We’re finally at the concluding chapter of (to borrow a lovely phase by a friend and colleague Stephen Bayley) the ‘age of combustion’. I say finally, because ever since I stumbled upon the automotive world (quite by chance some decades ago) we’ve been promised a new beginning, a more progressive landscape of non-polluting transport that isn’t showy, isn’t congesting cities and isn’t harming the planet. And it has taken a mighty long time for this transition to actually happen. But it is here, and I’m having strangely mixed emotions.
As I drive the last few gasoline powered cars (I’m referring to lean and sexy grand tourers and sports cars, not bloated SUVs) I’m sensing a touch of loss, perhaps even a little sense of nostalgia. Who would have thought. For all its shortcomings, the age of combustion gave us some incredible beauty, lots of sexiness and so much desire, even if the last two were often a little on the side of cliche.
Will these raw emotions survive the age of electric? Or the age of autonomous? Better question, do they need to? Can’t a car just be a smart, safe place to take us from place to place and not have to communicate so many extra layers? Or will the age of electric, hydrogen, autonomous, space… bring even more exciting emotions to the road?
The car of the age of the future will need to find its own expression. And that in itself will be interesting to observe. But for now take a look at a car that to me seems like the perfect farewell ode to the age of combustion, the Bentley Continental GT Speed.
To make all this happen, Genesis has brought on-board Luc Donckerwolke who, as chief creative officer, will lead design now and into the future. This is a highly calculated move since in a career spanning some 30 years, the Belgian designer has been instrumental in re-shaping car brands such as Lamborghini, Audi, Bentley and more. He has a way of rethinking even the most conservative carmakers to be fresh and relevant.
The Genesis story is about to get exciting. Declared independent from Hyundai only five years ago, this relatively new brand has ambitious plans to challenge the status quo with products that look to the future of mobility by basing design on progressive technology. Already present in the Asian and US markets, this summer Genesis entered Europe with five production cars to be followed later in the year with three electric models.
Intrigued to learn more about what Donckerwolke plans to do with Genesis — an almost blank canvas to draw up a vision for post-combustion times — I arranged a video call, me from London, he from Seoul.
The body is left raw and unpainted revealing scratches from the manufacturing process. The panoramic roof is made of recycled and recyclable light Perspex. The cabin is entirely leather and chrome-free with seats covered in reusable knitted fabric, dashboard made of salvaged cork and seatbelts from repurposed climbing rope — all of which are fully recyclable. This is the MINI Strip, a custom-built unique electric car exploring ideas around design for circularity.
‘I’m interested in the humanity of architecture,’ says David Adjaye. Speaking with the artist Yinka Shonibare on the insightful BBC Radio 4 podcast Only Artists a few years ago, the acclaimed British-Ghanaian architect talks passionately about the pivotal role of his profession in nation building. His is a belief in using visionary ideas and artistic sensitivity towards conceiving progressive, community-building projects.
Adjaye is one of our most exciting contemporary architects. He has received a knighthood for his contributions to architecture and was awarded the 2021 RIBA Royal Gold Medal. His skilful use of space, of inexpensive and unexpected materials, are best symbolised in buildings such as the Stephen Lawrence Centre in London and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC – a work rooted in the past and present while contextualising history. One of Adjaye’s latest projects is the National Cathedral of Ghana. The building is conceived as a landmark where people from all faiths are encouraged to gather, worship and celebrate – drawing reference from both Christian symbolism and traditional Ghanaian heritage.
When I met Adjaye a couple of years ago in Milan during Salone del Mobile, he spoke passionately on the importance of design thinking – the intellectual process by which design concepts are conceived – especially in today’s more complex creative landscape. ‘Younger designers are questioning the concept of simply manufacturing products and there appears to be a rebirth of design thinking,’ he told me, noting that he is more and more interested in how innovation is not simply about manufacturing products but providing social solutions.
A new book sets out to explore the work of the architect. Published by Thames & Hudson and edited in collaboration with the curator Peter Allison, David Adjaye – Works 1995-2007 is a comprehensive monograph of his early work, accompanied by photographic renderings of the spaces. The introductory essay by curator, critic and architect Pippo Ciorra sets the scene: ‘Adjaye produces milestones of socially engaged architecture, showing an understanding of the market and competing at the highest level, and has benefited from the opportunities afforded by his own history to expand his view of the modern legacy far beyond the obvious space-time limits of Western culture, European cities, and Bauhaus functionalism.’
Prior to studying architecture at London Southbank University and then Royal College of Art, Adjaye took part in the Art & Design Foundation at Middlesex University. On Only Artists he spoke fondly about his experience there (a terrific course where incidentally I also studied a few years later) noting of how he gravitated more towards art students than designers, and how profoundly the experience impacted on his work as an architect.
