobile manufacture and architecture.

Kahn, whose practice continues in business today, started out as an errand boy for the Detroit firm, Mason and Rice, working his way up to become chief draughtsman, with no formal training whatsoever. His commercial genius, as he started up in business, was to pick up the kind of work that his Beaux-Arts trained contemporaries would have looked down on. Factories for Henry Ford? No chance. Leave those to Kahn. Kahn designed vast factories for Ford, originally for the manufacture of the ubiquitous Model-T, characterised by steel-trussed, saw-blade top-lit roofs, vast horizontal windows determined by the structural grid of the buildings and by tall chimney stacks.

The lure of mass production

While Le Corbusier (a craftsman by background and painter by adoption) and his radical European contemporaries talked about an architecture of mass-production influenced by the aircraft, the automobile and industrial design, Kahn built it. 'Architecture', said Kahn, who went on to build more than 600 factories for Stalin in the Soviet Union, 'is 90 per cent business and 10 per cent art.' And, he might have added, millions of identical, black Fords. During the Second World War, while Le Corbusier was musing in Vichy France, Kahn was producing some of the biggest and most effective factories ever built. His work with Henry Ford and his 'Tin Lizzie' led to the sensational factory at Willow Run, Michigan (1943) designed for the construction of B-24 bombers. The factory was more than half a mile long (805m) and 1300ft (400m) wide. Such structures helped, hugely so, to end the war with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan sooner rather than later. They were also a mile, and more, away in practical terms from the intellectual, aesthetic designs of Le Corbusier and most of his European contemporaries.


Fantasy, futurism and modern movements

Of course, there were exceptions, most notably Giacomo Matte-Trucco's factory (the Lingotto plant) for the Italian car giant, FIAT, on the edge of Turin. The Futurists claimed that 'Fiat Lingotto was the first built invention of Futurism', although Matte-Trucco (1869-1934) was a level-headed, if adventurous, structural engineer, much indebted to Albert Kahn, and very much not a Futurist. His famous reinforced-concrete factory boasting a test-bed race-track on the roof, and now remodelled as a civic, commercial and arts centre, by Renzo Piano (AR November 1996), was designed very much in line with Giovanni Agnelli's curt instruction: 'You will not be allowed to enter the Biennale Exhibition. You must have no aesthetic concerns. That's how you must work for industry.' Matte-Trucco did not question his FIAT boss. The result, in any case, was a masterpiece, a building that was all but mythical before it was completed.

Le Corbusier, meanwhile, was helping Voison to design bodies for his striking, lightweight cars, although there is, sadly, no clear proof (to date) of which particular models the architect gave shape to. And yet, for all the effort that Le Corbusier put into the shapes of Voisons, and Walter Gropius invested in a couple of contemporary Adlers, the early automobile itself was a rather clumsy machine. Despite the revolutionary work of Kahn in Detroit, they lacked the elan of the Villa Savoye and the futuristic ingenuity of the Lingotto plant. As Sergio Pininfarina, the great Italian car stylist, once said, 'In a certain sense, it [the car] was born old, let us say baroque or gothic'. As indeed it was, a thing of automotive industry flying buttresses, domes and fanciful decorative effects. It was not really until after the Second World War, and notably in the Pininfarina design of the lightweight Cisitalia coupe (1946), that we can recognise the all-of-a-piece form of the modern car.

For Le Corbusier, the design of the car might have been key to the design of contemporary, and future, houses; yet, in reality, his devotion to the car was more symbolic than practical. Kahn's was the real mass religion: the reality of automobile production working, piston-in-cylinder, with the automotive industry. Even so, there was an undoubtedly close connection between early Modern Movement architecture and the car. If the London Georgian terrace of the eighteenth century, for example, had been designed, unwittingly, as a kind of mirror image of the well-groomed contemporary pedestrian, and the elongated white stucco Regency terraces of John Nash around Regent's Park designed to reflect the stately, if faster, movement of horse-drawn traffic, determinedly horizontal white Modern Movement architecture surely reflected the speed of the passing car. So much so, that after the Second World War, whole towns and cities, from Los Angeles to Milton Keynes via Brasilia, were designed, and re-designed, to cope with and reflect the high-speed machinations of the automobile. In a purely abstract sense, this phenomenon advanced the curious beauty of the clover-leaf US freeway junction, concrete flyovers, spiral garage ramps and buildings that looked as if they were made for the car rather than for human beings.

Of course many architects were excited by the car; and by how cities could be animated in a way that had never been seen. Now, of course, architects everywhere talk of curbing the car, although some of the best of them continue to design, very successfully, for it. In this issue of AR, we see radical designs by Zaha Hadid for BMW (p50) and UN Studio for Mercedes (p74).

However, whether we like it or not, it was never really architects, like Le Corbusier, who trumpeted the design of the car, who connected it convincingly to architecture, but rather it was Albert Kahn, perhaps the most prolific architect of all time, the Model-T of the Mistress Art.
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Title Annotation:comment
Author:Glancey, Jonathan
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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