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How Architects Have Influenced the World of Car Design

Designing a car is different from designing buildings, but they are similar

By Audrey Davis
March 24 2022
Beautifully designed home and cars, a perfect combo. (Classic Driver)

Although architecture and automotive design are completely separate disciplines, some pretty significant similarities exist. 

In each field, one must craft a form that’s appealing from both the inside and the outside, and they each must make sure that the final product serves a practical function over a long period of time. Maybe that’s why many architects and industrial designers have tried their hand at automotive design over the years, and why car designers usually pay attention to big architectural trends. But in order to fully understand this symbiotic relationship, we have to go back to a time when the industry was changing rapidly, almost as much as it is now.  

Some of the most-beautiful cars ever produced were made during the early to mid-20th century and one reason was that designers could finally push the limits of what was possible. The introduction of the Ford V-8 engine in 1932 spelled the end of bulky inline engines that elongated the car’s proportions, paving the way for new stylistic choices and more futuristic designs. So, it makes sense that car design started to attract the interest of the Depression era’s most forward-thinking architects, from Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius to American visionary Frank Lloyd Wright. The prevailing architectural style at the time art deco, which dominated the designs of everything from Harley Earl’s LaSalles to Jean Bugatti’s legendary Type 57 SC Atlantic. But were there any architects who took a chance on becoming full-time automotive designers? 

One of the first was Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome and countless other 20th-century innovations. In 1933, he unveiled an unusual zeppelin-shaped car called the Dymaxion, a prototype with huge implications for today’s automobiles. Although we didn’t stick with the Dymaxion’s bloated shape, the car was meant to achieve 30 miles to the gallon on alcohol fuel, a rare experiment in fuel efficiency and sustainability at a time when few automakers were thinking about it.  

Fuller certainly was not the last architect to apply an unconventional design sensibility to the art of designing vehicles, as we saw in 2008 with Norman Foster’s Routemaster London bus. The architect, who is most famous for designing London’s so-called “Gherkin” skyscraper, came up with the bus’ new look after entering into a competition to update the city’s iconic double-decker buses for the 21st century. Unfortunately, although the Routemaster was eventually put on display at the London Transport Museum, it only made up a small portion of the buses London has in service. 

Will more architects start to venture into the automotive industry? With most carmakers focused on the unique challenge of designing new EVs, it’s certainly possible. Although the relationship between the two disciplines has been hit or miss in the past, now is the time to make bold choices and think outside the box. Remember, just as every great building starts with a blueprint, every great car design starts with a sketch by a visionary designer.  



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