Other early influences, I learn from the book, come via the architect Eduardo Souto de Moura who guided the young Adjaye while living in Portugal, teaching him about artisanal charm and the essence and value of materials. Later, his travels to Japan exposed him to the works of visionaries Toyo Ito, Tadao Ando, Kenzo Tange and Yoshio Taniguchi. Adjaye also explored Japanese Buddhism, even taking courses at the University of Kyoto where he lived – all of which helped shape his creative thinking to expand beyond the European narrative arc.
On his return to London, Adjaye set up his own practice and began working with residential and smaller studio projects. It is fascinating leafing through the book and seeing these earlier commissions. Adjaye worked within the concept of ‘critical regionalism’ with some clever urban interventions: roof-level living space is added to a factory-turned-studio, a sunken courtyard encases a tower-like house, and basalt stone extends a basement dining area to a roofless gazebo.
Adjaye’s civic commissions sparked off with the ‘Ideas Stores’ – two public libraries in London anchored on the role libraries in fostering social interactions. The success of these early projects led to to his US commission – the 2007 Museum of Contemporary Art Denver followed swiftly by the DC National Museum of African American History and Culture.
When I met Adjaye in Milan, I asked him if – on a similar vein to how he saw design thinking as pivotal to modern design – he sees his role as an architect evolving to be more than creating buildings. ‘Design can play a key role in helping people navigate an increasingly complicated world,’ he replied.
‘It shouldn’t just be about making things but understanding the responsibility of the product. Products have implications and it is up to design thinking to tackle that,’ he continued passionately. ‘Democratisation through technology means that we need new tools to understand how to function in this new society. The codes of the twentieth century are no longer relevant, and designers need to be part of this dialogue.’
We will enter a decade premiered with a very dark storm. Yet much of what we are witnessing since the pandemic was already in progress: a planet in deep ecological crisis, systemic race and gender inequalities, unsustainable economic disparities, rise of populism and the post-truth era, the anxieties of the information age and machine science…
Covid has fast-tracked the speed of change. It has intensified – no exploded debates around these overwhelming existential issues, much of which have found a visceral voice in Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion. In the words of the former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, this is our version of World War III. And like so any monumental episode, it has offered a chance to deconstruct our world as we know it – or knew it – and to reimagine new possibilities.
With our normal lives on hold and almost no international travel, formally time-short senior designers and executives have been available and excited to talk, keen to discuss their ideas – and more openly. I like to think it has something to do with the informality of home video calls. With their intimate backdrop of books and artwork, and the occasional cute wondering toddler and (not-so-cuddly) pet, the set-up has certainly contributed to a more honest exchange of ideas.
So, what has been my top takes from reporting in the time of the coronavirus? A large chunk of my writing since March has been devoted to navigating design in the future. What will our transport landscape look and feel like? How will we live more efficiently in our sprawling cities? What does progressive luxury look like? How can we use design and innovation to cut waste? I’ve been speaking with car designer, industrial designers, architects and town planners, with technology experts and gaming innovators, with fashion designers, filmmakers, artists and even chefs. It has been exhaustive, and I’ve had to learn about new industries, new technologies for a hugely exciting and challenging journey of discovery.
One of the more ambitious projects came via a Chinese tech start-up called Pix Moving. The Pix Self-Moving Spaces are autonomous mobile living units based on self-driving cars, while the overarching Pix City proposes flexible, technology-evolving cities. Company founder Chase Cao wants to deconstruct the relationship between city inhabitants and the urban space they occupy – what he calls the core logic of the city. Airspeeder is another inventive idea by the Australian tech firm Alauda. This is an electric flying race car ready to take to the skies and compete with other speeders in a bid to help advance sustainable future transport.
Less grand but equally impressive are practical ideas for more ecological urban transport. The handful of electric cars presented by the traditional automakers have been adequate but largely underwhelming, leaving independent designers and makers to come up with the more radical ideas. London-based industrial design studio Seymourpowell’s Quarter Car is an interior-led design study of an electric autonomous ride-sharing vehicle for urban commutes, with physical partitions to allow for adaptable communal and private journeys.
Elsewhere, I was contacted by Arturo Tedeschi, an Italian architect and computational designer who uses algorithmic modelling, virtual reality and video games to make complex and exciting forms and shapes. While Swiss start-up Komma virtually showed me its Urban Mobility Vehicle. The work of a former Pininfarina designer, this inventive electric commuter sits somewhere between a motorbike and a conventional car, offering the agility of a two-wheeler, but with the comfort and safety of the latter.
On a more conceptual level, Royal College of Art Intelligent Mobility students offered some really exciting ideas to drive our future. I particularly like a proposal to create a megacity taxi for 2040 as a way of considering the various cultural and social aspects of our future smart cities. A couple offer some sophisticated critical design thinking too with ideas that may have seemed impossible dreams before the pandemic made all things impossible possible.
