The Automotive Interior as Architecture: guest editor Michael Jordan from Automobile Magazine

Consumer Guide / Contributor / Design / Editorial

The automotive interior as architecture.

Once the era of motorized buckboards passed and the automobile became modern in the 1920s, the automotive interior has always had a lot of style. You don’t have to look further to see it than the streamline moderne detailing of luxury cars during the 1930s and 1940s or the Googie-style details of the cars of the 1950s and 1960s, themes that reflected the fascination of the times with aircraft, rockets and the future.


Streamline Moderne (the Czech designed Tatra Valuta)

Googie Style Architecture and Car ('57 Chevy tailfin detail)

Even the interior of luxury cars from the 1970s had a look of living rooms with wall-to-wall carpeting from residential housing of the era, while retro-theme cars of the 1990s and the 2000s had a certain post-modern connection.

Yet automotive interiors have also always had a link to architecture through an emphasis on function.  Like architecture, the automobile is an instrument of both art and utility, and it has been a self-conscious machine for living since the days of Le Corbusier. Today, automotive designers frequently say that the interior of an automobile is almost always the most well designed environment any individual is likely to encounter on a daily basis.

Human factors have long been a crucial part of automotive design. You can sense this particularly in the interior of Honda automobiles, which are formatted very rigorously to meet standards of exterior visibility/driver sightlines, seating comfort, control location, control effort levels, and control feedback. The reason that a Honda feels so natural and intuitive to drive lies in this careful attention to detail in the layout of the driving position. No matter which car company you’re talking about, the packaging of human occupants (both driver and passengers) is a top priority, and it’s always most important in affordable, practical everyday sedans and less so in high-performance cars.  Ironically, the interior of a Chevrolet Cruze sedan is a more ergonomically sound place to sit than the cockpit of a Chevrolet SS racing car that you see in NASCAR.

Just like architectural environments, automotive interiors often have themes. You see this particularly in BMWs and Porsches, which typically promote a performance-style, driver-centric cockpit, while a Lexus sedan promotes a non-confrontational environment like a living room. Different trim levels also deliver different messages, from the high-tech aluminum, carbon fiber and artificial suede of a Ferrari 458 sports car to the natural leather, wood and wool of a Jaguar XJ luxury sedan.  Interior designers obsess over color values and materials, and even the cheapest cars have the colorful playfulness that you might find in a kitchen tool from IKEA.

Interior of Ferrari 458

Interior designers have come a long way in utility, and you have only to appreciate the way in which a minivan incorporates simplified access, seats that slide, recline, and fold (and even disappear altogether into the floor altogether like the third-row seat), electronic entertainment for both front and rear passengers (from video screens to individual outlets for iPods), and a wide variety of storage cubbyholes.  Indeed, the minivan is perhaps the highest expression of friendly packaging for humans on the planet.

Mazda5 Minivan Interior

The biggest challenge at the moment to both architects and the designers of automotive interiors lies in the integration of electronics. Arguably, architects are doing a far, far worse job of it. Anyone who has tried to locate the central control for the lights in a high-style hotel room and then decipher its operation (if labeling is included, it is always illegible) will recognize this. Meanwhile, similar attempts to integrate controls for entertainment devices, connect rooms electronically to centralized Internet-style information, and even deliver telephone service are comically inept.  As one who has had the privilege of frequently staying in some of the finest modern hotels as part of my business travel, I can say that virtually none of them would pass muster in the design studio of any car company on the planet, from the way the door to the shower stall opens to the way the toilet flushes. For architects, design now is apparently style, not a strategy for utility.  The design model here appears to be the television remote, widely acknowledged as the awful-est electronic instrument known to man.

Meanwhile, car designers are working wonders in small spaces where every cubic centimeter must serve overlapping requirements for passenger space, structural function, and packaging for control systems.  You can see the results in the use of electronic controls on the steering wheel, a key strategy for minimizing distraction.  You can see the results in the way instrumentation is evolving toward pure electronic displays, including head-up displays.  You can see the use of larger central displays for audio, climate, connectivity and navigation information, plus screen placement to minimize visual distraction from the driving process.  You can see it in the different strategies being sought for control to the central screens, either mouse-style dials/knobs on the center console between the front seats, multi-function knobs on the dashboard itself or even touchscreens.  Moreover, let’s not forget that Ford Sync (among others) has made voice activation of electronics a feature that can be found in cheap cars, not just expensive ones.

Lamborghini Aventador LP-700

Car designers certainly inhabit a space where style sells, and you’d don’t have to look much further than a Lamborghini Aventador or a Fiat 500 to understand that this is true at every price level. Yet somehow, car designers are able to make bold visual statements even while responding to requirements for safety and aerodynamic efficiency, among other things.  Although extreme style statements are made, cars still maintain a higher level of functional utility than you see in most buildings. As impressive as the skylines in Abu Dhabi, Shanghai or Singapore might look, the buildings you see have more in common with the booths at carnival than any automobile.  They are about advertising, not function.

There has always been a certain skepticism about automotive style since the 1920s, when General Motors developed different brands as a way to sell more cars.  Indeed, it’s easy to think of automotive style as a simple “buy me” message, the same embodiment of advertising that seems to dominate building design these days.  This is why there is a substantial number of critics that believe the automobile should be reduced to a simple transportation pod, something that you might find in the generics isle at the grocery store.

But as Henry Ford discovered when he attempted to keep selling his basic Model T into the 1930s, Americans do not think of the automobile this way.  The automobile is also a means of self-expression, and you have only to poke your head out of a window and look into the street to see the evidence. The cars you find there are neither all black nor the same in shape or utility.  The automobile is a highly individualized artifact of personal mobility.  Its appearance varies on a long continuum between art and utility depending on the individual’s needs or preferences, yet it is always a more thoughtfully conceived and executed place than anywhere else you might be sitting at this moment.  In this way, a consumer product is actually superior to the buildings we live in.

Michael Jordan is presently West Coast Editor of Automobile Magazine.  Jordan drives as many as 125 different cars each year, and he regularly meets with principals in the automotive industry, including executives, engineers and designers.  He attends several auto shows each year (no one can attend them all). Jordan also has a personal relationship with many designers, especially those based in Southern California, where most of the carmakers around the globe have design studios dedicated to creating both advanced concepts and production cars.  Finally, Jordan’s base in California has given him a front-row seat for the latest developments by carmakers in the area of clean emissions and sustainability. DOB 1950; automotive journalist since 1976.