The form strikes a pose

Otl Aicher and his critique of the automobile

Otl Aicher, cover of the book "kritik am auto", 1984, detail. Drawing: Reinfriede Bettrich © Florian Aicher

The book “kritik am auto – schwierige verteidigung des autos gegen seine anbeter” (critique of the automobile – difficult defence of the automobile against its worshippers) was published in 1984 as an accompanying publication to the exhibition with the same title, which Aicher designed in cooperation with Bayrische Rück. However, the insurance company cancelled the show at the last minute, and BMW stepped in and presented Aicher’s critique of the car in the foyer of the company’s headquarters. Florian Aicher recalls and analyses the twists and turns and contradictions of the trying project.

A summer of working together in Rotis with my father. He had asked if I wanted to participate in a project. So in 1983 I took over the production of the panels for the exhibition on 100 years of the automobile for Bayerische Rück. Title: “Critique of the Automobile”.

Work began punctually at 8 a.m. on Mondays in a long room in one of the new studios – the strict daily routine was familiar to me from previous assignments. A dozen blank DIN A0 sheets were lined up on the floor. The task was to organise the “raw material” – line drawings (by Reinfriede Bettrich) and short texts (by Otl Aicher), exclusively black lines on a white background. Following my typographic “family upbringing” it seemed obvious to me: following the content, according to the flow of reading from top left to bottom right, image and text briefly combined. The surprise was all the greater when father got started: drawings and text blocks were laid out anew on the surface, shifted, exchanged and arranged according to a rhythm of optical balance. After several rounds, according to the master’s liking, the layout was ready. Following this principle, in the following weeks all 36 panels were organised, mounted and taken to the printing house (Horst Kämmer), two villages away. Using a four-metre-long repro camera, Kämmer produced the silkscreens, and five flawless sheets per motif were printed manually with the squeegee.

Shortly before completion, Bayerische Rück cancelled the exhibition; there were rumours of interventions from Wolfsburg. Then the exhibition was opened in the foyer of the BMW headquarters in Munich; stops in Zurich, Tokyo and London followed.

The exhibition was accompanied by the book “kritik am auto, schwierige verteidigung des autos gegen seine anbeter – eine analyse von otl aicher” (“critique of the automobile, difficult defence of the automobile against its worshippers – an analysis by otl aicher”), which was published by the Munich Callwey publishing house in 1984.*

That’s where the next surprise followed: already in the second section of the book, with a stroke of his pen, Aicher sweeps the topic off the table. It is not the centenary of the automobile that is in the offing, but the fiftieth anniversary of the VW Beetle prototype. The car for everyone, mass-produced, efficiently manufactured, rational and affordable, technically optimised – thanks to the “engineer’s” rationality of its designer, Ferdinand Porsche. That was the only thing worth reflecting on!

In 1938, Ferdinand Porsche designed the original VW, the Porsche Beetle 38/06, soon after called the KdF (Kraft durch Freude) car. Photo: © VAU-MAX

Porsche, the engineer, is mentioned two dozen times in the following 160 pages. This idol stands for the “economical, technically intellectual principle of simplicity (p. 20), rational, engineer’s design that originated from the mind” (p. 39). Aicher attests to the second idol of this book, the Italian industrial designer Giorgio Giugiaro, that he “takes joy in mental concepts. he thinks along with us… which designer can dare to think?” (p. 43) – a question, which introduces a pattern that characterises the book: Engineer instead of businessman, workshop instead of corporation, intellect instead of feeling, calculation instead of aesthetics, design instead of art. Buzzwords shape Aicher’s thoughts and drive them forward, sometimes so charged that pleonasms – such as “Ersatzillusion” (“substitute illusion”) – have to help.

Engineering rationality as the reason for good design? The next surprise is in store. What has just been repelled is now being drawn together: “technical aesthetics” (p. 16). Engineers like Porsche, Kamm, Everling, Koenig-Fachsenfeld and others, in scientific experiments from the 1920s to the 1930s, identified the streamline as the form adequate to the car, an object in motion. “the streamline form, stylistic form of the 20th century like the pointed arch for the gothic” (p. 18) is now identified as an “aesthetic dictate” (p. 16). Aicher acknowledges that these engineers found a useable volume with the capped streamline form at the time, but only sees it realised in the VW Golf and Fiat Uno through Giorgio Giugiaro’s design.

