Lovie House: “Flamboyant minimalism”

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Lovie House, Geoff Lovie, 1996

In their exemplary architectural history of the Canberra region, Tim Reeves and Alan Roberts use the term “flamboyant minimalism” to describe architect Geoff Lovie’s Lovie House, in Jerrabomberra.

On the one hand, the term is an oxymoron (if something is flamboyant, then it’s not minimalism), yet on the other hand, it makes sense of the contradictory forces at work in a good deal of postmodern architecture and in a lot of the generic apartment architecture in places like Green Square and Zetland. For example, many of the new apartment blocks in the Green Square Urban Renewal Area combine minimalist principles with the trivial flashiness necessary to distinguish one facade from the next. Perhaps compromised minimalism is a better term in this case?

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‘Flamboyant’ or ‘compromised’ minimalism?

From the pages of Reeves and Robert’s book, I’d judged Lovie House to be an architect’s folly. In particular, the wiggly yellow addition to the balustrade. Although Matisse’s cut-outs are cited as an influence, 1990s Nickelodeon cartoons, such as Rocko’s Modern Life, Aaahh Real Monsters and Rug Rats, struck me as a more compelling precedent. The off kilter, zany line work makes it seem both fun and unfun in a way that recalls these cartoons and the moods with which I associate them. That the house supports analogies to both high and low culture makes it a successful example of postmodernism.

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Alongside the other houses in the book, I judged the house as a gaudy, pretentious pet project, insensitive to its context and seemingly built to amuse the architect. It’s a different story after travelling through the backstreets of Jerrabomberra, past the countless brick bungalows with the twin and sometimes triple carports. It’s these houses that seem insensitive to the landscape, at least the natural landscape, which is fortunately still such a prominent part of the area. Some leave a decidedly mean impression, their neat forms and features remote echoes of an Anglo American history with little sympathy for the peculiar scraggliness of the Australian bush.

By contrast, if you look at a painting by Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, or more recently, William Robinson and even Chris O’Doherty of Mambo fame, the twisted, zombie forms of trees and shrubbery are captured compellingly: eccentric, brash, empty and yet somehow full, with none of the grand impact of an American canyon or waterfall and none of the bucolic neatness and formality of the English landscape.

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Chris O’Doherty, View from the Hume approaching Campbelltown, circa 1985

(My characterisation of the Australian bush in this way is a convenient caricature. There’s the pretence of homogeneity and threat that is typical of the colonists gaze. Yet for better or worse–worse, certainly for the first Australians–the colony exists, and the variously homely and unhomely renditions of the landscape in artworks and literature in the relatively recent history of the country represent a valuable insight into the way outsiders have attempted to express their relationship to place.)

Lovie House belongs somewhere in this laconic yet vaguely crazed aesthetic tradition I’ve cobbled together from these few reference points.  I was surprised by how much it suited its semi bushland context. Although it stands out, it stands out like something that belongs where it is, an example rather than an exception. The combination of humble materials and the straightforward boxy bulk of the building don’t compete with its relatively loud colours and peculiarly angled window frames. It’s sensitively sited, with a garden full of native plants that looks like an extension of the bush.

Reeves and Roberts note that the house caused a stir in the neighbourhood: “Some locals petitioned against it, others loved it.” Since then there’s been an unofficial request for heritage listing, which Lovie turned down.

To my eye it’s hard to make an argument against the house on its being too visually incongruent. There’s plenty more nearby that seems equally though more half assedly eccentric, certainly less sympathetic with the bush and no more sensitive to the built environment. What’s more, it’s refreshing to see an architect offering a reminder of the possibilities available to builders and homeowners in terms of line work and colour and the differing moods these aesthetic decisions might provoke.

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To see Lovie House in the backstreets of Jerrabomberra reminds me of the way John Ashbery described the writing of fellow poet Gertrude Stein: “These austere ‘stanzas’ are made up almost entirely of colorless connecting words such as ‘where,’ ‘which,’ ‘these,’ ‘of,’ ‘not,’ ‘have,’ ‘about,’ and so on, though now and then Miss Stein throws in an orange, a lilac, or an Albert to remind us that it really is the world, our world, that she has been talking about.”

