You might be wondering how a concept car could signal that the future has already arrived. Concept vehicles, we normally think, project futures that may or may not arrive. For instance, the minivan was first shown by Lancia in 1978 – but it didn’t “arrive” until Chrysler’s great success in the 1980s.
However, what we can see happening in BMW’s GINA project is a bit different. On one level, the project is promoting a new way to think about building cars. Traditionally cars have a body and a frame – the rigidity of the car comes from the frame, and the body gives the car its appearance, its shape. In order to make cars lighter, there has been a tendency to reduce the importance of the frame with “unibody” construction methods, in which the body is a stressed member of the chassis, bolted to a sub-frame. Making the body an integral part of a car’s rigidity allows it to be lighter and stiffer. This idea comes to a radical point with Jaguar’s aluminum exoskeleton construction – where the frame of the car is basically its skin. If the skin is made from carbon fiber, exoskeleton construction can produce even more extreme results.
Another tendency in car lightening, embodied perhaps most famously in the Corvette, is to put all the rigidity of a car in its frame or space-frame, and cover it with a light plastic or fiberglass body. Or, in the case of the Ariel Atom, not to cover it with no body at all.
On the surface, the GINA project is simply an Ariel Atom covered in cloth. However, Chris Bangle is up to something altogether more interesting – what we see happening here is the matter and the form of the car interacting in a wholly new way. Before project GINA the shape of a car is a compromise between an artistic ideal and material constraints. Car designers would like to do one thing, but safety legislation, the need for aerodynamics and economy constrain their creativity. Of course, the best automotive designers are those who can turn this opposition into a synergy. Ian Callum is probably the greatest car designer of this type.
The GINA project departs most radically from past car design in that the shape of the car is not drawn in advance in clay models and then instantiated in hard plastic or metal body panels. Rather, the shape itself is a product of the stretching of a cloth skin over metal hoops. The form of the car is literally engendered out of the matter. That on its own is nothing new, but BMW’s project is different because the flexibility of the skin doesn’t have utilitarian goals, but emotional ones instead. It isn’t form for the sake of function, or form following function, but function for the sake of form – or more specifically, for the sake of emotional affect. Usually we’d say the form of a thing is for the sake of affect (a car has a beautiful shape to provoke an emotional response). But in GINA, the matter itself has an emotional function.
In fact, “Form/matter” language breaks down trying to talk about this object – the form is not just a product of the matter, it is the matter. By this I mean that in the outward image of the vehicle, in what we see when we look, we literally “see” the matter – the stretchiness of the fabric. This is most pronounced in the video when the shape of the car changes – a spoiler raises up at the back of the car at high speed, the fabric in the doors creases as they open, the headlights open up. We even see the translucence of the material in the break lights, since the lights shine through the skin. If the car were here we could also touch it – and we would want to touch it far more than we desire to touch metal or plastic cars – and that desire is part of the emotional product the designers are aiming at.
Some of you might be familiar with Chris Bangles work on BMWs that have gone into production. In general it can be said he’s quite unpopular, and since he’s been dismissed BMW’s styling has returned somewhat to its conservative roots. However, it should be said that the role of a stylist is not merely to make beautiful objects, but to break new ground – produce new styling language – make it possible to say things in design which were impossible before. People familiar with architecture might not be terribly surprised to learn that Bangle considers Frank Gehry an important influence. Whether that means we can say Bangle was indirectly influenced by sculptor Richard Serra I’m not sure – could the controversial looks of the current BMW M5 somehow be traced to the controversy of Tilted Arc? Could the matter-form interplay in GINA have anything to do with Shift?
So, why does GINA signal the future having arrived? Simply because it shows that design can catch up with art, that emotion can become a product, and that form doesn’t need to either overshadow or proceed from function.