On the other side of the spectrum, in the midst of the darkest hours of pandemic lockdown, I got into a debate as to the future of luxury. It all started with a casual video call with Alex Innes, the designer in charge of Rolls-Royce Coachbuild, who had rightfully been questioning the validity of the traditional values of luxury. The pandemic had offered him clarity on the issues, and the term post-opulence was coined to represent the coming era where timeless objects will gain more value and customers will form deeper relations with luxury brands.
That week I happen to contact Dickie Bannenberg, one half of the celebrated London yacht design studio Bannenberg & Rowell. He was equally pensive, noting that the post-pandemic world should be one of post-hedonism – a concept that also chimes with our time. How much of this will be viable in the ultra-luxury, purely hedonistic superyacht world remains to be seen though.
More realistic perhaps are the restored classic Rolls-Royces, Jaguars and Land Rovers by the British restomod firm Lunaz. The 1961 Rolls-Royce Phantom V and Silver Cloud motors – completely re-imagined for modern driving with less wasteful battery-electric drive and sustainable luxury materials – seem to be the finest manifestation of a post-pandemic luxury landscape.
As is Arksen. Capturing the zeitgeist, the yacht business is on a mission to inject purpose into luxury travel and to facilitate philanthropic adventures. The portfolio is truly tempting, but what I like most about both these brands is that rather than make ecological luxury a lesser option, they have injected huge desire into their products and propositions. To me, this is the key.
Meanwhile, art and culture increasingly became a lifeline during the pandemic blues. With shuttered galleries and museums, doors closed to theatres and music halls, and with art fairs cancelled, the need to endorse the arts became ever-more apparent. Early in the pandemic, I had an uplifting conversation with a friend and colleague Thomas Girst who, in his role as head of BMW cultural engagement, is deeply involved with supporting artists and cultural establishments.
We talked of the benefits for corporate brands getting involved with creative sponsorships, but also of the momentum steered by the BLM movement urging us to rethink cultural memory – re-write the text to include those largely left out of the canon of art and design history. The pandemic has also proved something that I’ve long passionately believed: of the necessity of arts and ideas to be more than entertainment – to be the voice, the reviewer and the projector of change.
I signed off my 2020 writing assignments with a conversation with Chris Bangle – a creative I admire very much for his on-going questioning of mainstream car design, and for his true critical design thinking. Over an impassioned and animated video call, he made a compelling case for an urgent need to radically rethink and deconstruct design for the electric age.
Chris compared today to the 1960s – a similar period of fear, upheaval, complexity and contradictions – noting that cars have the potential to reflect the paradoxical nature of our society. He spoke of cars imagined to the theory of ‘form follows emotion’. I mused over the idea that cars could have the possibility of then sharing this emotion with society – maybe take it further and be part of nation-building, have civic duties. Later, discussing this with my father, he suggested replacing the word ’emotion’ with ‘human relations’ or ‘society’, so the argument extends to becoming one at the centre of progressive political thought.
Looking back, what I learnt most in the last nine months is that we have a collective responsibility to engage with the world and to make change happen. Change is possible, but it requires active involvement. And the pandemic has been polarising – separating us into those who see this as a call to action, and those who have retreated further inside their tribes. I’m transported to my childhood growing up in the Middle East, witnessing how in times of conflict and revolution friendships and families naturally drift apart over ideology and action. It is often in these critical times when you can re-evaluate who you wish to continue in your life story.
On a positive note, the pandemic unleashed a new wave of activists – well, Covid combined with Trump’s toxic reign. And it is encouraging to see some of my dear friends and colleagues stand up to racial and social injustice, defend the planet and environment, become involved in the making of a better world. There’s been a fantastic sense of camaraderie during the pandemic which I sincerely hope won’t vanish with the end of the virus.
Covid has brought with it much loss and sorrow. It has shown social disparities with the economically disadvantaged and immigrant groups largely bearing much of the heavy burden. The virus has exposed our fragility as humans. It has also revealed our spirit of resilience. Stuck at home with limited access to people and places, with social media’s frightening alternative truths in constant view, it is easy to get consumed in life’s dramas. Bad news shouts louder than good news. But look around and for every act of evil there will be a dozen selfless deeds of kindness.
On the day before the third London lockdown, I popped into a gallery which happened to have remained open. On entering I spotted the beautifully illustrated ‘Planting the Oudolf Gardens’ on the bookshelf and mentioned to the manager how I admire Piet Oudolf’s expressive and spirited landscape designs. She promptly offered me the book with a smile, saying that it clearly belongs to me. There is plenty to be hopeful for. To quote the author Isabel Allende, ‘the virus has invited us to design a new future’.
To 2021. In memory of Annie, who lived a full life and left us peacefully during the pandemic.