Perhaps the otherwise monotonous suburban streetscape is the perfect viewing context for a piece of flamboyant minimalism after all? Perhaps Lovie House needs a context of relative austerity and colourlessness in order to offer such a abundant refreshment? Or is suburbia less austere than this view might have us pretend?

 

 

 

Daceyville maintenance depot: A forerunner of late twentieth century postmodernism

Daceyville maintenance depot: A forerunner of late twentieth century postmodernism

The first postmodern building in Australia was the Daceyville maintenance depot, in Dacey Gardens. According to chronology, the building would be identified as being in the Federation Arts and Crafts style. If you pull apart that appellation it contains a period (roughly between 1890-1915) and, as noted by architectural historian, Joseph Mordaunt Cook, an attitude, rather than a style (“The Arts and Crafts Movement involved an attitude, not a style [1987, 226]).

However, in terms of likeness based on visual appearance alone, it clearly belongs to the family of late twentieth century postmodern architecture, the representative figures of which include Michael Graves, Terry Farrell, and in Australia Peter Corrigan and the less obviously flamboyant work of Philip Cox, among many others. The buildings of these architects tend to favour bright, contrasting colours and make irreverent references to history that are open to interpretation as reverential or ironic.

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Cedar House, by Michael Graves
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Riverside Sanctuary, by Michael Graves
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Boathouse on the Thames at Henley, by Terry Farrell
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RMIT Building 8, by Peter Corrigan

Daceyville was the first large scale public housing scheme in Australia and is among the earliest examples of ‘garden suburb’ ideas being deliberately realised in the country. Construction began in 1912 and the last residential property was finished in 1920.

The houses are for the most part bungalows, often with irregular roof extensions. The front yards don’t have fences, which is unusual in Sydney, and the suburb is characterised by a gelato colour scheme of light blue, cream and pink, to which the maintenance depot also conforms. The softness of the colouring, the combination of materials that usually evoke whimsy and the fancy roof vent are in stark contrast to its assertive solidity.  The firm four-sidedness of the building can be fully appreciated because it’s in a park and shoots straight up, unobtruded out of the flat lawn. The four gables are brought together in a relatively tight form, so there’s clash of different diagonal planes as well as symmetry. It’s a prop forward of a doll house and the unusual form is reminiscent of some of the weird scaling that’s often evident in postmodern works. Rather than looking like a building that’s meant to be the size it is, it looks like a smaller building that’s been enlarged.

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One of the low pitched roofs of a Daceyville Bungalow

It is false to claim that the architect of the maintenance depot had access to the same set of ideas as the postmodern architects listed above. Whoever it was wasn’t working in a postmodern modality, whatever that might mean. It’s hard to imagine they were challenging modernist stylistic and idealogical principles. Nonetheless, the distinctiveness of the building is inarguable and along with the Greg Lord Pavilion at Kingston Oval, it ought to become a cult favourite. Should postmodern architects in Australia be in search of a model that might readily support their intentions and stylistic adherences this is surely a good place to start.

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The Greg Lord Pavilion at Kingston Oval in Canberra

 

 

 

 

The better warehouses of Alexandria

The most recent heritage listing in the  62 places of industry selected by City of Sydney is a 1970s warehouse known as the Q Store, built by Harry Seidler and refurbished by Lacoste and Stevenson prior to the listing. The refurbishment has been very nicely done. It retains the contrast of softness and force evident in Seidler’s design and looks like a close enough approximation to the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. It’s light industry materially manifest and wouldn’t look out of place among the exhibition architecture of Philip Cox in the 1980s, with the exposed structural features in white painted metal and sculptural cement columns.

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The architects described their brief as compelling them to treat the site like a heritage item that hadn’t been listed yet. This is an example that’s likenable to what Rem Koolhaas has described as prospective preservation, whereby we “decide in advance what we are going to build for posterity.” Koolhaas notes that in 1818 the interval between the present and what was preserved was two thousand years, in 1900, two hundred years and now it is twenty years or less, which is about the limit for the amount of time required to elapse in the nostalgia cycles that supposedly operate in pop culture.

Koolhaas seems largely cynical about this compulsion to preserve. But it needn’t be interpreted this way, as long as it isn’t stifling the practical considerations of architects and builders.

