Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Sensibility Primer

In 1983 the architect Alison Smithson published a book called AS in DS: An Eye on the Road. It was a project she had been very loosely working on since the late 1950s when she and Peter Smithson traded in their Volkswagen Beetle for a Citroën DS (the books title refers to Alison in the Citroën AS in DS). The book (which is still available) is shaped to look like a Citroën DS seen from above and is called a ‘sensibility primer’. The inspiration for the book came about when Alison experienced the interior space of the Citroën as completely different from their VW Beetle: ‘I remember thinking you were so close together in the Volks and so far apart in the DS your relationship as a married couple was bound to subtly change. Now you could stand off the situation of each other. Then it was love in a box.’ Design, it would seem, has effects and affects and could alter the way you related to others, the way you loved.
            AS in DS is a phenomenology of a vehicle. It has diagrams of the car’s design, maps of the journeys that the Smithsons took, photographs and sketches of the views that she saw when travelling through various landscapes and roadscapes, and a continual diary of car experience. It is about sensibility. It is about the way perceptions and feelings alter when you are placed in a specific set of relationships to those around you and to your environment. It represents an alternative to a sociology of design that would look to see what sort of aspirations could be associated with driving a DS, what such a car symbolised. It is also an alternative to the aesthetic and practical discussion of what constitutes ‘good design’. It deserves to be much better known as an initial sally in the phenomenology of design culture.
We've just given up on our beloved Fiat Multipla (it was falling apart) and bought a second hand Volkswagen Turan. The Multipla is unusual because it has three separate seats in the front and the back (the one we had also had the distinctive forehead bulge between the windshield and the bonnet). With three seats you could have the middle one down which immediately allowed for more communication between those in the front and those in the back, or you could sit three across in the front. I think I only realised how brilliant this was when we gave it up. A car with two seats in the front seems to insist on that fundamental arrangement of cars: the front reserved for Mum and Dad, or Dad and Dad, or Mum and Mum, and the back seat the ‘ghetto’ for the kids. These generational zones (serious up front, bickering in the back; getting lost and anxious in the front, getting bored and fractious in the back) have been the familial shape performed by millions and millions of cars. The Multipla wanted something different.