European Noir: A Citroën SM Skates Through The Shadows Of The Barbican Centre
Photography by Virgiliu Andone
Both the Barbican and the SM began as bold dreams, pieces of a utopian world. As is often the case with visionary ideas, they would go on to be appropriated many times over—distorted, corrupted, ultimately consumed by the society of their time.
It’s not that the Barbican Centre isn’t a beloved work of architecture though. Just like the Citroën, it has its share of devoted disciples, people who got a taste of this surreal place in London, and who would not trade it for anything. Yet, just like the Citroën, the inspirational elements were often cheaply coopted. The brutalist architecture spawned many copies, but, just like the fake Rolexes on the arm of the guy selling them on the sidewalk, their resemblance to the real thing was only skin deep. These days, most people who weren’t around during its conception would likely turn their heads away from the Barbican without much thought. They think they already know what the place is all about, when in reality, they have only experienced watered down versions elsewhere to taint the experience.
The current attitudes toward the SM are similar. You hear they are overly complex and more novelty than anything, but in the case of this car, the people who were supposed to maintain the cars in period did more harm than good. As the story goes, they never reached the technical skill levels required in order to service the SMs properly, which resulted in a perception of faulty engineering and design. Indeed, an SM is fraught with more maintenance requirements than your typical commuter blob, but reputations are hard to shrug off, justly earned or otherwise.
Poor servicing also destroyed the brutalist living experience. Lazy upkeep and faulty administration turned a once vibrant ideal into something more akin to a dystopian nightmare. Yes, brutalist design inherently evokes a sense of authority, but the negative connotations largely fall on concrete apartment blocs than places like the Barbican Centre.
A magical thing happens once you bring the SM to this place. The vision of both suddenly feels complete. They are great complements, these two pieces of industrial design, and the moment you see them together you may well begin to dream again. The concrete structures shed their harshness, and the SM assumes a svelte look rather than the somewhat heavy impression it gives on the open road at full ride height. You’ve stepped into a morally rectified version of Gattaca.
Sophisticated, uncompromising, inspiring, and just a bit haunting. Even in broad daylight, there is night to be found in the perpetual shadows of the Barbican. It’s very noir, flitting amongst all this contrast, sounds echoing complexly among the infinite angles, walking down mysterious passageways with echoing footsteps. The SM, with its evening dress of bodywork, projects itself like a silver comet trail against the monolithic structures.
Citroën had a completely different approach to the driving experience well before the SM, but along with the DS, it is the best car to encapsulate the brand. Other marques focused on power, handling, measurable performance that sold cars and magazines. Not so much with the SM. It has a Maserati V6 and some shove, but it’s nothing like your typical sporting vehicle. Open the hood and you’ll find it filled with a mysterious installation of plumbing for the car’s hydro-pneumatics. Just like the suspended gardens in the Barbican, the SM seems to separate you from gravity.
The engineers were not interested in making you feel connected to the road in the sense of a typical stiffly sprung sports car. No. They ostensibly tried to make a front-wheel drive sports car, but in solving some of the inherent limitations of the platform (along with imparting a general dose of the French avant-garde thinking that Citroën so wonderfully mastered for automobiles) they came out with something utterly unique. A car that soars above the road like the angels that swoop down for a view of earthly science fiction.