The bulk of heritage listed industrial items in the City of Sydney are pre 1970s. Nearly all of them are some combination of brick and cement, with the red brick, functionalist or deco facade arguably the stereotypical example. Pebbledash and cement buildings are less well represented  on the inventory.

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Unlike the duel warehouse-shop functionality of the contemporary Bunnings model, most of the listed buildings were warehouses or factories that for better or worse were insensitive to the interior design demands of contemporary showrooms–apart from the former Joseph Lucas building, which is now the Larke Hoskins car dealership. They have a distinctively different look to the post 1970s buildings in the area that often incorporate a significant glazing, either with elongated strips of wrap around, heavily tinted windows in the facade or in a boxy section jutting out from the site of the building supported by columns.

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Hopefully they don’t demolish 118 Bourke and its heritage worthy guard’s compartment (see below)

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On Botany Rd, Harry Seidler would be keen on this one
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A small iteration of the above on McEvoy Street
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Preserving such buildings will be essential to maintaining the airport terminal aesthetic  unique to the area.

I wonder what decisions will be made in the future about these more recent examples of warehouse design? Will the current character of the area be recognised as valuable and worth preserving? Or will the crop of 62 or so earlier listings be deemed enough of the past to permit the forgetting of a more contemporary version of nostalgia?

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The pebbledash facade: Faring worse than brick in terms of heritage listings

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The Sunshades Warehouse on McEvoy: a unique combination of fine pebbledash are large, vertical, heavily tinted windows

Many contingencies hidden from view are at work in the decisions about what parts of the past we choose to keep. Perhaps digitised records might substitute for physical heritage in the near future? Perhaps yet to be created works of literature or film might provoke reverence for certain sites? Either way, it is enjoyable to wander around the area and earmark things as significant before they are identified as heritage items or demolished. It’s like playing the role of heritage consultant for your own personalised vision of a future past preserved.

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The Weightbridge Cafe: unique among Sydney’s many genres of cafe
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Although not in Alexandria, the Ming on Trading warehouse on Addison Rd in Marrickville surely warrants a heritage listing.

 

Pretty Disgusting: The new five dollar note

Grayson Perry tapestry Comfort Blanket, 2014

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Responses to the new Australian five dollar note remind us that the old chestnuts of modernist and postmodernists approaches to aesthetics still have some life in them with regard to understanding contemporary culture, both in terms of the qualities of objects and the subjective responses to them.

The bright, plastic money of Australia is already gaudy in comparison with the muted hues and forgiving paper texture of the more globally pervasive American dollar bill and the majority of other national currencies. The new design is arguably a further amplification of these qualities of questionable aesthetic value.

As Robin Boyd’s seminal diatribe The Australian Ugliness attests, it’s hard going for a devout modernist in Australia, you have to make do with dribs and drabs at best. The visual illiteracy of the Australian population has long been bugbear for architects and designers and the reception of the new five dollar note is a case study in disappointment for anyone who holds dear modernist aesthetic principles to do with cohesion, nuance and precision.

What might have been heartening for Boyd and his ilk is that the strong negative reactions to the note are widely shared in the popular press and largely fall in line with modernist sentiments for something more legible and less flamboyant.

The prettiness exemplified in the design of the note is an anathema to the bold plainness of modernism, which regards beauty and necessity as constitutive of each other. As Boyd noted in “The Design of Future Practice”, design ought to have ambitions to do with what is ‘real’ and dignified rather than pretty or even beautiful (1957, 67).

Prettiness is sometimes regarded in a pejorative sense as a minor form of beauty. The weak appeal of pretty things can easily give way to disgust. They tend to lack the force of the sublime and the formal confidence and cohesion common to the beautiful. In this sense prettiness can seem to be the worst of both worlds, insipid and deformed, which is a fusing together of negatives that tend to occur in isolation from each other (deformed things tend to be interesting enough not to be insipid).

At the root of the modernist aesthetic paradigm is the aesthetic category of the sublime, which cleaves to the laudable demands that art, architecture or design must be original, profound and affirmative of human ingenuity. The sublime doesn’t muddle in half measures. Despite being about anxiety inducing shows of force or genius, in the end the sublime involves the kind of cathartic response whereby the audience is purged of their temporary uncertainty in the face of what is reassimilated as emotionally uplifting.

