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Is there a relationship between cars and houses? And, if there is, what commonalities are there between what we search for in an automobile and a home?

Such questions are important to me in my work as a car designer. I observe that our human form is merely a container to protect— and carry around — our real selves. For further protection from the elements, we shelter our bodies inside other containers — our dwellings. These dwellings grow into towns and cities, accumulated around the things to which we all need shared access: once it was fresh water; today it’s just about anything and everything, all the time. We take up more and more space, and since the 1920s, we have used automobiles to negotiate our way around it all. Cars now fill our landscape, creating a street-level horizon, like rows of miniature dwellings.

When children first begin to draw images, the first recognizable forms are usually representations of the human body, a symbol of the self. The act of drawing triggers the unconscious in our psyche. Children move on quickly to representations of things they find around them.

Studies show that at around the age of 5, they are madly drawing houses. Curiously, children all over the world, whatever their own homes really look like, draw pretty much the same house. It is made up of geometric forms, divided spaces. It starts with triangles and evolves into parallelograms. These represent a roof, an important part of the house. Oddly, it echoes primitive housing — a tepee or a hut. The hut was primarily constructed to protect us at our most vulnerable, during our sleep. The structure of a tepee is built around a fire to keep us warm and, again, as additional protection. Most children will fit their “roof” with a chimney, even if they have only ever known central heating. Perhaps, I wonder, is this a primitive responsive to an instinctive need for balance with the fire element?

Then, as their personal desire for security grows and develops, children move on from drawing simple huts. The exterior is made interior. Add a rectangle — to represent the body of the house. Most often it is symmetrically fitted with windows to connect us with the outside world and to represent the division of the interior space. A large rectangular door, usually centrally located, marks the entrance.

Children quickly expand their repertoire to include action in their drawings. As their horizons broaden beyond the house and into the outside world, movement and transportation become frequent themes of their drawings. The car is an important modern symbol, encompassing freedom of movement and individuality. The image that children typically produce to represent a car includes a number of interesting parallels with the form they produce for a house — a kind of house on wheels, a mobile residence with a chimney at the back, smoke billowing behind to represent movement.

The car that a child draws is not a van or a coupe; it is a sedan, the iconic image for a car. As a habitat or residence, it is divided into spaces. The front is a phallic engine housing, behind which is the adult seating. A third division marks the space for children and a fourth (the trunk) is for storage, not unlike a basement. To think of it as a residence is very fitting: residence, sedere (Latin for “to sit”), seating, the way things sit, the words make the relationship clear. And we use the same terms when we talk about housing. The sedan also demonstrates a traditional way of thinking about things. And the market for this kind of car will persist as long as this traditional image of the automobile and what it represents for us also prevails.

Since the 1980s, new ways of thinking about space have emerged both in the automobile industry and in architecture. The “multi-purpose vehicle” is an example of a new way of thinking about interior space that is echoed by architecture’s open-plan, loft-style living.

A cross between a station wagon and an RV (recreational vehicle, such as a Winnebago), it is an alternative to the sedan idea. The open space is an attempt at more open multi-functional thinking — and affords better vision on the road.

Symbolically, MPVs are more like bubbles than houses; a light, enclosed space like a nut — life in a capsule. Australian architect Richard Leplastrier talks about his contemporary housing in a similar way, a house as a husk with the kernel within. He refers to the fact that the word “housing” is a verb (an act), as well as a noun, and points out that a house is a kind of garment for a person that must suit their life. I believe in thinking about cars in that way, too.

We identify our own image with the cars we want to drive. The MPV is about roomy open space, with big windows, no walls, no rooms — just one cabin within which to share and live. This type of vehicle is too modern for some markets in emerged or emerging countries; too far from the iconic house; too empty.

It is this relationship between house and car, between symbols, that is of particular interest to me as a designer. Applying it in the design of Renault’s Scenic II MPV, for example, we created a storage space that slides through the center of the cabin from driver to passenger, so it can be shared between parents and children — a kind of family pet. The car was a best seller in Europe for nearly four years.

I think of car design as the creation of a mobile habitat, one in which we are primarily seated. It is a form that houses us centered around not a fire but an engine by which we are propelled through space.

Serge Mouangue is an industrial designer and interior architect from Renault Design who is currently working in Japan with Nissan Motor Co.

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