Monday, May 18, 2009

Stand Back for the Exploded View!

by Phil Patton

At the new Porsche Museum, outside Stuttgart, there are many clever displays, such as the overlapped silhouettes of iconic 911 models through the years, the empty fiberglass shell of a 356 America hung from wires to show its lightness and the racecar attached to the ceiling. But my favorite mode of display is the exploded view, used for the most powerful Porsche engine ever—the 12-cylinder racing engine. Its parts, though suspended manually, seem to hover in air.

Decontructed V12 engine at the Porsche Museum

The exploded Porsche 12-cylinder racing engine at the Porsche Museum, in Stuttgart.

Porsche’s engine put me in mind of another “exploded diagram” I had seen recently, this one at the Harley-Davidson Museum, in Milwaukee. Abbott Miller designed the museum’s installations to complement the architecture of his fellow Pentagram partner James Biber. As one part of the display, he “cut up” a motorcycle into seven pieces. Seen head on, the pieces appear to be a single, solid bike. But seen from the side, they break up the frame, engine and other pieces. “As visitors enter the gallery,” Harley-Davidson’s publicity materials explain, “they see a motorcycle in profile, and as they move further into the space, the motorcycle is revealed as a series of ‘slices’ that coalesce into a unified image, with the V-twin engine at its center.” In other words, “A mechanical drawing brought to life.”

Exploded motorcycle parts at the Harley-Davidson Museum

An exploded motorcycle on display at the Harley-Davidson Museum, in Milwaukee.

I thought of the vinyl layers in the Encyclopedia Britannicas of my childhood, with skin, muscles, organs and skeleton printed on overlaying sheets. And of course I thought of instructions and diagrams. These days one is as likely to find a working mechanic’s exploded diagram for a Harley part as a more playful interpretation of the idea, such as an illustration for the menu of a Brooklyn burger joint. The exploded drawing suggests the desire graphic designers feel to move into three dimensions.

My own fascination with exploded diagrams on paper goes back to childhood and years spent playing with Erector sets or assembling plastic model airplanes and automobiles. (I think I fell in love with the idea of them following while assembling Hellcats and Flying Fortresses. Or maybe it was the glue...) Wonderful exploded views still show up Lego instructions.

Lego instructions (left) and 67 Burger illustration (right)

Building instructions for Brickster’s Trike by Lego (at left) and for 67 Burger, Brooklyn (right, designed by Heather Jones).

Those instructions teach a wider lesson. The process of model-making leads you to focus on each part and their relation to the whole. It teaches you to concentrate on one step at a time, to have faith in the order to the steps and the result that would eventually emerge. (It was always hard not to simply start with the most interesting part of the assembly.) They taught not just patience but process.

Car companies are good at slicing and breaking up their wares at car shows and museums, to show the internal power and mystery of their technology. I recall the Visible V8 model kit of my childhood—almost as fascinating as the Visible Woman! Since an engine’s basic job is to contain explosions and harvest their energy to make motion, there is a particular rightness to depicting one in exploded form.

Rudolph de Harak's Exploded Diesel sculpture

Exploded Diesel, by Rudolph de Harak (1985).

The first example of an exploded engine in 3-D that I know of dates to 1985, when Rudolph de Harak created Exploded Diesel, what he called a sculpture, for the museum of the Cummins Engine Company, the maker of industrial machinery known for its enlightened patronage of architecture in its hometown of Columbus, Indiana.

It is significant that it was a designer who first ventured into three dimensions, through exhibition design, to illustrate the exploded engine idea. The exploded diagram is a place where the graphic artist meets the sculptor. Citing de Harak’s achievements, Steve Heller wrote: “His exploded diesel engine, the centerpiece of the Cummins Engine Museum in Columbus, Indiana, in which almost every nut and bolt is deconstructed in midair, is evidence of the designer’s keen ability for extracting accessible information from even the most minute detail.”

But the exploded diagrams speak of things beyond the mere parts. The Cummins engine appears to function as a social symbol as well—Heller notes the design of the museum was built on hours of interviews with employees. It is a morale-building model of the organization, a celebration of teamwork in which every part is shown and has its critical role to play. It was a positive representation of the worker who feels, “I am just a cog in the machine.”

Not merely an engine or motorcycle but an entire vehicle was exploded by the artist Damián Ortega in Cosmic Thing, his 2002 sculpture in which the parts of a disassembled Volkswagen Beetle hang in space. London’s White Cube Gallery describes it as being “re-composed piece by piece, suspended from wire in midair, in the manner of a mechanic’s instruction manual.” (Cosmic Thing was shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and later at the 50th Venice Biennale, in 2003.) “The result was both a diagram and a fragmented object that offered a new way of seeing the ‘people’s car’ first developed in Nazi Germany but now produced in Ortega’s native Mexico,” curators declared.

Damian Ortega's exploded sculptures Cosmic Thing and Materialista

(From left) Damián Ortega’s Cosmic Thing (2002) and Materialista (2009).

In a show now on display at the Galeria Fortes Vilaça, in Sao Paulo, Ortega applied a similar technique to the chrome trim of a transfer truck. Trucks have become a subject of debate in relations between Mexico and the United States since NAFTA first allowed them to cross borders. The piece is called Materialista, which in Mexican Spanish means a truck that carries construction materials, but which also explores issues of how ideas achieve embodiment in materials.

Honda took a page from Ortega’s book in 2006, when it hired Dutch artist Paul Veroude to create an exploded view of a Honda Formula One racecar for the British Motor Show, with all 3,200 bits and bolts hovering. This 3-D exploded diagram was designed to get spectators “closer than ever to the engineering secrets of the world’s most technically advanced sport.”

While the floating parts in these works suggest a freeze frame of an explosion, the work of Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang uses a time-lapse approach to render the explosion itself. For his 2004 piece Inopportune: Stage One, displayed last year at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, he hung Chevrolets so they seemed to tumble through the spiraling atrium. All the cars are identical to suggest the flight of single vehicle, captured like sequential snap shots of a car bombing.

Hermes print ad featuring an exploded watch

A recent print ad for Hermès watches.

Luxury brands have also used 3-D exploded diagrams to assert their technological power and boast of value hidden inside. Take for instance a recent advertisement for Hermès watches that reveals all the gears, escapements and jewels to convey the product’s importance and the preciousness of its complexity.

In today’s world, the news is often punctuated by explosions, and increasingly there is a sense of the center losing grip and of things flying apart. The exploded diagram might make real life seem menacing. But dissection is also teaching, and showing the parts is a fundamental element of learning and study. The verb ‘articulate’ can mean identifying the bones of a skeleton or the segmented parts of something, as well as to make meaning clear. Exploded diagrams, whether on paper or in space, do something similar. They offer an exposition of a subject. Maybe a better word for the exploded view should be a hybrid—I propose explosition.

About the Author: Phil Patton is the author of Dreamland: Inside the Secret World of Roswell and Area 51, Made in USA, Open Road and other books. He writes regularly for the “Design Notebook,” “Public Eye,” and the New York Times’ automotive columns, and is a contributing editor of I.D. magazine, Wired and Esquire, for which he writes on design and automobiles.

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