Function shaped in beauty

By June 15, 2021interviews, volume 02

What is the future of the car industry? How does it relate to architecture? Kamil Łabanowicz, architect and car stylist, explains the newest trends in automotive design and its relation to current technologies and the built environment.

Kamil Łabanowicz is an architect and a lead exterior designer at Audi AG in Ingolstadt. He graduated in architecture at the Silesian University of Technology in Gliwice and at the Scuola Politecnica di Design in Milano with a master’s thesis project dedicated to Audi. He worked on, among others, Audi e-tron Concept and Audi e-tron Quattro Concept. His architectural background helped him to understand basic principles of composition, proportions, and the similarities between architecture and cars in their technical, financial, and formal aspects.

You are in a unique situation as an architect who designs cars and simultaneously a car designer who designs buildings! What are the main similarities and differences regarding the general search for ideas and inspirations in those disciplines?

My journey through architecture and automotive design has shown me how much those two disciplines have in common. Looking back in time, the main purpose of houses was to provide shelter from atmospheric factors. Thousands of years later, the main purpose of cars was transportation from point A to point B. But thanks to architects and car designers, buildings and cars got something more than just a function. They received a function shaped in beauty. That is why the general approach to the project can be very similar for an architect and for a car designer.

Obviously, the main difference is the fact that a building is executed as one unit in one particular place and a car can be produced in thousands of units and sold all over the world. But despite that, the approach to architecture and car design can be narrowed to four main criteria: proportions, aesthetics, user experience, and soul.

Proportions define our first perception of an object. In ancient times, architects were almost obsessed with finding the golden rules of proportions in ancient temples. Today, car designers spend most of their time finding the right balance between the volumes of the car. The right proportions are the foundation of every good design and the first step toward beauty. I believe that “beauty” has to be “felt” and not “described.” A beautiful car will be admired everywhere in the world regardless of the culture and context. Mostly, when the right balanced proportions meet well-crafted shapes, we subconsciously feel a connection to the object. It sticks in our minds, and we want to experience it. We want to enter an interesting building and be guided through its rooms, spaces, and corridors. We want to experience an interesting vehicle by sitting inside it, finding out how it makes you feel inside when you’re behind the wheel. This need for experience was born because the creators, architects, and car designers wanted to tell a story.

I try to start every project with those four main criteria.

How did your adventure with cars begin?

I think only my parents can answer this, because I started drawing cars very early, before I can remember. I always loved cars. Growing up in the 80s in Poland, I could see only four types of cars on the street. But somehow, even as a child, I knew that there was something more. I was drawing cars all the time, everywhere—mostly on the back pages of my notebooks, making my teachers very angry. I decided to study architecture when I was 16 because I considered architecture as my second passion, and at that time, the costs of studying transportation design abroad were way too high.

Years passed by, and my architecture studies were going great. But the spirit of car design was somehow always awake inside me and was visible in every building project I was doing. Even my master’s thesis was a car museum.

Finally, in 2005, after Poland joined the EU, I could consider studying transportation design abroad. During my studies at the Polytechnic School of Design in Milan, I dedicated my master’s thesis project to Audi. That gave me a chance for an internship at its headquarters at the Design Center in Ingolstadt and afterwards a job contract. Now, after 11 years at Audi Design, I still have a feeling that there is so much to learn and discover in that field.

‘Audi e-tron Quattro Concept’ is equipped with a battery with a capacity of 95 kWh, which allows it to go a distance of 500 km on a single charge. Picture credits: Audi AG

‘Audi e-tron Quattro Concept’: a sketch by Kamil Łabanowicz. The concept combines aerodynamic design and a high-tech electric drive system. Audi AG

What is the story behind EDOMI?

EDOMI is a story of a family. Some say that only we can create our success. In my case, hard work toward my dream of designing cars was always accompanied by great support from my parents, and I will be always grateful to them for that. They were the ones who showed me how to think outside of the box, and trust me, in the 80s and 90s in Poland, this was a very rare mindset. That’s why our connection is very strong, and that led us to EDOMI.

It was Christmas Eve in 2013 when, after all the food and unwrapping the presents, my parents started to talk about finding a new house. As it turned out, it was very hard to find anything attractive in the neighborhood. I sat down on the sofa with my laptop and started to sketch some house-looking shapes directly in Photoshop. My dad on my left side, my mom on the right, my sister behind me—we all suddenly started a brainstorm and discussion while I was shaping the building on the screen. After just half an hour, we had a ready sketch of a house. And the major shape has not changed.

