Tim Shih received a Bachelor's of Environmental
Design/Architecture from North Carolina State University, a
post-baccalaureate certificate from the Vehicle Research
Institute at Western Washington University, and a BS in
Transportation Design from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena,
CA. He currently works as an Industrial Designer for Volvo
Trucks North America. His pride: a 1973 2003 tii, and joy: a 1982 911
The Audi TT: great art, bad car. This wonderful piece of rolling sculpture seems to suffer from the same weaknesses of the now-ubiquitous Volkswagen (New) Beetle: it ignores its occupants. Here are two cars that look amazing sitting still, but trade their elegance for awkwardness as soon as the driver gets in. Watch a Beetle drive down the road and notice where the driver sits--in the middle of the car, with a foot of unusable headroom and (seemingly) acres of unusable IP (Instrument Panel. Ed.) surface. In the TT, it seems to be just the opposite condition, but just as uncomfortable. Now instead of too much space, there's too little. Sitting inside--as beautifully detailed as it is--it's virtually impossible to get a clear view out in any
direction. Claustrophobia on wheels, if such a thing ever existed.
Clearly, here are two cars that defy Mies Van Der Rohe oft-quoted
adage of "form follows function." The incredible irony here is that Mies (and Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus philosophy) were precisely the inspiration that Audi proclaims to be behind these vehicles. "Honesty," "simplicity," and "purity" are all words heard when the TT is described in the press. Some have even gone so far as to describe an intangible "progressive optimism" that lies beneath the TT. That, in a nutshell, captures this automotive analogy to the Bauhaus legacy--in its fame and infamy.
A quick architecture lesson: the Bauhaus School of Architecture was founded under a few distinct principles: it was to focus on the common man, reject all things bourgeois, and return to the original Classical principles of Western architecture. It was, in effect, as much social engineering as esthetic consideration. While the earliest examples of Bauhaus architecture and design did indeed make the most of contemporary materials and technology, the egos of the designers involved grew to encompass all aspects of a worker's life: how much space they needed, how much sunlight they should see, and what decorations were appropriate
(typically none). In the end, Bauhaus architecture suffered from its own presumptuous form of utopia. What the architects saw fit for the people, the people refused to accept.
Likewise, the Audi TT suffers from the same idealistic oblivion that spelled the end of Bauhaus architecture; namely, it fails to recognize the people for which it is supposed to be designed. Buildings and residences based on mathematical proportions made sense on paper, but never took into consideration the basic whimsical nature of the people which
inhabited them. Similarly, the Audi TT is incredibly successful as an esthetic piece, but seems to ignore the basic considerations--and dimensions--of the drivers who buy them.
Of course, one cannot discount the importance of the TT as an
image-making icon for Audi. It has defined the look of the company for years to come. It can be argued, however, that the remainder of Audi's product line are much more successful as automotive designs than the TT ever will be. The A4, 6, and 8 are beautiful interpretations of the company's image adapted to the size, shape, and proportions of the mass-produced automobile (and mass-produced people). To be innovative and noteworthy within this narrow set of parameters is a much greater challenge
than the enviable job of creating a niche vehicle. For their
accomplishments in the high-volume segments, Audi certainly deserves the success and recognition they are currently enjoying.
The greatest test for design has always been time. History has
sifted through the architecture, industrial design, graphics, and fine art that ever came out of the Bauhaus, and has highlighted some wonderful examples which we today consider classics. Similarly, Audi--aka Auto Union--recognized its classic pieces at this year's Monterey Historic Automobile Races. The question, then, is whether or not the Audi TT will be driven through Laguna Seca's famous corkscrew half a century from now, impressive in its presence alone to elicit applause the way Auto Union's
grand prix cars do. Not likely, but in the end, only time will tell......