From the streamline to the comb shape. From the book "kritik am auto", 1984, page 14. © Callwey Verlag, Florian Aicher

From the streamline to the comb shape. From the book "kritik am auto", 1984, page 14. © Callwey Verlag, Florian Aicher

Before that, “top achievements in engineering technology that are also top achievements in car design” are lost when “one trusts in the right nose for the market more than in essential suggestions by engineers.” (p. 18) Two highly successful models on the market override this statement? Aicher’s observation is surprising: “nothing against knowledge, nothing against science.” Only: “measurement is something different from design” (p. 27). Then what?

Aicher paraphrases Ludwig Wittgenstein when he states: “the criteria for the right car is its use” (p. 29). Unlike his role model, he judges with the adjective “right” where the latter only describes. Judging requires unambiguous criteria – what should these be in the case of use? Given the numerous forms of use that Aicher lists? And: don’t the following necessarily come into play: actual life, usage, play and players, desire and whim, emotion and feeling? In the 160 pages of the book, the word feeling occurs only once. If passions are brought up, the words playboy, potency, and sex are quickly at hand; it gets salacious.

The following turn is even more surprising: Otl Aicher lets Hermann Hesse, an author who is regarded as a seismograph of the soul, to have his say: “an automobile … there he saw … an image that seemed familiar to him, that reminded him and fed new blood into his thoughts. he saw himself sitting on a car and steering it, that was a dream he had once dreamt … . in that dream feeling, as he had taken control of the steering himself, there had been something like liberation and triumph” (p. 55). From this observation, Aicher comes to a conclusion on an essential quality of automobility: “the car is a piece of itself, a single-subject device, it is a piece of a person, gives the signum of self-determination” (p. 56)… “it is the bearer of subjectivity itself” (p. 58). To make it quite clear, he adds, “this shows how much the car is related to the person as subject and how wrong it is to see it mainly from the point of view of society” (p. 58). This view is not new to him.

"traffic means the optimisation of the change of place of a certain quantity in a certain time", wrote Aicher. In a graphic he has captured the flow of traffic on the German autobahn and contrasted it with that on a US interstate highway (below). From: "kritik am auto", page 127, © Callwey Verlag, Florian Aicher

As early as 1948, he had recorded: “then i sit down on my motorbike, take away the shock absorbers, bump the exhaust, lie down and think of the tanks. the war, thunderstorm, it has already given birth to sounds. … then i try it again with my motorbike. at least it’s good enough. i ride over the paved road, the tyres are so wonderful … a machine, i can listen to it like i can only listen to jazz. i can hear when the engine is badly tuned, … feel the excitement of its joy through the frame … that’s what it’s like when you’re addicted.” (Otl Aicher.: “Beethoven is driven away by a truck”, manuscript 27.2.1948). 35 years later, in “innenseiten des kriegs” (1985) it says: “at the front there is a disinhibited form of things, single-mindedness, unconcernedness, without flourishes, without style, without art” (p. 106). “everyone lies in wait to do something with their strength, their muscles at some point. not in an externally controlled organisational framework, but as an unfolding of themselves” (p. 109). The fusion of man and machine: that is Futurism, that is Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, that is the Ernst Jünger of the “worker”; avant-garde of the first decade of the century, with Aicher still at its end. He does not want to reveal that.

"Aicher's critique of the automobile is elegantly formulated and yet remains abstract - the bodies are pale, the feelings mute."

The freedom of the “freibeuter” (freebooter) (p. 66) is certainly passé. In place of the fusion of man/machine on the racing motorbike, Aicher now sets the nonchalance of “situational mastery” (p. 148) on the off-road machine. Analogously, the car becomes a “leisure vehicle” – Sport Untility Vehicle, SUV.

Emotional energies must be redirected, a “new man” is to emerge. He has nothing less in mind than a new “traffic morality, traffic culture” (p. 67). The designer must primarily turn away from the object and towards the system. “it is first a matter of setting goals and concepts before one has to look for technical solutions… for this, designers are needed” (p. 10). “cars and roads are components of one system, not two objects, but two elements of the phenomenon of traffic” (p. 126). the functioning of the system as a whole makes my freedom possible” (p. 124).

