Beyond nuts and bolts: 'Unpacking the Nano' shows car in context of social change

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Blaine Friedlander

The affordable, 65-mpg Tata Nano could change the world. A marvel of efficiency and design, it also raises complex questions about its potential effects on society and the environment.

The $2,200 Nano, introduced last year in India, is the focus of a new exhibition organized by the College of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP) at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.

"Unpacking the Nano," on display now through March 27, breaks down the Nano literally and categorically, by cost, weight, environmental impact and equivalent values in consumer goods. The Nano costs 1 lakh, or 100,000 rupees, in India.

The installation also places the car in the context of the developing transportation infrastructure in India. A large yellow balloon in the gallery represents a month's worth of the Nano's carbon dioxide emissions. Videos show scooters, trains and other forms of transportation in India; and a map of India's major highways fills one wall.

"This approach allows us to address some of the complex problems facing global communities," said AAP Dean Kent Kleinman. "Our interest began with the big picture: the consequences of transportation systems on how we inhabit the Earth. The way that communities function is in large part a consequence of how people move around; the effect of transportation on the physical environment is profound. For our college it's a natural fit -- we study these issues in many of our disciplines. It is also a great opportunity to connect with colleagues from across campus."

Tata Group Chairman Ratan Tata '59, B.Arch. '62, has said that the Nano brings a new means of transport (and with it, infrastructure) to rural India: "Everyone is focusing on urban areas. Urban alone is not India. People need connectivity, and we hope to make that change."

A disassembled basic red Nano is broken down into 16 subassemblies to give a three-dimensional exploded view of the car in the gallery. Parts are suspended by wires fixed to wooden sitar pegs in the walls and mounted on wood-and-aluminum supports and packing crates.

"You want to be able to see what is in the car, and what isn't in it," said visiting assistant professor of architecture Aleksandr Mergold, B.Arch. '99, who co-directed the project with Kleinman.

Spencer Lapp, B.Arch. '09, and Ben Widger '07, M.Arch. '11, are the leading members of a team that worked for several months assembling the exhibition. Lapp said he was impressed with "the process" of the Nano's design and development. "You think of something cheap, and you think it's badly designed," he said. "It's just the opposite. It's actually well-designed, to bring down the cost."

The "unpacking" concept extends to 16 crates integral to the display. Corresponding color-coded crate sides on the gallery walls give a graphic breakdown of the Nano's cost -- with equivalencies in consumer goods for different classes of workers in India, such as a farmer, factory worker, maidservant and bank executive. For the 1-lakh cost of a Nano, for example, you could buy two motor scooters (the ubiquitous form of transport in India), three cows, 33 saris, 60 train tickets, five holidays in Thailand, three laptops, 1,200 packs of cigarettes or 150 bags of rice.

Smaller text panels for the parts and assemblies explain the cost-efficiency and weight-saving efforts of Tata engineers.

A yellow Nano LX (the car's "luxury" model) is parked in the museum lobby. Tata Motors also loaned AAP a concept vehicle, built from two motor scooters, for the exhibition.

Ratan Tata will participate in a Cornell symposium on the Nano, March 10-11.

"It is an incredibly efficient automobile, and the envy of many auto designers," Kleinman said. "We are interested in posing questions -- it's not as simple as saying that cars are bad, or that mass automobility is good. Those are two competing values. The answer lies somewhere in between. We hope to present both of those areas clearly in the show, as well as the design accomplishment."


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