Saturday, January 11, 2014

Plastic Wheel Covers and False Beams: My Personal Demons

I guess everyone has their triggers.  Some folks really like animals or whatever--one of those abused pet commercials comes on--with the chewed-up tails, tattered ears, eyes blinded by cataracts, but somehow still able to broadcast a lifetime of abject, uninterrupted pain--and they totally lose it--and forget all about the totally awesome conversation we were just having about which Katy Perry music video is the very best.  (Incidentally, it's still "Teenage Dream.")

Me?  My soul is slowly being killed by plastic wheel covers.  

A compelling case to give up on life.
I'm serious.  There are a million things people point to in our day to day lives that, to them, signal the complete collapse of reason, triumph of ignorance, and the utter futility of trying to find meaning or hope in anything, ever--and for me it's this.  Which is distracting, because, you know, they're everywhere.

Really, this design solution, if you could call it that, is the clear victor in today's marketplace; the overwhelming majority of cars sold today wear hubcaps at least this embarrassing as they leave the lot, and most will keep wearing them until the whole machine is mercifully recycled in a few years time.   

My understanding is that most folks are at least vaguely aware that the cover itself is ornamental, so it seems odd that the specific design elements in common use are so readily accepted.  Let's take it apart:  the most ubiquitous design you'll see today is this: an sunburst of false spokes, arranged in a nauseating mockery of a mid-nineties alloy, with the cheap, stamped-steel wheel clearly visible behind, and let's not forget the fake lug bolts--which are really a nice touch considering the lug bolts are the one thing that probably should be covered--and the fact that the real ones are presumably at least partially viable behind the false ones for double-ugly.  Think of the decorative spokes as knives driven deep into your eye-sockets, and the decorative bolts as salt and lemon packed into the wounds, just to make sure that it all really hurts.  Some even have fake brake rotors peeking between the fake spokes, although thankfully, this has been confined to the lowest rung, dollar-tree, aftermarket segment and no actual auto-manufacturer (not even Hyundai) has engaged this particularly idiotic practice (as of yet).

Because, don't get me wrong, I'm not against facade being used here, so long as it reads and presents as facade.  We used to do this as a matter of course, and it looked great:  Partial wheel covers, veiling only the lug pattern and hub bearing, harmoniously nesting within the steel wheel, yielding a clean, simple look, while obfuscating none of the structure itself.  Steel-on-steel; easy to manufacture, easy to clean: an elegant, timeless, and straightforward execution.  
I think I'm wet.
Basically, the modern wheel cover is the automotive equivalent of the tuxedo T-shirt:  A two-dimensional, half-joking imitation of an altogether different and infinitely more beautiful and complex arrangement, but very unconvincingly so.  The one distinct difference here is that the tuxedo T-shirt has not been widely adopted as the go-to, non-ironic formal dress solution.  People don't get married in tuxedo T-shirts and then wonder aloud at the fact that any idiot would pay even a dime more for a "real" tuxedo, when--come on--they basically look exactly the same, right?  That's what I see on the road everyday.   People driving around earnestly wearing tuxedo T-shirts.  

When I bought my current car, it was wearing some pretty gross specimens, finished in that sparkly silver which looks nothing like any kind of metal.  When I was a few blocks away from the prior owner's house, I pulled over and pried them off with my fingers.  They looked new, so realistically, I probably could have listed them for like twenty bucks on ebay, but instead, I broke them all in half and threw them in a nearby dumpster.  I guess it was worth twenty bucks to know they would never be on a car ever again.  

Caddy sans covers?  Pretty badass, actually.
Usually, pulling the caps on a big domestic number leaves it looking like the most conspicuous candidate to be the neighborhood's source of angel-dust cut with fiberglass, but at least it's honest (honest regarding the structure of the wheel that is, I'm not saying I sell angel-dust cut with fiberglass.)  Anyway, what I am saying is that, since the true wheel on my particular Buick was never meant to be exposed, it doesn't look very nice, but inasmuch as this is the actual thing holding up the car, the wheel is as honest in expression as the multi-spokes on this Austin-Healey:

Oh, hell yes. 

And, yes, I do realize that I'm probably a little over-sensitive to false structure.

A lot of my job involves doing math to figure out where to hide real columns, so that an architect can put fake columns someplace that would never fucking have fucking columns in the first fucking place.  Fucking.   Considering that a typical wheel cover is just a polar array of anywhere from five to a dozen fake columns...well, it kind of makes sense that this bothers me more than it would most.

Of course, we're not just talking columns.  Generally speaking, absolutely anything you can point to in the built world that expresses something of its material reality, be it the surface finish, an "exposed beam" or strut--all of that expression is complete falsehood, and usually as blatantly contrary to physical truth  as these plastic hubcaps. 

Here's something that's very popular right now: stone veneer.  Whether in the world of pseudo-luxury custom residential, commercial or even government, you'd be hard pressed to find a large scale project that doesn't use this finish somewhere.  And insofar as structural rationalism has been out of fashion for as-near-as-makes-no-difference a century, the stone is typically haphazardly applied in a way that bears no correlation to how stone could even theoretically be used to build something.  What I really love about the practice is this: the veneer--which itself is simply cosmetic affectation applied to make the building appear more permanent, makes it nearly impossible to properly water-proof the true structure behind, whether wood or steel.  So something that would otherwise last for hundreds of years with proper maintenance,  is all but guaranteed to require demolition in less than a single generation, just so that it might look like it will last for hundreds of years.  When I was much younger, I may have found some irony in this.

And don't get me started on faux-beams.  It gets so much worse, guys.

Fucking kill me.
This is basically how we build everything now.  We've finally found a way to create things that are catastrophically expensive, embarrassingly insubstantial, and so nonsensical to any real-world, material limitation, that trying to intuit the nuts and bolts of the physical world by simply looking around you would not even be a value-neutral exercise, but one that would actively mislead you--we build so dishonestly that trying to work out the logic of creation in reverse would be more likely to simply drive you insane than to actually teach you anything.

Anyway.  Happy new year, everybody.