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An analysis of a goddess: Roland Barthes saw a magical object in the Citroën DS; others saw a profane yet well-designed vehicle. Swiss architect Christian Sumi explores the history of the design behind one of the most famous cars of the 20th century.

By Thomas Wagner.

Things that move by themselves are particularly fascinating. For a long time, the car seemed to be the guarantee of free, individual mobility and the ultimate object of desire. However, horsepower, torque, exhaust pipes, the smell of petrol and lavish technical refinement do little to capture hearts and minds these days. What remains of the halo of the sophisticated driving machine? Individuality? Safety? Connectivity? Practical benefits? Perhaps even beauty? Automotive development was never quite able to shed its origins in the idea of godly omnimobility, and yet there was still never any way of stopping the profaning of this divine principle, least of all with the arrival of mass production. While there was no shortage of iconic designs in the second half of the 20th century, there was only one that again made unashamed allusions to its divine heritage and celebrated the hovering beauty of its earthly appearance. It was the Citroën DS.

At a time when the once-heavenly principle of automotive freedom and independence is a burden, with the design of the metal box being more uniform and with beauty hardly being a criterion of contemporary car design, Swiss architect Christian Sumi delves once more into the archives of motoring and design history to find what must be the last “goddess”, in the form of the DS, and elicit from it the creative secret of its design and – for car fans at least – still legendary reputation. How was the DS created? What distinguished its design? What makes an innately profane object so exceptional, even today?

Cover: The Goddess – La Déesse Investigations on the Legendary Citroën DS
Cover: The Goddess – La Déesse Investigations on the Legendary Citroën DS

Holy worship of profane metal

Historian Ernst Kantorowicz, alluding to Elizabethan crown jurists, once observed that kings could have two bodies. Evidently, this observation can apply to objects of design too, or at least those that occupy a particularly exalted position. In the DS’ case, there exists a mortal, technical body alongside a supernatural one, so to speak; one that never dies. It is for this reason that the extravagant model – debuted in 1955 – was able to become legendary and a veritable “déesse”, and not just because of its homophonous name.

Christian Sumi’s book, The Goddess – La Déesse, Investigations on the Legendary Citroën DS (Lars Müller Publishers), also reveals the enormous tension between the profane assemblage of metals and its almost holy worship; between earthly, mortal technology, supernatural beauty and heavenly, eternal divinity. Sumi of course commences his investigations with a citation of Roland Barthes. The semiotician had in 1954 and 1956 written “reflections on certain myths of daily French life” in light of events taking place then, and they were published as a book under the name of Mythologies in 1957. These reflections considered the then-new Citroën, saying among other things, “The ‘Déesse’ has all the features … of one of those objects from another universe …”

Analysis based on studio photography

Sumi approaches his investigations in a significantly more earthly and pragmatic manner. He begins his analysis based on a series of studio photographs produced by Michel Zumbrunn from two specimens of the model (an ID 19 from 1959 and a DS 23 from 1973). He then documents (with photographs by Heinz Unger) the systematic destruction of a further specimen, ending at the wrecker’s after a reflection on the homogenisation of the shape and some of its semantic aspects and after a reference to the genius advertisements for the DS.

His interest focuses more on the formal aspects of the design and less on the cultural and historical effects, let alone the mythological ones. It is therefore not entirely clear for the reader whether this is to be viewed through a strictly design analysis lens or whether a legend of automotive history is intended to be deconstructed as a fetish object.

Design, media circus, mythology

The legendary status of the DS is based on three things: the design by Flaminio Bertoni, the media circus surrounding its unveiling in 1955 and – in France at least – the fact that Roland Barthes incorporated it into his collection of everyday mythologies. He refers to the model as “humanised art” and believed that it marked “a change in the mythology of cars”. Even if the reader may occasionally wonder what understanding of the term “design” the author bases his investigations on, they are still highly impressive thanks to their precise detail and the generous photographic and historical material presented in the work, particularly in the “Advertising” chapter.

The reader can see the DS in an advertisement flying above a small, gawking family like the DeLorean-cum-time machine in Back to the Future, marvel at the combination of colourful car doors and ladies in contrasting clothes and study the references to the hydropneumatic suspension and directional headlights. In doing this, the reader gains an idea of how supernatural and revolutionary the combination of aerodynamics and hydropneumatics must have seemed to the people of that era and how significant the aesthetic difference was to other cars at the time.

The phenomenology of assembling

Sumi does not investigate the car as a driving machine. Rather, he investigates it as a resting design object based on simple polar concepts, such as rising and falling, open and closed, static and dynamic, front and back, above and below, expansion and contradiction, fluid and broken, and so on. The development of the design that would end in the DS is attributed to sketches of aerodynamic outlines that Bertoni, in 1938, had laid over drawings of the side view of a 1934 Traction Avant. Shots of bodywork, of model variants such as the open-top DS 21 convertible from 1966 or of vehicles such as Raymond Loewy’s Stutebaker Commander Starliner, included for comparison with specific design elements, are just as pleasing as the extensive analysis of the lines, joints and assembly in the design.

The latter was in the past lauded by Barthes, who wrote that the DS contained the “beginnings of a new phenomenology of assembling, as if one progressed from a world where elements are welded to a world where they are juxtaposed and held together by sole virtue of their wondrous shape, which of course is meant to prepare one for the idea of a more benign nature.”

Although Sumi does acknowledge that the car can be understood in various registers, and that its form generates a “semantic vacuum”, the reader is occasionally left wanting a discussion that is more extensive with a broader understanding of its semantics. For example, the rear indicators that extend and accentuate the roof edge are referred to as “boosters” and compared with the jet engines positioned underneath the tailplane on the body of a Caravelle (from 1960). Furthermore, there is a reference to the indicators also being called “Trumpets of Jericho”. These references should have been specially interpreted in the context of mythology not solely about the car and the dawning space age.

The goddess is subsequently completely profaned in the final chapter. Stripped of all the glitter of its advertisements and all its fetish character, all that remains of it is a rusty, battered piece of metal. All semblance of elegance is lost and nature reclaims the objet d’art. Its earthly body may decay and automotive history may move on, though the fascination and magic of the DS will remain.

Christian Sumi
The Goddess – La Déesse
Investigations on the Legendary Citroën DS
With photographs by Michel Zumbrunn, Heinz Unger
Design: Karin Schiesser
232 pages, 198 illustrations
hardback, English
Lars Müller Publishers 2020
ISBN 978-3-03778-626-0,
€ 35.00

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