Saturday, October 15, 2005

Hummers

I'm referring to the automobile, by the way, not the oral sex technique in which the vibration of the vocal cords helps increase the stimulation of the genitals. As you probably remember, "Hummer" was originally just a nickname. The real name was High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, or HMMWV for short. "HMMWV" is pretty much unpronounceable, but "Humvee" is about as close as you can get, so that's what people called them. And "Hummer" is what people called them when they didn't feel like calling them humvees.

As I'm sure you already know, HMMWVs were originally made for the military as a replacement vehicle for the outdated jeep, but the company that manufactured them saw a business opportunity and began making a street-legal version for civilians.

You don't see too many of those original street-legal Hummers on the road any more. And you can say what you want about how environmentally irresponsible it was to drive them -- they got something like 1 mile per gallon -- but you had to love them for their ugliness and their ungainliness. They were too wide for a lot of streets and parking lots, and seeing one on the road may have sometimes reminded you of an awkward teenage boy after a growth spurt who wasn't yet accustomed to his new size. Those cars were really just expensive novelty items -- as impractical as they were ugly -- but that was part of their clunky charm.

Compare that to the latter-day Hummer, the H2. Other than its name and a its general boxy ugliness, it has absolutely nothing to do with its nominal predecessor. The term "Hummer" -- once an affectionate nickname for a military vehicle -- is now nothing more than a trademark owned by General Motors. It's just a marketing gimmick, but apparently a very successful one, since a lot of people seem to be buying these things. The H2 is smaller and not as wide, but even though it's not as cumbersome as the original, it's a whole lot uglier. And painting them taxi-cab yellow just makes them look worse. Whose bad idea was that? (By the way, if you're thinking of getting a new car or repainting your current one, here's a helpful hint: No car looks good in a coat of bright yellow paint.)

The H2 has given way to the scaled-down H3, which will undoubtedly give way to the H4, the H5, and successive generations. And each new model will be less like the original and more like a lot of other SUVs. What made the original HMMWV stand apart from other SUVs will gradually be designed out, so what was once an ugly but singularly unique vehicle will eventually be just another ugly SUV, barely recognizable from all the others.

This is a growing trend by the way, this trend toward ugliness and conformity, and it extends far beyond the design of a particular automobile. The world is getting uglier, and individual cities -- and even countries -- are slowly losing whatever it is that once made them unique. You can find the same fast food restaurants and chain stores in Tokyo as you can in Los Angeles, and as soon as you're inside one, it's easy to forget what country you're in. I'm sure this is a great comfort to a lot of people -- it makes international travel much easier, but it also makes it a lot less interesting.

And residential architecture has lost just about all of its regional character -- new housing developments look pretty much the same all across the country, and they all look pretty dreadful. I could devote an entire post to the sorry state of architecture today, and how architects are ignoring their duty to look toward the future and instead are simply borrowing ideas from the past. It's 2005. Why are we still copying architectural styles of the 18th and 19th centuries? And I don't know about you, but I live neither in Spain nor on the Mediterranean sea, so I don't know why all the new houses I see have a Spanish Mediterranean style. I could write a whole book on this. (As a matter of fact, I'm planning on doing just that. It's going to be a work of fiction, but it'll also be a critique of current architectural trends and the pathological mindset that fosters them. I know how boring that sounds, but it'll be a lot more interesting than I'm making it sound. For more information, check out this link.)

Okay, let's talk about cars again for a second. Once upon a time, it was possible to tell a Mercedes from a Toyota and a Toyota from a Chevrolet. You still can, but it's a lot harder, especially if you're looking at the back of the car. Automobile designers used to strive for a distinctive look -- a signature design element -- but those days are for the most part gone, and now it looks like they're all trying to copy each other.

It wouldn't be so bad if they stole each other's good ideas, but they don't seem to know a good idea from a bad one. How else are we to explain the preponderance of triangular taillights? It seems like just about every car made in the last few years has them, whether it's a Honda, a Jaguar, a Volkswagen, or any other car you can think of. To simply state that these taillights are ugly is to understate their visual impact, because they're also incredibly bizarre-looking. To me, they look like illuminated cat ears.

And while I'm on the subject of taillights, remember about 15 years ago, when they first introduced that center taillight that you can see through the rear window of most cars? They were ugly when they were first introduced, and they're still ugly today. On a few cars, they've been integrated into the design of the car, but on most cars, they look like tacked-on afterthoughts. But no one will ever try to make them look better, because nobody really cares. I think they're ugly, and I don't even care. Want to know why? It's because I'm so used to them that I barely even notice them.

I suppose that's a good thing, but it's also a bad thing. Since we're so adaptable, it makes it easier for our species to survive, but it also makes it easier for the world to get incrementally uglier and uglier. And I'm not just talking about cars or houses. I'm talking about everything.

For example, a few years ago they put up an animated electronic billboard which was visible from the freeway. It was really annoying at first, but after driving past it every day, I got used to it. Now I hardly notice it, but more recently they put up another one, on the other side of the freeway. It's easily four times as big as the first one, and it's probably about ten times as bright. It flashes on and off, cycling through the various advertisements, but it's so bright that on nights when it's a little foggy, it looks like the entire sky is blinking on and off. I haven't gotten used to this particular sign yet, and a part of me never wants to -- no one should have to tolerate this kind of visual pollution -- but I know it's just a matter of time before that sign blends in with everything else that helps make the world an uglier place. Of course, by then they'll put up an even bigger sign.

I know I've been complaining a lot in this post -- I guess that's sort of unavoidable when your subject is ugliness and conformity -- but believe it or not, I actually have some good things to say about automotive design. But since this post is too long already, I'll make it brief: The 2005 Mustang is the most beautiful car anyone has designed in a long time. After changing the body style over and over since the Mustang was first developed, Ford finally got it right. And I haven't done any comparison shopping, but I bet you could buy one for about what it would cost you to get a Hummer. So why would anyone buy a Hummer instead of a Mustang? I have no idea. If you're thinking, "But Bob, Hummers can go all over the place -- up a mountain, through a stream, wherever they want to go -- and Mustangs have to stay on the street," then I will respond by saying, yes, you're right, but as we all know, most people who drive SUVs never take them off the road. You know it, and I know it, and even the people who drive SUVs know it. So if you're thinking of getting a Hummer, just buy the Mustang instead. You'll be helping to make the world a more beautiful place. Don't buy a bright yellow one, though. That shouldn't even be one of the color choices.