This is not the case for the post modern paradigm, where artistic or technological ambition is regarded with ambivalence. As the American post modern poet John Ashbery said of his expectations regarding his own work, “pleasantly surprising” seemed a better fit than any of the more orgasmic models for aesthetic appreciation and artistic originality.

Compositionally, the note is a motley, in terms of the colours, fonts, and the symbolic content. It’s as scraggly as a prize patch of east coast dry sclerophyll in the dog days of summer and as garish as RSL carpet.

The lack of aesthetic unity is perhaps indicative of the lack of a binding political and historical narrative for the country. There’s a half hearted effort to assert a national identity based on the peculiarities of history and place, with native flora, fauna, architecture and a remote reference to the first Australians in the radial, dot patterns in front of the parliament house. The prominent effigy of the queen is a glaring reminder that such an identity is compromised by a colonial history variously regarded with pride, reprehension, sadness and irony.

The decision to leave the queen in what now looks a comparatively hard, dull grey, etching style, makes her presence on the note seem more overtly anachronistic than in the previous design. While art perhaps ought to have greater ambitions than simply reflecting culture, it was only a year ago that in comparatively anachronistic effort our government reintroduced knights and dames. Perhaps in this regard the note has, unintentionally or not, captured something of the national zeitgeist in manner comparable to Grayson Perry’s no less gaudy efforts to exemplify Britishness.

The note has been likened to vomit, bacteria and clowns. This set of abject things all conform to the idea of something that at once belongs and doesn’t belong, extrusions, passengers or misfits with difficult appeal. The note is the consequence of a cultural, historical and political pluralism that in light of our supposed reverence for democracy we ought to find appealing. As the most vocal responses to the new design demonstrate, egalitarian virtues don’t always translate unproblematically into the objects of culture.

Green Square Station

Green Square Station

Green Square Station is the next station after Central heading south on the T2 Airport & South line. Unlike the other six lines, the T2 Airport and South line is privately owned. The owners and their designers obviously didn’t feel the need to integrate the aesthetics of the station with the other government owned lines.

The peculiar choices made in the design of the station are most conspicuous in the maps displayed in billboard form around the station. The city map looks like a game of Sim City. They’ve chosen a dusty-peachy orange as the dominant colour for land and azure for the harbour (parched yellow for the Botanic Gardens and other parkland).

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The version of the city map available online has the same visual identity, with little icons for various buildings  scattered across the map. Most are north-south along the Macquarie, Pitt, Castlereagh, George St axis. Some buildings are labeled, others are just icons. Citi Group Centre, Cancer Council, Wentworth Park and the Prince Alfred Park Building are among the outliers alongside more predicable icons: the Opera House, Exhibition and Entertainment Centres, SFS and SCG, Aquarium, Hyde Park Barracks, St Mary’s and the Sydney Museum.  A couple of anonymous churches litter the boundaries on Burke and Flinders St. Without names, these are a curious addition that I can only put down to redundant need to include some churchy looking icons of that kind.

Further curious additions can be discovered on the ‘Places of interest’ key which is featured on the Green Square Station Precinct Map, with Autohaus One, The Chirstmas Warehouse, Rent-a-Wreck giving a sense of the area that seems objective in its randomness. It certainly gives a good idea of what you’d expect to find in the area, though it’s hard to imagine it being of much use to anyone. It’s a shame not to see these buildings in 3-D profile like those on the City Map. The same orange is once again pervasive. Did the designers aim to portray Sydney in a colour palate suited to the red centre?

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Otherwise the station has the look and feel of an airport, with large plastic panels in neutral colours and lots of white light. Large maps backed by the city skyline offer a continual reminder of other stations on the line, perhaps frequency and scale is an effort to substitute for quality.

The ticket gates are bizarrely placed and with the expected increase in passengers to the area a few more are desperately needed.

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Image credit: Gareth Edwards (own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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Outside, the building retains the same airport feel, with suspension roofing, plenty of vents and large plastic panels in matt grey. Here, against the striking, Sydney blue sky and sunshine, it seems more inviting. It doesn’t compete with the freshness and energy of the sky, and there’s a lightness to the building that suits the etherial aspirations of an airport line.

