Porsche by Design

What does Porsche have to do with architecture?

1898 Porsche P1 electric

Dr. Ferdinand Porsche’s 1898 electric car, the “P1.”[ref] The front is to the left (note the steering wheel at top). The motor and slightly larger drive wheels are on the right, at the rear of the car, like his future designs for the original VW Beetle and the Porsche 911 model still sold today.

In 1898, Ferdinand Porsche designed his first automobile at just 22 years old. He drove it to win a 24 mile car race and finished 18 minutes ahead of second place, despite half the field retiring from technical issues. He called it the “P1,” as if to designate it the first in a long line of expected successors. The most interesting part? It was electric.[ref]

Porsche continues using numbers to identify models today. Although many have recently begun sporting names as well, enthusiasts still refer to the numbers because they more clearly explain the evolutionary results of development. This is striking because it acknowledges Porsche’s insistance on continually improving through an iterative development process. Models are not simply scratched each time new thinking comes along. Instead, model numbers are advanced or referenced to designate the trail of continuing exploration, investigation, and testing.

This is exactly how better architecture works.

Design begins even before sketching. Research and analysis are conducted on the site, the code, the budget, and the schedule before resolving aesthetics. (See Dream for some insights about this early process.) I begin by sitting down with clients to explore and survey the existing facts and discuss ideas before deciding what the building will look like.

Once these factors are properly considered, they begin to contribute to the design. A series of investigative revision cycles evolve the forms and materials within the context and bounds already established. The project grows and develops into maturity from a framework rather than jumping out of inspiration. The end isn’t reached until all the interests and concerns have been accounted for and balanced along the way.

1965 Porsche 904/6 prototype. Photo by SteveHallArchitecture.

1965 Porsche 904/6 prototype. Photo by SteveHallArchitecture.

Porsche’s iterative approach to design illustrates form following function as well as any example from architecture. Obviously, a high performance automobile can not just look fast. It must also be fast. This requires efficiency. To accomplish the purpose, both mechanicals and bodywork must be simple and reliable. Even in 1898, Porsche understood that performance is equally as important as finishing the race!

The cars above and below are only six years apart. There is a strong heritage in the later car from the earlier. How many visual similarities can you spot? Enthusiasts can quickly cite over a dozen. My photograph of the 1968 Porsche 908 model stitches them together even more closely. See any more? Email me and I’ll send you my list. You may even spot a few similarities to the VW Beetle!

1971 Porsche 917K. Photo by SteveHallArchitecture.

1971 Porsche 917K. Photo by SteveHallArchitecture.

Despite automobile design following what seems to be a pretty standard formula, Porsche proves that success is a constantly refining process. Just a few years later, at the end of an era in the 1973 oil crisis, the Porsche 917 became the most feared racing car in the world. With twice as much power as today’s Formula 1 and NASCAR entries, it was capable of 260 miles per hour despite pre-computer aerodynamics and materials. Fortunately, Porsche didn’t stop there.

2010 Porsche 911 GT3 R. Photo by SteveHallArchitecture.

2010 Porsche 911 GT3 R Flywheel hybrid with over 600 horsepower. Photo by SteveHallArchitecture.

Now more than a century after Dr. Porsche’s first electric, the company is still exploring. Two current models, deceptively called “hybrids,” create engine power with flywheels and braking in addition to more conventional hybrid battery and electric motor systems. The racing version above has five times the power of a Toyota Prius. The remarkable new Porsche 918 road car has almost seven times the power (a staggering 887 horsepower) at 78 miles per gallon!

As an architect, I find the processes for continual advancement by Porsche inspiring. Buildings and architecture have not progressed enough in a hundred years. There are many basic technologies that have not been incorporated into homes and commercial buildings despite the possibility of ten times energy savings. Would you join me in pursuing better design?

This article was inspired by my visit to the North Carolina Museum of Art exhibit entitled Porsche by Design. See my photographs of all the cars on display at my Porsche by Design Pinterest pin board.

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