Return to Basics: A classic is born

By Craig Hodgetts, FAIA, Founding Principal of Hodgetts + Fung

In recent years, the well-travelled road between Action Movies and auto styling has become one long rut, strewn with weapons, buildings, armament and vehicles symbolic of post-apocalyptic, mostly oppressive civilizations. The look—muscular, metallic, with a faint patina of rust and gun oil—has become the lingua franca of our collective vision of the future. Generous helpings of those same steroids have helped turn what have historically been meek servants of suburban families (think Civic, Camry, Taurus in the nineties) into combat-ready, armed to the toothy grille, boy-scout troop carriers of the me generation.

Today’s try-too-hard designs with multiple faux nostrils on a sci-fi beastie make me shudder, and wonder if we’ve somehow regressed to the jabbing “Marilyn Monroe’s” of the sixties. Today, nearly every brand flaunts creases and sags that no amount of Botox will cure.

What has brought this about? Nervous marketing execs, positioning their brand a sniper’s notch above the competition? Sophomoric stylists persuading their hopelessly old-fashioned bosses that fashion demands it? Or consumers convinced that those grimacing, gaping maws will so disconcert fellow commuters that the traffic ahead will magically part?

So, when Mazda planned to unveil its new design language during the Milan Design Salon in the person of the MX-5 Miata and the MX-6 it set off a speculative fever. Was the friendly two seater about to grow fangs? Bulge like a bull terrier? Or get husky tires and flares?

I’ve always been a fan of the underdog brands. My first California car was a Mazda Capella with a Wankel rotary engine. I know it sounds funny,a Japanese car with a German-sounding engine, but it got the job done. It was fast, spinning up to 9000 rpm and whistling like a turbo as I “vroomed” around LA.

With only about 2 percent of worldwide auto sales, Mazda is spread pretty thin. Vroom-vroom can only vroom so far, but its devotees have admired the company’s spunky demeanor and remarkable engineering brio for decades. Putting the Wankel to rest a few years ago was sacrilege for some, but the new Sky-Active technology has revived Mazda’s reputation for uncompromised performance combined with economy.

Mazda’s early forays into the fringes have brought forth the ingenious, spunky but visually compromised Cosmo, the powerful, sleek, aluminum RX-8, and the RX-7. Each an outlier, each uncompromised and deserving of the flattery they received, but nowhere near, let’s face it, the unparalleled success of the original Miata.

The Mazda Design team seems too well aware of the challenge. This year, they must have resolved, the new one we roll out has to be great. It was to be a make or break effort.

Maiko-san, worldwide design chief of Mazda, understands that today, all cars are “good”. They all have benefitted from advanced engineering technology, all are reliable and well constructed. So what’s a small car company like Mazda to do? Heaping on horsepower is not the Mazda way, and most, if not all brands boast electronics the equal of those carried by military aircraft only a few years ago. With the gap widening between entry level cars with 400 plus horsepower, a race in that direction seems fruitless, and luxury, as defined by sound systems and convenience features is available across the board. So Mazda, true to form, did an about face. Gone were to be the tics and brand identity clogging every highway, gone were to be the snouts and scoops and flutes and fins. Gone too were to be the flash-bulbous lights and stickers. The new Mazdas, he declared, were to rely on Japan’s own subtle design heritage. And Mazda would, once again, be an outlier.

Beginning with hand-built models rather than the computers now used throughout the industry, and relying on the mind and the eye, Maeda and his team developed pure, artful forms and a philosophy they termed KODA, to express the sensual, emotional appeal they were searching for. Simple, yet subtle, with taut lines and languorous curves, the forms took on a beauty that, with a refined posture and beckoning allure, seemed to embody the Greek idea of perfection. Further development led to a racing bicycle, lithe as a greyhound, and a grand lounge, bold and black, with polished supports (one could hardly call them “legs”). Experiments like these, and a box meticulously crafted in traditional Japanese lacquer, burnished the philosophy, and led the way to a confident, unique, and classic design language.

That language, in the person of the Mazda 5 sports car, partakes of the lineage of the original Miata, but enobles it with mature proportions and indelible details.  By discarding the fashionable, but visually intrusive, head and tail lamps found on nearly every contemporary car, Mazda North America Design Director Derek Jenkins was able to focus, much like the great Italian coachbuilders of the last century, on pure, uncompromised form. A form that evolves, like a Brancusi sculpture, to anticipate the arc of one’s gaze, and to reward its compliments.

For example, the subdued treatment of the headlight cluster, which suggests nothing so much as the seductive glance of a contemporary Geisha, flirts with a perfectly aligned triad of parting lines–the sort of detail that is nearly always the loser in the battle between budget and beauty. Inside the cabin, the exterior color gleams on subtly curved metal sills, while the stubby shifter asserts its authority.

One might fault the console, as Jenkins was quick to apologize for the formidable array of buttons and a navigation screen rendered in regulation black (is it the regulations, one is tempted to ask?) but one could not fault the pleasure to be found in simply operating the velvety smooth rotary controls.

The MX5 is by far the most sophisticated design to come from Japan since the much-loved limited production Toyota 2000,. Lacking flair, it offers temptation. Missing iconic stature, it offers classic beauty, and wanting for expressionism, it offers an aura. These are qualities which have lately been lacking on our streets and highways.


One thought on “Return to Basics: A classic is born

  1. Craig
    My pleasure reading you getting back to basics. Most important your start with transportation rather than architectural objects. Maybe your thoughts should better explain the bonded relationships between objects and mobility.

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