A dream of innocence for unfettered, frictionless speed turned into a multi-laned nightmare when poets, painters and polemicists fanned the spark into a conflagration. Can art now offer any kind of remedy? By Elizabeth Farrelly.

Cities in the fast lane

A model of Le Corbusier’s design for Plan Voisin, Paris.
A model of Le Corbusier’s design for Plan Voisin, Paris.
Credit: Foundation Le Corbusier

This is a story of how art made the case for speed. More specifically, it is a story about how art helped invent the modern motor car and in doing so changed the idea of the city. Before masculinist speed became the agenda of the 20th century – jets, bullets, rockets, torpedoes, motorbikes, cars – speed was an aesthetic. The world fell in love with a look.

The earliest cars were far from sleek. The 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen was a skeletal buggy of a thing, more penny-farthing trike than speed machine. Even Ford’s first Model T – later immortalised as “Tin Lizzie” – was still endearingly square, like a drawing room on wheels. But as individual speed became a possibility, the polemicists slowly sharpened their pencils.

In 1898 Ebenezer Howard released his Garden City idea, proposing a settlement pattern that, for the first time, presumed cars as commuter vehicles. This was the beginning of sprawl. But even then, Howard’s imagery – much like Walter Burley Griffin’s initial plan for Canberra – had the genteel tea-with-the-vicar stasis of a crocheted doily.

Enter the wild Italian Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. In February 1909 Marinetti’s “Manifesto of Futurism” hit the front page of France’s pre-eminent daily, Le Figaro. “We stand on the far promontory of centuries,” Marinetti declared. “We want to sing the love of danger … The world’s wonder has been enriched by a fresh beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car with its trunk adorned by great exhaust pipes like snakes with an explosive breath ... a roaring car that seems to be driving under shrapnel, is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace. We live already in the absolute, since we have already created eternal omnipresent speed.

“We want to glorify war – the world’s only hygiene … demolish museums, libraries, fight against moralism, feminism and all opportunistic and utilitarian cowardices.” Marinetti’s madness did not diminish his appeal. Rather, it lit a spark. For a world straining at the bonds of feudalism, the intensity of Marinetti’s prose and the cleansing audacity of his ideas were irresistible. The glorification of war did not survive the horror and stupidity of World War I, but the love of speed did. Poets, painters and polemicists fanned this spark into a conflagration.

The language was heady. In 1914, German Surrealist Paul Scheerbart dreamt eloquently of a Glasarchitektur that, in removing all sense of enclosure from our lives and buildings, would create “paradise on earth”. Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius wrote in 1919 of modern architecture as a “crystal symbol … rising to heaven”. Even Frank Lloyd Wright dreamt of an architecture where “the sense of surface and mass disappears in light”.

For a public raised on scripture, the transcendent tone of it all unmistakably echoed the Book of Revelation’s city of “pure gold … transparent glass”. Here was a new religion, one that prophesied freedom from the muddy, bloody past and a future where humans dwelt in openness, transparency and unfettered, frictionless speed. It was a dream of innocence.

The ultimate polemicist in this vein was Swiss architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier. Corbusier was so infatuated with the automobile – in particular the Voisin C7 Lumineuse he bought in 1925 – that he decided to redesign the city accordingly. Corbusier’s friend and patron Gabriel Voisin manufactured planes and cars. His commission of Corbusier’s vision for Paris – the 1925 Plan Voisin – paid for the architect’s beloved two-door tourer.

What was the Plan Voisin? Well, look about you. The Plan Voisin was never built and yet it was built a million times. It was everything we now call the modern city. Images show identical cruciform tower blocks – described by Corbusier as “translucent prisms that seem to float in the air without anchorage” – arranged on a rigid 25-metre grid. The messy and intricate streets of the Marais were erased in favour of high-level autostrada where cars, freed from the tiresome demands of foot traffic, ran free in directions above ground-level pedestrian space.

Corbusier claimed precedent from both Greek temples and Gothic cathedrals but there was nothing gothic or classical about this. True, the mess and stink of horse-dung and overcrowding were gone; in their place, however, was the deathly sterility of contemporary city planning. “Il faut tuer la rue-corridor!” Corbusier declared: We must kill the street-corridor! What he failed to notice, or prize, was that the street is the habitat of the people.

Giving wings to these seductive prophecies were the visual artists. The early-20th-century Cubism of Picasso and Georges Braque strove to capture the flow and movement of space. Fauvism, too, focused on movement and change. Influential Russian Fauvist Sonia Delaunay, who was living in Paris at the launch of the “Manifesto of Futurism”, used paint to highlight Marinetti’s movement obsessions and designed some of her abstract “colour poems” as a joint livery for cars and people.

But it was the Prague-born designer Paul Jaray (1889-1974) who made the car truly sexy. Jaray – subsequently erased from history by the Nazis – came from a long line of Bohemian Jews with links to many of the era’s leading artists, musicians and intellectuals, including Schönberg, Wittgenstein, Brecht and Adolf Loos. Working as an engineer for Zeppelin, Jaray began to experiment, testing car-body maquettes in the company’s wind tunnels. Gone was the box-look. Jaray’s cars looked like aerofoils. Streamlining was born.

In 1935, Jaray became a celebrity when his Rennlimousine, which looked like a proto-DC3, reached 320km/h on the Firenze-Mare autostrada. Nothing had ever moved so fast. The charisma of the car in general, as both source and product of artistic inspiration, immediately levelled up. Bugatti, Mercedes-Benz, Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Porsche all began producing roadsters of extravagant and sinuous beauty.

Naturally this cache extended, also, to the accoutrements of car travel. The motorway in particular, although invented by Mussolini and much-emulated by Hitler, acquired glamour by association. Partly because of this prestige, no doubt, the business of designing, procuring and advocating for this infrastructure became the province not of art but of postwar instrumentalism.

The push that had been visual and qualitative quickly became technical and numerical. There was still emotion in it – yearning, adoration, even love. In 1947, Sydney’s city engineer published a 600-page treatise on his beloved aerial motorways – and 10 years later Sydney built the Cahill Expressway. Every other Australian city followed. Emotion, yes, but emotion cloaked in numbers.

Sixty-five years on, we know that motorways increase demand, making traffic problems worse, not better. We know that they uglify streets, destroy all sense of place and exacerbate global warming. We know that the endgame of this race backwards is Canberra, with so much road surface there’s no sense of being there. Yet still we build them. Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth all continue this insanity. New South Wales has spent more on WestConnex than it would cost to transition the whole country to renewables.

So, can art offer any kind of remedy? Certainly, these days, there’s no shortage of climate-conscious art. But we’re not, as a species, capable of self-deprivation. So perhaps art should look to seduction, not persuasion. Perhaps if artists could imagine the pleasures and enchantments of a saner, less hell-bent world, rather than present the arguments for it, we’d fall head over heels. We’re not, after all, rational creatures. Where our hearts go, our minds will follow.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 9, 2022 as "The heart of speed".

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