Sunday, December 09, 2007

Life Imitates What, Exactly?

We have all heard that life imitates art and form follows function. Among the many aphorisms that we hear, these two seem to hold the record for applicability.

In Passenger Rail, as in railroad design on the whole, form has always followed function. As a matter of fact, function has demanded that form follow. From the early passenger coaches to the specialized cars of the streamline era, to the super-specialized cruise cars being built for special trains, function has dictated form. Getting over the railroad within all gauges - and I don't just mean the distance between the rails - has been the function of passenger rail. Getting as many passengers over the railroad with the train is part of it.

Early on, carbuilders knew that drawing on the stagecoach or landau design and simply putting it on flanged wheels was not enough. It took a long time before European designers of coaches and other passenger equipment saw that just stringing together the bodies of several coaches to make the car - with the resulting compartmentalization and entry / exit from the outside of the car - was not enough. American designers resorted to the box with benches, and then Pullman and competitors made the special-purpose craze take off.

Still, getting the car over the railroad within all gauges - rails, height, width, and manageable length as a function of curvature of the railroad - was the function.

Railroad life began to imitate art in the streamlined era. Art Deco came to the railroad but its form never quite followed the function. It was easy to sheath a passenger car in stainless steel or paint that hid the rivets of the heavyweight steel era. It was not as easy to sheath a steam locomotive with the same art. The form and the art were never truly convenient for the function until the diesel era, when function was able to imitiate art and start the whole process over for the locomotive-hauled train. Streamlining often got torn off the steam locos and left in the shop for sake of convenience. Most Amtrak heritage coaches and other hand-me-downs from the streamline era lost their skirts (covering under-floor equipment) and wheel fairings (covering the ugly trucks).

Today, railroad life imitates art when the side of a train is painted to resemble a cartoon short from the 1940s and the "door closing" warning sound on the train is right out of Loony Tunes. I'm not sure what we're imitating when we try to turn the serious business of passenger transportation into a cartoon, but . . . maybe a jackass.

And now here's the political point: For the next decade or so, we are going to need some pretty good industrial design to help revitalize the Passenger Rail system that we American's have left to the scrap heap for the past four decades. Highways are no longer an option unless they are part of mega-corridors. Airways are going to get more congested and more dangerous, and the restrictions on industrial design - form following function - are more egregious.

Form will have to follow function. We are still going to have to get over the railroad within the limitations of all gauges. But we are going to have to have some art to imitate. It can't be Art Deco - that has been done to death. It is going to have to be pretty good art. Will the next Raymond Lowy please step forward.

© 2007 - C. A. Turek -
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