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The London Science Museum's new Japanese Car Exhibition neatly combines several of our favourite things; pint-sized industrial design, the 'complex minimalism' of Kenya Hara, long-standing Creative Director at Muji, and the sublimely ephemeral architecture of Shigeru Ban.
We spoke to Ban about the new show, and whether car design represented the acme of cultural achievement.
'This is a travelling design exhibition,' the architect explained from his Paris atelier, 'it's part of Design Platform Japan, a program to introduce Japanese design to the world.'
Ban has had a long-term collaboration with Hara, resulting in both book design and building signage. However, the car exhibition was a chance to bring their joint vision to the world stage, creating a platform upon which to explore the thorny issues surrounding cars, culture and technology.
'The exhibition is about how the design of cars is now totally influenced by our culture and lifestyle,' Ban explains, 'of all objects, the car is particularly appropriate to this relationship.'
Working within a tight budget, Ban's forest of cardboard tubes and white membranes mark out each of the 14 cars in the exhibition, each example finished in a clinical white.
Hara's graphic visions frame the cars – 'each has their own story,' says Ban. Hara curated the show, hand-picking the models to include everything from out-there concepts - Toyota's iREAL2 personal transportation unit and Nissan's cute PIVO2 - to the compact functionalism of real-world vehicles like the Daihatsu Hijet utility truck and the new Toyota iQ.
It goes without saying that Japanese car design remains at the cutting edge of the automotive industry. 'In Europe the car is seem purely as transport,' Ban explains, 'but in Japan, where houses are smaller, cars have become more like living rooms. People change seat covers, for example, to make them feel more like home.'
However, any indication that Ban regards the car as some kind of ultimate architectural form, just like Le Corbusier once did, is swiftly dispelled. 'I see the car as totally different from architecture,' the architect admits. 'It's a different discipline. But the design of cars is getting very similar around the world - they used to be so different.'
Happily for now, Japan retains a strong automotive national identity. The first country to realise the growing importance of hybrid and electric vehicles, Japan now has a huge technological advantage over the rest of the world. Add that to a car culture that rejects over-sized, ultra luxurious vehicles in favour of compact, urban-friendly design - the so-called Kei cars - and you can be sure that the Japanese model will continue to shape personal transportation for decades to come.
Jonathan Bell has written for Wallpaper* magazine since 1999, covering everything from architecture and transport design to books, tech and graphic design. He is now the magazine’s Transport and Technology Editor. Jonathan has written and edited 15 books, including Concept Car Design, 21st Century House, and The New Modern House. He is also the host of Wallpaper’s first podcast.
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