The public art definitely qualifies as ‘interesting’ rather than beautiful or sublime–leftover sandstone offcuts and metal?– and the benches that scatter the large open, paved area at the moment seem like wishfull thinking. When the massive Infinity building and town centre are finished maybe they’ll be hot property? Wedged in between Bourke, Botany and O’Riordan at this stage it is still very much a place of transit rather than lingering, evoking the feel of some areas of Canberra or the area outside a large stadium.

 

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Image credit: Gareth Edwards, Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, http://commons.wikimedia,org/w/index.php?curid-14536316
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Image credit: J Bar, via Wikimedia Commons
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Image credit: J Bar, Wikimedia Commons

When you think about the character of stations like St James and Museum, which trade on their heritage value, and the similarly quaint old-worldness of the Federation style employed at Redfern and Erskineville, Green Square Station seems a sterile, impersonal and alienating place. No doubt if it is similarly well-preserved, its character will come. In the mean time, perhaps great feats of the imagination will provoked by the blandness and vacancy at its core?

 

Car Dealership Architecture & Dover Heights

Car Dealership Architecture & Dover Heights

Like car parks, car dealerships are spaces that need to juggle the twin demands of accommodating two types of body: that of the human and the automobile. These sometimes contrasting requirements result in architectural peculiarities.

Although humans must circulate among and move to and from cars, the space they move through is designed to accommodate the dimensions of an automobile, which are characteristically larger, harder and more heavy than humans. Doorways, walls and small rooms are less prominent features of these car ecologies.

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More than simply accommodating the body of a car, the car dealership must also inform and seduce shoppers through the display of their product. It is this aspect of car showrooms that leads D. Kooijman and R. Sierksma to describe them as a “confused experience of theatre, shop and church all in one”. In showrooms, cars are displayed as “scaral objects” utterly removed from the mundane experience of sitting in traffic.

Unlike car parks, which must obey the utilitarian demands of spatial efficiency, showrooms will ideally display cars with enough room for dealers and customers to promenade in-between in a leisurely fashion. Shoppers and dealers glide along shiny floors inspecting vehicles on spatially demarcated podiums and ramps, often in arrangements that are deliberately just a little bit off kilter.

As tellingly noted in this blog, it is often important that cars appear to be placed lightly on the ground (which is probably more accurately called, a surface), rather than growing out of it. Unlike a sturdy church, with splaying buttresses that give a sense of earthy permanence, or a stone house built into the side of hill, car showrooms retain a sense of being placed or inflated on their site, rather than emerging from the material conditions of their given surrounds, as in the case of vernacular buildings. Car dealership seem the antithesis of vernacular architecture in this sense.mercedes-benz-sydney-alexandria-car-dealers-mercedes-benz-sydney-sydneys-benchmark-mercedes-benz-dealership-4aee-938x704

Within these bright, transparent spaces, banal activities like paperwork and car maintenance are relatively inconspicuous. Neutral, usually silverly colours are favoured. Opaque, matt and heavily textured surfaces are absent or in the background. Instead, light reflects around the space, catching the glistening, smooth, curvaceous forms of car bodies. In short, the mood of the space takes its cues from the design of the automobiles it exhibits.

In addition to enticing customers once they are in the building, car showrooms must display their wares to car drivers outside, who are typically moving at a faster pace and further away than someone on foot inspecting a shop window. These twin ambitions lead to a further contrasting demand for the architecture to accommodate. Showrooms must not accomodate the bodies of cars and humans, they are required to communicate appeal to the completely different spatiotemporal perspective of the car driver in motion.

In order to maximise the display opportunities afforded by road frontage, car showrooms must be transparent, elongated and either built right to the edge of the block or include an outdoor carpark style showroom bordering the road.

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The contrast of an older style of industrial architecture with newer, brand-focused design is illustrated in the Larke Hoskins Showrooms, one half of which is built in the postwar international style, while the other features the kind of architecture common to most contemporary car showrooms. The branding imperatives have crept across to the older half of the building but it still retains it’s multi-pane steel window frames and the distinctive vertical louvres. The textured redbrick provides a harmonious contrast with the glass, unlike the newer addition, which is a more or less texturally homogenous smooth silver and glass.

