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Contemporary Car Design Idioms: shifting the paradigm from literal to phenomenal transparency

2016, Thessaloniki / G.D.Liamadis


In the post 9-11 period of social insecurity and terror that followed since, transparency hardly became the mainstream paradigm in car design. Iconic cars like the Renault Avantime, which epitomized the essence of openness, ended up as symbols of a future that never came. Instead of leading the way to a bright, ethereal future, they were rather used to signify the dangers of a threatening world in dystopian Sci-Fi films such as “The Children of Men” by Alfonso Cuaron. As lightness and movement -inherent qualities of the very essence of the car- could not be revealed through openness anymore, alternative ways to express these qualities had to be invented. Literal transparency was soon substituted by phenomenal transparency through design languages and idioms such as the bone lines, flame surfacing and the recent layered look. Ξ’one Lines, defined as hard, positive only, linear 'peaks' in a car's bodyside, prominent enough to imply an outer skin stretched over something more structural, have been used heavily in automotive design. The bone line idiom is an effective metaphor for transparency, as it is no less than an expression of the content, flexible enough to follow –and equally reflect - the architectural qualities that lie beneath. Traces of phenomenal transparency can also be detected in a new emerging trend evolving in auto design lately: the layered look. According to this trend, car design moves beyond the long mighty paradigm of sleek monobodies to a sliced-and-angled appearance, where the car body seems to be made of parts layered atop a primary, inner structure. Layered cars appear to be assemblies of pieces flying in formation (Patton, 2014). The car dematerializes as it slides through the scenery; Its layered form in mid-exploded view is made out of metal and air. Transparency is not an inherent quality of substance anymore; it is rather an inherent quality of organization. And this accurately brings us to Rowe’s distinguish between literal and phenomenal transparency. Both the bone lines and the layer surfacing as the contemporary car design idioms, define phenomenal transparency as conceived and indefinite, in contrast to literal transparency, which is perceived and definite (Rowe, Slutzky, 1968). The chief difference lies in how the viewer interacts with the design. The new paradigm in automotive design creates a condition of transparency that can only be fully explored and deciphered with the active involvement of the user.


Patton Ph., Baking Up a New Look, in Layers, The New York Times, October 17, 2014 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/automobiles/baking-up-a-new-look-in-layers.html?_r=2
Rowe C., Slutzky R., Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal, Written, 1955-6. First published in. Perspecra, 1963. Reprinted as Transparenz,. B. Hoesli, ed. Birkhaser, Basel, 1968

4th International Conference on Transparency & Architecture “Emerging Complexities”, Dissemination Center for Research Results (KE.D.E.A.) AUTH, Thessaloniki

  Contemporary Car Design Idioms: shifting the paradigm from literal to phenomenal transparency
  Emerging Complexities 2016_Contemporary Car Design Idioms