The house was located on land we had owned for years, but we had never considered that place for a house.

My idea was to create a modern house that would “float” above the ground. A house on one level, without stairs. Practical, opened only on a few particular perspectives, and different. My parents are special—why should their house be any different?

The general idea of the building was created very fast. For me, it was a “comeback” to architecture after many years. When EDOMI construction started full steam in fall 2014, I was simultaneously working as a lead designer on the Audi e-tron Quattro Concept. EDOMI was looking great on the renderings, and our task was to make sure that it looked as great in reality. Most people called us crazy. So, my father solved all the technical issues and problems himself as an experienced engineer. We knew that the project was exceptional in many ways, and we are very glad that world-class experts shared our opinion. In April 2015, we were nominated for, and eventually won, an A’Design Award prize in Lago di Como[02].

Since the shape of the house was pretty unique, other people started to ask us if we would consider building that house again for someone else. That’s how we started to think about how we could multiply that sort of house, taking into consideration the challenging craftsmanship required by those unique shapes. And that is what we are currently working on.

What is EDOMI all about?

It’s about breaking those rules in residential architecture that, in our opinion, are too old. We decided to detach the house from the ground—with this solution, our house is still located much higher than any typical bungalow. This solution brings a feeling of freedom, prestige, and space.

We also decided to use our Core & Shell concept. This concept, in which we physically separated functionality and design, facilitates two main functions: freeform shaping of the exterior façade, unrestricted by interior design/installations, while achieving excellent thermal and acoustic core insulation through the use of high-tech renewable materials.

In other words, the “Core” of the building is a steel construction that is detached from the ground and lined from the inside by sandwich panel walls. This solution provides very high energy efficiency. The “Shell” is our façade, which is not directly mounted on the internal walls of the building’s “Core.” That solution creates a gap through which rain or snow falls freely to the ground—it means an innovative drainage system that is simply hidden between the core and the outer façade.

The façade has a unique and characteristic design with very logical surface treatment. The intersecting surfaces create, in very logical way, edges and main openings. The dynamic lines create a feeling of lightness. With its shapes, EDOMI is very iconic.

The definitions of a “home” and a “car” develop rapidly. It is perhaps especially noticeable in cars—which have developed from devices “for moving from A to B” into places “for living in” as well… considering their equipment in cutting-edge communication technologies and integration with the concept of a smart city.

That is true. Soon, some vehicles will be able to become temporary houses that can move.

For decades, technology, automobiles, and architecture developed separately. Then, we started to use smartphones, and everything became connected. That brought us to the point where the hard border between work and private life started to vanish. Vehicles will start to help us to organize not only our journeys but also our days. Most importantly, cars will bring us back something most precious—time. Driving a vehicle in heavy traffic is a waste of time. What if we can get that time back? Autonomous driving will allow us to focus on other things while the car brings us to our destinations. I see it as the biggest advantage of the upcoming technology.

As the stylist of cars, you are responsible for the way they are perceived in a variety of situations. What values do you incorporate into the visual expression of a car? How would you describe your designing style, and how has it developed over time?

As I mentioned before, I start by defining the overall proportions of the car. The contours of a vehicle define its character. The proportions between of the cabin, the hood, the bodyside—it all has an influence on how the car “sits” on the ground. In my opinion, as in the case of buildings, the car has to stand proudly and stably on the street. If we combine it with elegant and dynamic lines, we will get a confident yet light-looking vehicle. That character, in my opinion, gains trust in people’s eyes on a subconscious level.

As soon as the proportions of the vehicle are fixed, the next step is to define the main lines and features of the car. Finding a “design theme” is similar to looking for a characteristic theme in architecture or even a characteristic melody for a song. It has to be new, fresh, and logical. It takes days or even weeks to find the right design “theme” for the car. Once we apply the design theme to the car, we spend months placing everything in the right position.

The last step is to give the surfaces a human touch. We work with 1:1 scale models where we shape the car in clay. Together with a group of professional sculptors (modelers), we can control any shape with a lot of feeling. I think that over time, my design is getting more strict, sharp, and logical. It is something I don’t see myself, but I have heard it many times.

