Here’s Your Samarra, The Tinders And Brush Await You

Today we have a Twix of an article, a consideration of recent offerings from DS and BMW, with a side-order of architectural musing.

1979 Citroen CX GTi:

At the risk of being pretentious, these designs ask one to reflect on what Farshid Moussavi discusses as the function of style (in relation to buildings, but it is true of design generally).

“What is style? Whether used to identify an individual architect’s oeuvre, or to indicate some common features in a place or a period, “style” has historically been the word employed. Embedded within this usage,” writes Moussavi “are several dubious and conflicting assumptions. Firstly that style consists in the repetition of formal elements. Second that style is the product of an individual personality. Thirdly, that style relates to something larger and less tangible than the actual buildings that embody it.”

The 1970s cars are here to provoke despair about where we have ended up.  Both vehicles offer a distinctive vision. Let us, though, get back to considering the function of styling.

That’s two closed loops.

Styling is not about sameness but about distinction – and when we consider how few are simple approaches to visual distinction we realise that the alternatives are reliant on complexity.  The DS3 Crossback and BMW Vision iNext find themselves in much the same old boat: busy.

On a car there are no elements that are repeated so style is about the use of common shapes on various elements: the radius and the type of curve that are deployed to join the main points defining the volume.

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There isn’t much intellectual autonomy at play in the busy end of the styling spectrum. Styling itself is not a matter of intellectual freedom on the part of the stylists so don’t imagine the createurs of these cars are acting in a context with many degrees of freedom.

New for 2019: source

Representation applies more to architecture than to car design yet elements of the car relate, albeit weakly, to representation of ideas: performance, power, opulence, individuality or simply to express the novelty of the some other aspect. There is no such thing as zeitgeist. The car does not represent anything like the era it is from. The opposite is true, that the era is made up of the styles that prevailed.

In Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts; or, Practical Aesthetics the German architect Semper argued that styles emerged in themes derived from the techniques of fabrication. Semper argued that style was the artistic treatment of the fundamental idea in the work of art.” The “fundamental ideas” in this case are the elements making up the cars: they could be functionally defined elements or geometrical elements.

Source: Marc

I call this emergence of themes “elaboration” where the functional item is given an acceptable shape in the first instance and then, over time, it evolves and can almost become an abstraction.

All this mentation is related to two quite lovely designs. One of them we have just discussed and one is quite new to these pages. Here is the side of the DS that Eoin Doyle treated recently:

And turning to the front, there is strangely not so much to get one’s teeth into. Despite all the features, there is no underlying principle guiding this. It’s like a goat with the bones removed.

2019 DS3 Crossback: source of original image

At the back DS have deployed a few features and none are original.


The rear view is the calmest of the three yet still spoiled by what I assume to be false exhausts and false vents. If the exhausts are functional it still seems like an excessively sporty signal for what is not a sporting machine. Readers can help me remember where the rear lamp treatment is from. I want to say Jaguar.

The line from the trailing edge of the fin runs in a very orderly way around the base of the side-glass and around the rear of the car. It’s almost disciplined. And there is a hint of discipline in some of the panel gaps (see the side view).

What is worst about this car is that it is not even strikingly bad. It puts me in mind of the nondescript busy-ness of a late 70s US-market Chrysler. That firm reacted to others and had no inherent identity so it relied on a horde of unrelated styling features.

With that one out of the way, we turn again to another example of elaboration, this time from BMW. Lo!

The biggest fault with the front is that BMWs designers have made a mistake with the fundamental topology of the BMW kidney grille. They have treated it as an infinitely flexible abstraction. It is not infinitely flexible. There is a limit to what you can do a geometrical form before it becomes another, different-in-principle form.

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The Gestalt Law of continuity and closure can not make the missing vertical bar join up. That is why the grille looks like a huge hole with an upper and lower tab (like a Kia) – a point someone has already noticed. They did not have to do that.

You can see already that the BMW is calmer than the DS. That still isn’t calm enough. The missing vertical bar abuses the BMW grille tradition; the half-formed rectangle of the L-lamps and the surface it sits on do not gel with the form of the wheel arch feature line.

Looking at the two cars together, both are exemplifying the function of style and what goes wrong when designers compelled to add complexity. In isolation, the BMW comes off as the better of the two cars. The DS lacks the (little) discipline the BMW has; it is, at least, showing evidence of internal consistency. Most people will not get past the infelicitous grille.

If some of the features of the BMW were edited, there is a fine estate car lurking in the BMW concept. If the DS had its features edited there would merely be fewer features.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

37 thoughts on “Here’s Your Samarra, The Tinders And Brush Await You”

  1. Ref the “horrible angle” in the pillar of the ds3, I think it’s intended to align with the angle of the sharks fin, no? V disappointing design overall. My favourites in this class are CX5 and 3008. But I have a prépondérant expectation that DS stands for something and what they offer, is always something else. Perhaps the closest PSA got to my closet ‘agenda’ for DS, was the 5.

