Some time back I promised that I would return to the topic of the form language exemplified by the 1970 Ford Cortina. Well, here we are.
Prompting this much-delayed exegesis is the coincidence of an academic paper (Carbon, 2010) which I came across (check out Google Scholar) and the fact that someone parked a new Mazda3 outside my front door.
To start with the easy part, we can talk about the concepts of angular and curved. Two prototypical examples might be the VW Beetle (rated as very curved in Carbon’s paper) and angular as embodied by the 1968 Carabo Concept (Carbon showed a 1986 Alfa Romeo 75, please note). So, where does the 1970 Ford Cortina fit in? What is it like?
If we look at the form-language of the car we see that on one level it is angular (above): we can make out sharp junctions at the windscreen to the bonnet and at the top of the A-pillar. The grille area is quite upright.
If we turn to the form of the body panels we find a different condition: the sections are all curved, especially the body-sides. Where the body sides flow to the horizontal surfaces of the bonnet and boot (A and D) we again find curvature: distinctly large radii which have rather highly elaborated lead-in curvature. On the bonnet the power-bulge is expressed with smooth transitions (E). There’s no clearly flat section between the main part of the bonnet and the raised part. Putting it in plain language, if you were to run your finger from the main part to the raised part you would not feel any point where the surface stopped curving.
And finally, if we study the shoulder line of the car, it has the famous Coke-bottle curve that Vauxhall shamelessly copied on the 1967 Victor FD. That is also not an angular feature. So, what do we call this compound of angular elements (the car’s profile) and the curved elements (most of the rest)? It’s a mix defying simple classification.
A counter example is the Carabo concept which has low angles making up its more horizontal profile but has very flat surfaces making up the panels (and a smooth profile in part). It isn’t upright – decidedly pointy, in fact.
The 1986 Alfa Romeo 75 (below) has both strongly angled, upright profile and flat surfaces coupled with small radii for the transitions.
Which element is dominant when judging angularity? Carbon’s 2010 study asked respondents to rate the attractiveness of cars from a period 1950 to 2000. From that period participants rated cars 1970-1980 as the most angular and also the least attractive (sales were no different). The paper also assumed the general hypothesis that people rated curved forms as being more attractive than angular ones.
The evolutionary-psychological explanation for this was the association of pointy things with danger (teeth, spikes, thorns) and curved things with attractive human forms. Carbon discussed what he termed exceptions such as “angular” male faces (found attractive by women) and straight-edged things such as pieces of paper and window frames which were not viewed as unattractive.
I would contest the assumption that a male face is absolutely very angular and whether angularity actually describes a face at all; also, the linearity of a window frame or piece of paper is not the same as pointiness, resemblance to a spear. While not found in nature, oblongs are inert and the corners of an oblong can’t really be seen to suggest any kind of threat. However, even the quite roughly pointy, curvy horns of a goat are a clear hazard. Window frames and paper are smooth and inert in comparison. So, straight lines don’t equate to pointiness or sharpness.
The Cortina and anything which mixes gross oblong forms with curved surfaces treatments confound a simple antinomy of curved and angular. The fabled Citroen XM is almost the reverse of the Cortina. It has a highly rounded profile but very straight feature lines and flat panels. It is perceived as being angular due to a few key features which interfere with the perception of smoothness (the up-kick on the window line). The Cortina is however, by current standards “boxy” which is not a description of the surfaces but of the uprightness of the main volumes (I think we might have touched on this before, some years back).
What this means is that Carbon’s analysis of viewers’ judgements, based as it is on the poles angular/curved might not be capturing something else, namely the extent to which boxiness interferes with perceptions of curvature and how curvature of some profiles dominates curvature in other attributes. Further, smoothness can be paired with angularity and being curved.
And the Mazda3? Is this not directly equivalent to the Ford Cortina’s compound of curved feature lines but with a smooth profile and sharper transitions? So, if we try to plug this into Carbon’s framework of angular-curved, one must ask oneself, which is it? There are angular elements (the sharpness of the creases) coupled with the open, sinuous lines of the creases themselves. If people view this as curved are they not overlooking the angularity present at other levels?
I would propose that in assessing form that a matrix of elements is considered rather than just overall form, since even if one’s aesthetic perception is made up of the entire phenomenon not all elements carry the same weight.
Carbon, Claus-Christian (2010) Cycle of preference: long term dynamics of aesthetic appreciation. Acta Psychologica 134, pp. 233-244.
1968 Alfa Romeo Carabo: Car and Driver