The design of the Audi e-tron Quattro is an important step in the journey toward emissions-free and autonomous driving. Can you tell us more about this particular design?

The Audi e-tron Quattro Concept harmoniously combines design with aerodynamics and an all-electric drive system. Its coupe-like silhouette with an extremely flat greenhouse that tapers strongly toward the rear lends it a very dynamic appearance. The front of the car is dominated by the octagonal grille, which is surrounded by elements that hold the headlamps with the advanced matrix laser technology. The bottom section houses a new, distinctive lighting signature comprising five lighting elements. Each of these combines an LED luminary with an extremely flat OLED element.

The four-wheel-drive system is visually emphasized by the design theme on the body side—the wheels are surrounded by muscles that are visually connected by a wave-shaped line. Above that, just under the side window, an elegant line goes from the front of the car to its back end. That stretches the car and keeps the theme tight. A crisp line between the wheels creates an interesting feature and visually brings the focus to the wheels.

This car is an example of the intensive development work in the wind tunnel. Wind noise is low in the car, and there is no engine noise in an electric car in any case. The fascination of electric driving unfolds in near total silence. Cameras replace the exterior mirrors—another contribution to the excellent aerodynamics and also a foretaste of the future of driving. The rear lights also comprise two sections. Each of the top zones features nine red OLED units for the tail light function, with three more below. Overall, all the lines, starting from the front, side, and back, are visually connected. That creates a very solid and logical design with a touch of romantic lines.

‘EDOMI’: a modular single-family housing unit based on the concept of ‘Core & Shell,’ which allows freeform shaping of the exterior façade without any restrictions caused by the design of the interior spaces and installations. The ‘EDOMI’ houses are based on the same spatial principles, with small variations in the façade or materials. Picture credits: Kamil Łabanowicz (EDOMI).

What are the main differences and similarities in your designs of models such as the Audi e-tron Concept and the Audi e-tron Quattro Concept?

The approach to the proportions was very different: The Audi e-tron Concept was an electric sports car, and the Audi e-tron Quattro Concept is an SUV. The Audi e-tron Concept was a very pure concept with an almost minimalistic approach. The design features were reduced to the minimum—no unnecessary air intakes, windows, or lines. The car’s pure form indicated that this is not a combustion engine vehicle.

The Audi e-tron Quattro Concept, on the other hand, received many more lines, which visually made the car sporty and dynamic.

The main similarity was the approach to the aerodynamics. Both were intensively developed in the wind tunnel. Together, we managed to create design features that combined engineering and design. The Audi e-tron Concept, for example, had a feature on the roof that could morph to ensure the batteries were cooled. Also, the side air-intakes were smoothly blended with the exterior when not needed. We also had our first approach with cameras replacing the exterior mirrors.

On the Audi e-tron Quattro Concept, at speeds from 80 km/h (49.7 mph), electrically actuated aerodynamic elements on the engine hood, the flanks, and at the rear end direct the flow of air as needed to improve the flow through and around the vehicle. All of those elements were integrated into the exterior design, being another proof that when the designer works closely with the engineers, together, they can achieve very efficient yet elegant solutions.

What scope of knowledge and skills are essential among the members of a design team responsible for concept cars?

As in any design-oriented field, the members of a design team have to be creative. But most of them have been since they were born. What comes in our job later are other skills like being patient, being able to adapt to unexpected changes, being a good seller and talker, being open-minded and open to criticism. Without those skills, it’s almost impossible to lead a project from the first sketch through the long design process until the start of production.

The cars that you are designing will be presented in a few years. What would you advise designers and innovators when it comes to anticipating the future?

I think keeping up with the latest technology is crucial. Nowadays, there are so many ways to follow the newest inventions around the world, so there is no excuse for not doing that. Inventions need good design as well, where attractive and intuitive forms meet great engineering.

Sketching on paper will always be the quickest way to put down our ideas, but we should not forget to learn the newest 3D software. Virtual reality is already giving us tools to shape our ideas in three-dimensional digital form in a way we have never experienced before.

Also, in the design process, a lot of ideas might be lost just because they don’t fit in that particular project. But maybe they can be used later. Therefore, it’s crucial to be organized and keep all your ideas in folders, in physical or digital form. Creating a personal “archive” can be very helpful, especially in moments when our creativity is low.

And finally, we creators should never ever lose one thing—optimism. Let it stay with us all the time!


Author Laka

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