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Comments Posted 05.05.10 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Alexandra Lange

Category Error


My son is one of those children who loves vehicles. I had nothing to do with it (I hate to drive, and hence can never leave New York). But our living room is paved with a hundred Matchbox cars, 1/16 scale Bruder earth movers, and a vintage Fisher Price airport with operational helicopter. When we take out crayons, I am told to draw a bulldozer. When we take out Play-Doh, to make a bulldozer (this is hard).

He is now at the age when he wants to put things in categories. His teachers at school suggested we sort Lego by color, blocks by size, which all sounded reasonable. But he has decided he wants to master the category of cars. As I push the stroller down the street he asks, as we pass each parked vehicle, “What’s that kind of car?” “What’s that kind of car?” I answer as quick as I can, “van,” “SUV,” “sedan,” “SUV,” “SUV,” “SUV,” “station wagon”. For some reason I decided those were the four categories of car, the three I grew up with, plus the massive interloper. We passed an expedition today, I said “SUV,” he said “It’s big!”

But in fact it isn’t always that clear which category a car fits into. I thought we were long past the Taurus era and yet the swooshy lines carry on, trying to make some of the SUVs look smaller and more like station wagons, and some of the sedans look larger and more like station wagons. Some of the station wagons have gotten jumped up and boxy, looking more like SUVs. Is the Element a station wagon or a van? Minivans seem to have more category error than most, trying by design to melt away.

I am sure this is not design news, but I never looked before. And if I can’t explain what the difference between the five categories is, other than size, to my child, I suspect the car buyer is confused as well. Maybe electric cars will reset us back to S, M, L boxes. Then I can teach him his colors as we stroll along instead.

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Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic, and author of Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities. (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012). Her work has appeared in The Architect's Newspaper, Architectural Record, Dwell, Metropolis, Print, New York Magazine and The New York Times.
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BOOKS BY Alexandra Lange

Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities
Princeton Architectural Press, 2012

Design Research
Chronicle Books, 2010

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