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Seeing this kind of thing makes me glad of the work of the council heritage restrictions and ought to provide a reminder to architects that they needn’t make showrooms look like inflated cars.

The demands for the car showroom typically contrast the demands required of human living space, which ought to better fit the dimensions of the human body and be adaptable to a range of comparatively private, informal activities presumably inappropriate in the space of the showroom: sleeping, eating, having sex and a vast range of other peculiar rituals and leisurely pursuits.

Despite this, many homes appear to be build according to imperatives that are comparable to the theatre-shop-church triad characteristic of the showroom. The suburb of Dover Heights in Sydney offers some brilliant examples in this regard. The building below is a standout. Known as Butterfly House and famed for its lack of any straight lines and Feng Shui, it’s like one big pair of sunglasses perched on the side of the hill. Utterly free from texture, it’s shiny, neutral colours are unmistakably reminiscent of the contemporary automobile and car dealership showrooms.

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Although I’m doubtful the building would have been constructed after Steve McQueen’s 2011 film ‘Shame,’ it’s entirely possible whoever conceived the thing had something like the memorable sex scene from that movie in mind when they were imagining the performative possibilities of the structure. It’s a pornographic building, like an airport control tower, everything about it is to do with looking and being looked at. You can just imagine people gliding around the shiny floors inside administering pleasure.

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While the above building is a standout, a good number of corporate fantasies have been realised on that favourably situated hill, with views back across slithers of the harbour to the bridge and CBD skyline beyond, or in the other direction, out to the east, where a wide blue 270 degree ocean churns with sublime force.

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Maximising the view out to the west comes with the difficulties of reducing heat from the afternoon sun. This is achieved with air conditioning, various kinds of heavy shutters, or zinc cladding.

Jutting from the side of the hill, secluded from each other by walls but sharing the same sun worshipping desires, these rows of houses bear some reference to the La Tourette monastery built by Le Corbusier and its inspiration, Le Thoronet in the South of France. Here the residents are not bound by a shared sense of obligation to the religious divine but to the visual amenity itself and perhaps the sense of security that they may perform profane acts before it undisturbed by intrusions from the public.

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For those seeking older charms, Dover Heights still has a number of buildings in the functionalist style, fashionable in the interwar years. The stark, cubic minimalism of these structures is a welcome contrast to the busy, bulging, glossy lot that otherwise typifies the area.

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Of course, these buildings can no more lay claim to the vernacular than the recent examples of car showroom architecture or their domestic equivalents. Just like the newer examples, this architecture is generic, relatively insubstantial and perhaps sterile. The key difference is that this building now bears a reference to history, despite the intent of the proponents of functionalist and internationalist styles in their time, who sought to create an architecture that wasn’t mired in the mess of archeological references to classical or medieval orders characteristic of the 19th century. However, now we recognise this once modern style as belonging to a particular time and this quality of temporal situatedness informs the way we respond to the building. Post modern architecture sought to adapt to this inevitable becoming-history by inviting the past back into buildings in a way that contradicted the ambitions of the earlier modernist architects.

For the sake of objectivity, historians work hard to elude the influence of nostalgia for particular styles, but the notion of a style is itself almost impossibly mixed up with the identification and classification of things for the sake of posterity.

It seems almost inevitable that the showrooms and ostentatious gloss of todays pornographic residential architecture will at some point, for better or worse, become available to the delusive tendencies of the melancholics for whom the past is the best and perhaps only resource for reassurance and fanciful speculation–that’s if they’re not demolished.

It seems the absence of rusticity was too much for one resident, where whoever is in charge saw fit to obscure the otherwise white, texturally uniform surface with a tangle of sticks ornamenting a curious rust clad protrusion. An utterly bizarre sight that makes me hesitant regarding any demands made of contemporary buildings to jazz up their anaemic facades with a bit of texture. The politically naive, insensitive, but in this case irresistibly apt expression, ‘full retard’ comes to mind. image

References

D. Kooijman and R. Sierksma, “Showcase and showroom: automobiles and experience architecture”, Journal of Design Research, 42, No.1 (2007): 509-522.