Just when you thought the Automobile Age was sputtering to its fateful end, China comes along with a car mania that easily beats anything that’s ever been seen in the West. And if you needed any more proof–other than the fact that China’s automotive fleet is expected to rise nearly 400% in the next 10 years, to 217 million–China is planning a brand-new car museum. Not just any car museum. A drive-through car museum.
What would seem gratuitous and gross anywhere else just kind of makes sense in go-go capitalist China, right?
The proposed building, by Francesco Gatti of Rome and Shanghai, looks exactly as it should — like a glorified parking garage. Visitors cruise up a ramp that encircles the exhibition space (see above) until they reach a top-floor lot. From there, they descend by foot into the core of the museum. With glass every which way, everyone and everything is self-consciously on display: the motorists, the pedestrians, and, oh yeah, the cars. It’s like a Saturday night on Sunset Boulevard.The idea’s decent enough. Car culture has never been about beautiful machines alone, freighted, as it is, with social meaning. So to mount a cinematic celebration of its voyeuristic aspects and the conspicuous consumerism of it all is kind of clever (if maybe unintentional).
But the devil’s in the details. Why, for instance, is the building shaped like origami? Did the architect mix up his Asian countries? And practically speaking, the ramp just sounds like a bad idea. Museums are supposed to be relaxing. Walking around in fear that a driver, distracted by the very same sorbet-colored 1957 T-Bird you’re admiring, will come crashing into you at any moment? Not relaxing.
Nor do museum-goers want to breathe in exhaust. (Though it appears the main exhibition halls will be behind glass and guarded from the fumes.) Then there’s the whole matter of how you return to your car after taking in the sights. “In the China of opposites, those who have the economic means to possess a car also have the means to have a personal chauffeur,” Gatti says. Put another way: Better call your driver. (For mere mortals, there’s also an elevator.) Great, so the museum will promote bad driving, smog, and smug rich people. It very well may be the most fitting tribute to cars ever made.