The last third of the book deals with issues such as traffic casualties, emissions, space requirements and urban layout. The issue of limited resources is hardly addressed, despite the report “The Limits to Growth” by the Club of Rome in 1972; in keeping with the times, exhaust emissions were an indicator of energy consumption; CO2 emissions did not yet figure.

And the appearance of things, the “automobile design”? Those who were expecting something concrete after the bashing of art and styling, after the hymns to engineers and technology, find themselves rather disappointed. Certainly, praise for the Fiat Uno runs through the book, there is a good word here for the Range Rover, there for the Mini. Otherwise: great restraint.

Design study Alfa Romeo racing car, 1936 (top) and 1937. Aicher writes: "in one case, the bonnet is cut in the way that is technically easiest. The air vents are straight. In other cases, styling is used to make the car look faster ... the technology is subordinated to the symbolism." From "kritik am auto", 1984, page 73 © Callwey Verlag, Florian Aicher

This already begins with the illustrations in the book: “restrained like technical drawings…. the representation of the physicality, of curves, plastic deformations certainly suffers from this” (p. 70). However, lateral views as line drawings of the same scale serve for analytical comparison, as they speak the “language of the thinking designer” (p. 70). The result of this method is demonstrated on just two pages: In comparison, the Fiat Uno shows tighter lines than the VW Golf; in the comparison of two Alfa Romeo racing cars, the first version shows a right-angled trim of the air vents, while in the later they are slanted as receding lines to “make the car look faster by styling it” (p. 73). That leaves the praise of the Fiat Uno: “a car to fall in love with, self-confident and modest, not a gram too much fat, taut skin” (p. 25). Streamlined, austere, straightforward, simple, “intellectual” – otherwise it remains “that beauty is a question of reduction” (p. 42). The following is added: “the fiat panda was a box without much aesthetic scope. the golf was concise. the uno has an aesthetic dominant. it is elegant, of skilful austerity. the form strikes a pose” (p. 46).

This is elegantly formulated and yet remains abstract – the bodies pale, the feelings silent. Does the cool ratio of design, as promised by Aicher, carry the renewal of the car? “i dream”, it says at the end of the book, “of a car of the highest quality, tailored to my body, part of myself, that makes driving a physical process. it follows me, it is a riding horse, not a racehorse” (p. 126). 38 years later, renowned AI researcher Toby Walsch refers to the horse analogy again: “In a few decades, driving will be much like riding a horse today. Once it was important, today it has become a pastime. It will be similar with cars. It will become an expensive hobby” (FAZ, 07. 06. 2022).

Otl Aicher: Studies on posture. "what is new is the realisation that it is not soft, comfortable sitting, for example in an armchair, that is advantageous, but upright sitting. the human spine has its best static balance and its best kinetic radius of action in an upright posture." From the book "kritik am auto", 1984, page 87. © Callwey Verlag, Florian Aicher

Today, how does form strike a pose? Emotion is the credo of car design, aggression prevails. The “face” of cars is interpreted as a signal in the battle for the top ranks. Sheer size counts, the stature of hunched shoulders, the facial expression of a snarling grimace with open mouth and rising eye slits, the impenetrability of absolute black. Recently, the Süddeutsche Zeitung (25-26/06/2022) presented the new Range Rover, “mother of all luxury SUVs”; the design is “far from monotony, close to perfection, deliberately minimalist”. The car is 5.00 metres long, 2.20 metres wide, 1.90 metres high, weighs 2.8 tonnes, consumes 15.3 litres for 530 hp at 235 kilometres per hour. “Speakers in the headrests create active noise control waves to counter the sound of the tyres … Sailing on the road”.

*Unless otherwise stated, the page references refer to this book.

Florian Aicher, * born in 1954 in Ulm, is the eldest son of Otl Aicher. He studied architecture at the Staatsbauschule Stuttgart, did an internship in Buffalo/USA, then three years of professional experience with Werner Wirsing, Munich. From 1981 onwards he has been self-employed; in addition to planning in the field of building construction, design of furniture, and teaching at universities in Germany and Austria; most recently at the Carinthia University of Applied Sciences. He has worked as a journalist and published writing in international journals and books and numerous publications on the conditions for the success of architecture. Aicher lives in Rotis, Allgäu, since 2005.