    1. Hi Pádraig, I think you’re being too generous to the designers in suggesting some logic to the paint treatment at the top of the A-pillar. Most current Citröen and DS models have the same, highly unsatisfactory transition from A-pillar to roof:

      Sometimes it’s (partly) obscured by a black roof, but it’s still there. The designers have painted themselves into a corner (pardon the pun) by not designing the metalwork of the A-pillar to roof junction to accommodate the blacked-out pillar and floating roof look they are trying to achieve. Why they persist with this is beyond me.

    2. The Mini and Citroen XM show how to do a floating roof. The edge of the roof must be (geometrically) derived from a plane or gently curved surface.
      All the panel gaps and part edges must be on obe or other side of that surface.
      Citroen don’t do that – they paint across surfaces. It’s a terrible schtick, as bad as external wood applique.

  2. Good morning, Richard. Regarding the DS, one aspect that is strikingly bad is its fundamental stance: the front wheel arch encroaching on the leading edge of the door and long front overhang, coupled with a much shorter rear overhang, looks just terrible to my eyes. Moreover, the (large?) wheels look too small for the visual weight of bodywork they support. I wonder if the overload of details is an attempt to conceal, or at least distract from, the awful stance? More likely, it’s just a desperate attempt to draw attention to the DS brand, hence the badge overload. Is it a DS 3, or a DS DS3?

    1. It’s a DS3 by DS which competes with the Opel Crossland by Opel and Ford’s Ford Ecosport. The category
      mistake here is that “DS” is both a symbol and it consists of letters. If the DS logo was a non-alphanumeric shape then it’s be okay to write DS3 as well as have the logo.
      You have noticed the proportions and I didn’t.
      The styling is there to hide a duff profile.

  3. There is hope: this concept, from the same stable, is just lovely:

    Let’s hope it will influence future PSA (or, at least, Peugeot) designs and not go the way of the Fulvia concept we saw a few years ago.

    1. That Fulvia – is it now a legend among missed opportunities? It’d have sold steadily for a decade. They’d have shipped 64,0000 of them by now had they made it.

    2. Daniel: totally agree with you, the only duff thing I can think of about this concept is the name ‘e-Legend’. Otherwise, it’s a very fine attempt at an update of an absolute classic.

  4. No excuse needed to post this picture:

    The Fulvia Concept is just beautiful. I would buy one tomorrow if I could.

    1. The Fulvia concept basically was a Fiat barchetta with a fixed roof.
      Fiat sold 50,000 barchettas in ten years and I’m sure they didn’t make any money from them because the barchetta was very expensive to make.
      The barchetta also had numerous deficits that were tolerable in an open top fun car but would have been intolerable in a coupe intended for serious everyday use.
      This Fulvia would have been a bit smaller externally than a beta coupe which was a lot roomier inside.

    1. Oh yes, that’s rather nice. I’m not completely sold on the rear pillar treatment, with that kind of half-fin in body colour, but overall it’s got it!

    2. I too immediately thought of the Nissan IDx yesterday. That was presented at the 2013 Tokyo motorshow according to Wikipedia…

  5. Isn´t it telling that as yet the BMW has escaped comment? From a distance I can see (I think) the high concept of a central tube ending in the hacked-up BMW grille and that tubular volume is supported by the wheels. It´s so watered down that the conceit is almost unreadable (if it is even intended).

    1. That would explain why I had to read your sentence three times before I got your point (which I did, eventually).

    2. It’s so grotesque that I’d rather not think about it and hence did not want to bring myself to comment. That whole frontal view is just ugly and shocking – like some nightmare vision of a future dystopian cyborg creature that has spawned from the coupling of a robot and a wild boar. (I really don’t like looking at it). That grille is surely the worst since or even including the Edsel, don’t you think? KIA’s Tiger-nose grille is much better executed, although still offensive in Sportage form.

    3. @Richard: sorry the JPG I linked doesn’t show automatically. Then it would be clear what I meant with ‘organic’: the caricature of the BMW kidneys looks like a beaver’s front teeth.

  6. I can’t think of anything constructive to say about the BMW, other than to agree with S.V.’s comments. It’s a very difficult design to read, unlike the DS, which is simply a very poorly proportioned crossover with excessive ornamentation. Regarding the BMW, there may be an interesting design lurking under all that visual noise, as Richard suggests.

    1. Is it that the BMW is off-the-scale awful that it draws so little reaction? I had a whole other version of this article written which took the “I´m unable to handle this” approach. I dropped that in favour of juxtaposing the two cars. In that comparison, the BMW fares quite well apart from the aesthetic gunshot wound of the dismembered grille. In mitigation, the DS probably has to use a shared platform whilst the BMW is a presented as a concept car.

    2. My reaction on the BMW was similar as for the DS3 – speechlessness. What I like about the BMW is that they apparently continue with themes of the i3, which I liked very much. However, as mentioned before, they damaged the concept by adding too many things. More harmonious wheelarches and a less cluttered front end would certainly help.

      The narrow lights are something I quite like in general, only here they don’t really seem to fit. Maybe it’s the sheer mass of the front end – a high cliff where the lights look a bit lost. The grille with its visual weight and semantic wrongness also attracts too much attention.

