Harvard Design Students Take BMW Concept for a Test Run

March 27, 2009

By David Sokol

For the reopening of the BMW Museum in Munich this past June, the upscale auto manufacturer’s designers dusted off GINA Light Visionary Model, a concept they had begun toying with in 1999.

Although the last iteration of the idea was completed in 2001, the vision is no less futuristic today. GINA’s signature element is its namesake skin, a polyurethane-covered Lycra that replaces sheet metal by stretching over the aluminum frame. “The fascinating thing is that it produces a formal vocabulary of folding, which is something we don’t know in cars,” BMW’s director of group design Christopher Bangle says of the new way of cladding the chassis.

A new Toshiko Mori-designed visitor center is opening on March 18 at the Darwin D. Martin House complex in Buffalo, New York.
Image courtesy RMJM

In 1999, BMW began developing a concept car with a skin made of polyurethane-covered Lycra. Last fall, 13 students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design participated in an upper-level studio in which they imagined deploying that skin, called GINA, at an architectural scale. The program was conceived as a “loose prescription for the American suburb.” It was sponsored by RMJM as part of a $1.5 million gift to Harvard GSD.

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The BMW-patented textile promises to revolutionize the performance of the auto as much as its aesthetics. GINA Light Visionary Model includes controls that manipulate the skin for various driving conditions, such as widening the nostril-like grille to send extra air to the engine. Moreover, thanks to its light weight and flexiblity, producing vehicles with GINA promises to be less expensive and more energy-efficient. “We do have to make [affordable] cars that people can use and enjoy every day,” Bangle says, noting that GINA represents a philosophy of manufacturing as much as the impressive material on which that proposition is based.

Indeed, although the roadster may not hit the road until Judy Jetson passes her driving test, BMW already has applied “GINA thinking” in its plant: Instead of stamp-phasing, today robots stretch sheet metal over the Z4, a sporty model already on the market. 

There may be even wider applications. In mid-December, 13 students at Harvard Graduate School of Design concluded an upper-level studio in which they imagined deploying GINA at an architectural scale. The class was overseen by Frank Barkow, cofounder of Barkow Leibinger, who had first learned about the technology and approach while preparing his Berlin-based studio’s winning design for a BMW design center (that building project is on hold currently). Bangle made four appearances during the semester. It was sponsored by the global architecture firm RMJM as part of a $1.5 million gift to Harvard GSD.

Bangle says he and Barkow originally conceived the class as a loose prescription for the American suburb: “In Broadacre City the car, this emerging technology, enabled the suburb. Since then automobile features, such as load-carrying capacity, have been defined by the suburb. It would be interesting to make this link again.” Students like Joseph Ringenberg addressed that angle. Ringenberg explains that his project envisioned installing GINA-clad buildings atop the concrete slabs of subdivisions struck down by the economic recession.“It’s a really weird condition,” he says, “but these empty slabs are the face of the American suburb right now.”


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