I can remember the response to BMW’s R1150GS adventure sports motorcycle when it first appeared in 1999. Its predecessors in the Gelände/Straße range were always seen as being a bit odd. Big, heavy, incredibly tough, long distance off-road tourers, entirely opposite to the then fashionable hyper sports bikes. The GS had become known as “the barking mad Beemer”. But the new 1150 version went further, madder, and to most automotive design critics, weirder. Why?
It seems to be squinting at us. Patrick Moore or the Monocled Mutineer? An aesthetics of the strange, curious, enigmatic? There’s a sense of the monocle wearer being an expert, looking closely at the detail of the matter in hand, but also wide open to the world. Or, to some, untrustworthy!
Asymmetry is unusual in automotive design. Some people actually find it disturbing. The asymmetrical layout of the rear end of the 2018 Land Rover Discover will never, ever, be acceptable. It is just wrong! Repugnant even.
My informed guess on this is that people feel a deep-seated need to humanise machines, especially the machines that are rapidly taking over our lives – and given that automotive systems have completely changed our lived environments, the need to humanise them is especially desperate. When seeing a motorway tearing through the countryside, packed with traffic and fumes, we shudder. If we zoom in to see the front of a 1999 Triumph Speed Triple, the big-eyed beauty, we smile.
It’s interesting that, when doing a major refurbishment of my R100GS Paris-Dakar, I replaced the single big rectangular Bosch headlight with a pair of round lights. There were practical reasons: reducing weight, adding some redundancy to mitigate against bulb failures. But the result is something that looks just prettier. And that means, more human.
But I haven’t gone asymmetrical. In fact, I notice, and slightly worry about, a couple of vestigial asymmetries: the single exhaust runs down one side of the bike (lighter than twin exhausts), and there is a small bracket on the left-hand crash bar where the oil cooler was originally places (for safety reasons, it is usual to relocate the cooler to the centre of the forks).
Immanuel Kant, writing in 1790, had much to tell us about motorcycle design. This is important. Kant’s ideas had a huge influence in many spheres. His “critical” philosophy starts with the argument that humans always see the world through, and as a reflection of, human nature. We don’t see the world as it is in itself (the noumenal reality behind our phenomenal experience of it). We can systematically reflect upon how we see the world to separate out aspects of knowledge that are incontrovertibly, necessarily, true (mathematics), from those that are artefacts of human nature (opinion). But not all such human artefacts are bad. Aesthetic experience, and the judgement of beauty, is a kind of intermediary knowledge. It isn’t mathematically true. But aesthetic judgement reflects the beauty present in nature’s order (this being the 18th Century, chaos theory had not yet emerged). The opposite of beauty is, for Kant, the Sublime: which means overwhelming disorder. Beauty connects human experience with natural beauty through the experience of being delighted by things we perceive, because the form of those things aligns itself well with our perceptual process. Today we have a science that studies the voracious human desire to see patterns in things: cognitive science. And it is used to help us design things that people will love, but also to design to deceive. Symmetry is a key part of Kant’s ordered beauty – humans are (more or less) symmetrical. We are attuned to symmetrical things. And, for Kant, it follows that surely that just makes sense to every rational, good, person of taste? – what Kant called the sensus communis.
So, Kant was talking about a design heuristic? Yes and no. For Kant, symmetry is a heuristic, but one that complies with a rule. However, as the R1150GS proved, in designing rules are there to be broken if we find good reason to do so. The heuristic, or the diversion from it, acts as a “generative idea” (Lawson, 2005: 170) guiding the series of placements (Buchanan, 1992: 12) and movements that designer makes so as to find a good or original solution. The R1150GS headlight is not straightforwardly beautiful in the Kantian sense. But it definitely does offer delight. And it is in no way a disordered sublime (it was mistaken as such, being described as “mad”, which is in Kantian aesthetics works as a synonym for the sublime). Kant also considered Maori tattoos to be fundamentally against the natural order. Almost the entire population of New Zealand would disagree. Both tattoos and the R1150GS have been rather popular with New Zealanders.
As for the controversial R1150GS head-light asymmetry, it eventually proved to be a little bit of design genius – proving that we need to cautiously apply design heuristics in the context of the evolution of our culture. By the time that Ewan Macgregor and Charlie Boorman took a pair of the bikes for a televised, and genuinely tough, round-the-world tour in 2004, a new cultural phenomenon was emerging: the hipster. A bike with muscle and eccentricity was just what the world wanted. The R1150GS went on to be one of the biggest selling bikes of all time. Almost 80,000 of them were sold, many of which were customised further to accentuate the “I’ve just ridden across the Taklamakan Dessert” aesthetic.
BMW have since abandoned the asymmetrical approach. In recent years, motorcycle design aesthetics have split between an emphasis on high-tech (EU regulations on emissions and safety have forced motorcycles to become extremely high-tech) or, following the “hipster” trend, high-tech masquerading as “old-bastard reliability”.
BMW now build two types of big-capacity GS, the R1200GS (super high technology) and the retro R9T Urban GS (high-tech dressed up as hipster old-bastard reliability). The 1200 retains some asymmetry in the headlights, but it’s now masked in highly-refined, high-technology, detail.
So, in we can see through the example of motorcycle design, how design heuristics are more like arguments, matters of concern and contention (as Bruno Latour would say). And the evolution of human material culture may be read through the use and transformation of such heuristics.