  7. That Nissan concept is just lovely. At least in profile. I’d like to read a DTW analysis of the current Micra. If there was one, I missed it.

    1. The front view doesn´t live up to the side profile. I haven´t gone to check in what way – it´s what I have an inkling memory of.
      Have we done the Micra? If not, why not?

  8. I’ll go against the grain and say I prefer the DS to the BMW. In almost every picture the DS is just another overwrought crossover, one that hides its horrendous proportions (as revealed by the side profile) quite successfully. Perhaps the driver braked too quickly and the body moved forwards 6 inches – can there be any other explanation? Had a similar issue with a 40-year old Beetle that had a little too much ‘patina’. But from most angles I’d say the DS is not ugly, just invisible.

    The BMW, however, offends on many, many levels.

    1. That is quite some rhetorical excellence. You say you prefer the DS to the BMW and then demolish the DS. The punchline comes with the understatment about the BMW offending. I don´t agree with you but it was so good it made me laugh.
      Yes, the BMW offends yet it´s saved by some stab at internal consistency and discipline that the Scotch Broth and marmalade/beef rogan josh/barbecued ice-cream confection of the DS never gets near.

  9. I like the learned comment I read here, but when you boil it all down you have to ask yourself a fundamental question about the BMW iNext: would you be caught dead driving around in this abomination? Not if you did not want to be branded an utter dork by all and sundry. End of matter, the thing is a failure.

    The DS Crossback is merely inept on virtually every level.

    The new PSA coupe is nice indeed, though. Reminds me of an early 1970s Toyota Celica Gen 1 tidied up.

  10. “Off the scale awful” is a very apt description of the BMW. It is hideous and doesn’t look like a BMW is any meaningful way.

    1. The designer might argue that BMW design cues are so strong they can sustain these deformations. They could also argue that BMW is positioning itself for a very different future. We may be thinking of this year or next (I mean “we” in general) but the writing is being written on the wall for ICE cars driven by drivers. It may very well be that what we
      like about BMW is a turn-off to the future users of these transport tools.
      If I was BMW I´d probably liquidate my assets, sell off the showrooms and give a nice lump sum to the staff and do something else. At this point it seems trying to push the car much further down the design road is meeting the point of diminishing returns. Perhaps out of the billions freed up, keep a bit to make electric track cars for leisure use and make them look really like BMWs instead of mechanical hogs.

  11. Richard, you may be onto something with your suggestion of electric cars for leisure use,where “range anxiety”is far less of a concern. I would buy an e-Boxster in a heartbeat to replace my 981. Although the flat-six ICE is a brilliant drive and sounds wonderful, the instant acceleration from an electric motor would be amazing, as long as the extra weight of the batteries didn’t compromise the handling and, in particular, steering too much. Oh, and I want it to look like a Boxster, not some futuristic flight of fancy. Apart from the Tesla range, which looks pretty good, IMHO, other the electric-specific models leave me a bit cold.

    1. Really, why bother with all the grief? BMW´s had a good run. Time to retire from mainstream car production. Send the engineers into other areas (green energy) or set them free. Then a few of the real die-hards can work on making a range of 2002-alikes and they can apply their brains to making an electric 2002 behave exactly like an ICE one.

  12. Good news for Citroën’s fans: PSA seems to start to get serious about its revival. At the same time that Citroën announced the departure of Alexandre Malval and the arrival of Pierre Leclercq as head designer, they released 2 teasers of 2 different concepts, one slated for Geneva 2019 in May and the other for Shangai 2019 in April.
    But what’s most encouraging are the recent words of Arnaud Belloni, Citroen’s senior vice-president of global marketing and communication (a mouthful that one), who said in an interview shortly before the teasers’s release: “…. Above all, and a really important fact, is that whenever we built concept cars, they reach production. Ever since Linda Jackson has been here, since 2014, this has been the case. Keep in mind what I’ve just told you because very soon you’re going to see a lot of Concept cars”.

    And now we have a glimpse of what’s to come. I’d guess that these will not be near-production ready concepts but perhaps more akin to what the Citroën Cactus concept was to the final, production version.

    Concept 1 ( Geneva ?)

    Concept 2 (Shanghai ?)

    While Its likely that die-hard Citroënistes will reject the new offerings (let’s face it, the likes of the CX et al are never coming back) it’s good to see PSA and Tavares starting the mouth to mouth procedure to try to ressuscitate Citroën from the coma it was artificially put on by its callous previous owners.

    If that’s ok I will later translate a recent interview of both Linda Jackson and Arnaud Belloni that gives some details about Citroen’s future plans and positioning.

  13. Yes, they look very Apple™ like but then again its designers were already talking about the Iphone’s clean and simple shapes as inspiration for the design of the Cactus if I recall correctly.

    Small correction, when I said above that the likes of the CX are never coming back I meant a car that will please the nostalgic of that era is unlikely but a big saloon inspired by the CXperience concept, itself loosely inspired by the CX, will reach production as confirmed in that interview.

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