Motion. Autos, Art, Architecture
Giotto Bizzarrini, Ferrari 250 GTO, 1962
Jean Bugatti, Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic, 1936
R. Buckminster Fuller, Dymaxion #4, 2010 (based on #1-3, 1933-34)
Franco Scaglione, Alfa Romeo BAT Car 7 , 1954
Harley Earl, General Motors, Firebirds I, II and III, 1954-1958 General Motors
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A celebration of problem solving with technology

Appreciating the aesthetics of art and autos is energizing. This visceral energy can lift moods, raise spirits and inspire. Motion. Autos, Art, Architecture, on show at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, does exactly that. Lord Norman Foster, the founding partner of Foster and Partners, provided the curatorial clout necessary to entice collectors to be separated from their precious masterworks. For a short period, this Spanish museum provides an opportunity to be in the presence of and appreciate quantifiably great objects of the twentieth century.

This exhibition is a celebration of Foster’s unbridled enthusiasm for technology’s ability to solve problems, which is the key to understanding his legacy. Foster and Partners architectural work includes the HSBC Bank Building, Chek Lap Kok Airport, and Kai Tak Cruise Terminal in Hong Kong, along with Apple’s headquarters in California and the yet to be completed 2 World Trade Centre in New York. Foster’s design influences come from paintings, sculptures, architecture, photography and film, to which this exhibition pays tribute. It is also a platform for his unhindered passion for autos, with not less than nine of the thirty-eight cars on display coming from his collection.

The first car on exhibit is Lord Foster’s Dymaxion, designed by his professor, Buckminster Fuller. In 2010 as a homage to Fuller, Foster commissioned this replica of the auto. This 1933 design was a technological wonder full of new ideas like three wheels, a lightweight hinged chassis, a rear-mounted V8 engine, front-wheel drive and a periscope instead of a rear window. It was fast and fuel-efficient, thanks to the pioneering aerodynamic work with clay models and a wind tunnel. That said, this eleven-passenger van was notoriously difficult to steer at high speeds or in crosswinds.

Automobiles take centre stage at this exhibition surrounded by artworks and images by significant artists, sculptors and photographers, all of whom have left indelible impressions on Foster and his fellow curators.

One such artist is sculptor Constantin Brancusi, who succeeded in creating an illusion of movement in a static object. His sculpture Fish is a highly polished bronze wedge hovering over a mirrored disk base. As one moves around the sculpture, reflected light flickers as it would off a real fish. Brancusi’s sculpture embraces precise bespoke machine-made products that feel fast standing still.

Many car enthusiasts have the same feeling about Ferrari sports cars, of which the 250 GTO is the epitome. It also looks fast standing still, yet it is extraordinarily fast. Like the Brancusi, this handmade sculpture is not only aesthetically pleasing but also a charismatic, powerful and precise instrument capable of winning world championships and massaging the ego of anyone with the wherewithal to get behind the wheel. This car was last purchased in 1977 for the princely sum of US$71,000 by Nick Mason with the proceeds from his share of the earnings as drummer for Pink Floyd. A similar car was sold in 2018 for US$70 million.

Alexander Calder was another artist who embraced technology to create new types of art. Early in his career he invented wire sculpture, or “drawing in space”. These were simple bits of twisted wire that when viewed from the correct angle were perfect three-dimensional sketches of faces and figures. His contribution to Modernism was kinetic sculptures that were no longer huge chunks of marble or iron. Like January 31, these abstract sculptures were light sheets of painted aluminium that orbited around themselves at the slightest current of air. Like automotive engineers who tune exhaust notes to ignite emotions, he incorporated sound as part of the experience and intentionally tuned his mobiles to chime as parts collided. These mobiles are exquisitely engineered and yet move as organically as falling leaves.

Photographer O. Winston Link’s photo Hot Shot Eastbound captures a moment when steam trains, aeroplanes and drive-in theatres co-existed. The juxtaposition of these three modes of transport and the skill required to capture this image earned Link a place in this exhibit. That he was able to get all three is a testimony to his patience and the proposition that luck favours the prepared. He recognized the demise of the steam locomotive and set about preserving them on film. He reckoned that as trains were black, coal was black, tracks were black, he should shoot at night with black and white film. To accomplish this difficult task, he pioneered artificial lighting equipment and techniques that allowed him to illuminate, or hide, what he wanted in his picture frames.

This optimism that technology could solve any problem peaked in the post-war 1950s, when money was not a hindrance, nor was practicality. Designers were commissioned to create concept cars to express their ideas for the future. The Italian firm Bartone, along with designer Franco Scaglione, inspired by aeronautical wings, created cars with extremely low drag coefficients of which the Alfa Romeo BAT Car 7 was the most successful. A former Alfa Romeo designer created a glass-domed Spanish car that could have inspired the flying cars of the futuristic Jetsons cartoon. The Pegaso Z-102 Cupola was unique, distinct and capable of reaching a speed of 243 km per hour.

Similar energy existed on the other side of the Atlantic, led by General Motors designer Harley Earl. Also building on the aeronautical theme, his concepts cars Firebirds Models I, II & III were the first cars to use gas turbine engines, essentially a jet aeroplane on wheels. At the time this was seen to be the future power source of faster and more efficient vehicles. They also experimented with technology that did trickle down to production vehicles, including fibreglass-reinforced plastic and titanium bodies, all-wheel independent suspension, power disc brakes, alternators, magnetic ignition keys, electric gear selection, and individually controlled air conditioning.

Each of the 300 artworks in this exhibition has similarly engaging stories that link past advances in art and technology to current architecture, and specifically their influences on the work of Norman Foster. This is an exhibition that rewards the curious, each masterwork offering an engaging narrative of originality and innovation that changed Lord Foster’s perspective and, without exaggeration, monumentally transformed our world’s greatest cities.