Mercedes-Benz Museum | icon 037 | July 2006

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words Kieran Long

Once, heavy industry was hidden in the poorest suburbs of cities, downwind and out of sight of those who made money from it. Then the modernists came along and told us factories were beautiful, initiating an industrial aesthetic.

This was a mentality that led us to makeovers of buildings like the Bankside Power Station (now Tate Modern), the Zeche Zollverein coal mining complex in Essen and others to become cherished landmarks.

But the production processes they once contained are becoming invisible once again; supply chains are located everywhere and nowhere, and factories are in Asian countries with cheaper labour. No architect has yet built a significant building in the image of the dispersed global supply chains of Dell, Nissan or Microsoft. But corporations still know the power of rhetoric, so instead of building factories that look like temples, they are now just building the temples – museums, interpretation centres, experiences, theme parks and visitor facilities to advertise their wares, accommodate devotees and attract new ones.

The Mercedes Museum in Stuttgart, designed by Rotterdam-based architect UN Studio, is the latest and most significant attempt yet to manifest this intangible corporate structure. Mercedes expects one million visitors every year to its new museum – a figure outstripping the Imperial War Museum in London, for example, and approaching the National Portrait Gallery. This building is what happens when capitalism realises that it’s not inferior to culture, but that it is culture. German car companies are prominent in this respect: Volkswagen’s Autostadt in Wolfsburg has had ten million visitors since it opened, Porsche and BMW are soon following suit with buildings by Delugan Meissl and Coop Himmelb(l)au respectively.

The significance of Mercedes in Stuttgart cannot be underestimated. The building is on the edge of the Untertürkheim car plant, the oldest car manufacturing facility in the world (the first factory opened here in 1904), which now makes axles, transmissions and engines that are transported around Germany, and to the UK, South Africa and America for final assembly. Mercedes is a brand intimately linked to the identity of this city.

UN Studio’s approach has been to make a technologically extreme building, hiding behind a none-too-radical facade in a strangely familiar silvery grey. The advantage of having such a wealthy and committed client is that UN Studio has been able to make perhaps the largest, most resolved example yet of continuous-surface architecture.

The galleries are arranged around an atrium that extends its full 47.5m height in a descending sequence. There are two types: naturally lit galleries that get the panoramic views through the glass portions of the facade and inward-oriented, artificially lit galleries that have balconies facing the atrium. Both types of gallery are crescent-shaped in plan, but the two gallery types tell different stories. The seven artificially lit double-height galleries, linked by a sequence of long, gentle ramps, are modestly called the “Legend” galleries, and tell the chronological story of Mercedes-Benz vehicles. The five naturally lit spaces are the single-height “Collection” galleries, thematic displays of certain types of vehicle, such as passenger cars, buses, coaches and trucks. In all, 166 vehicles are on display in 16,500sq m of exhibition space.

What looks mind-bogglingly complex on the plans (or on the sketches, which elucidate the building’s double-helix arrangement) is in fact very intuitive in reality. The two types of gallery can be experienced as independent routes, or dodged between at one of the many intersection points. There is a real sense of discovery about the place, and the distance the visitor can walk from the top of the building to the bottom varies, apparently, between 1.5km and 5km, depending on which way you choose to go. And there are no doors in the entire building (a giant man-made tornado in the atrium acts as a smoke extracter in case of fire, allowing the ramps to be uninterrupted by doors).

A visit to the museum begins with an elevator ride to the top of the atrium. The retro-futurist steel capsules that ferry the visitors skywards are very Bladerunner, but sacrifice something for that – children will not be tall enough to see out of the tiny slot window into the atrium, and are denied anticipatory glimpses of the cars, boats and planes hung from the ceilings of the galleries. You arrive on the rooflit top floor landing, and a gauze of white fabric obscures the view down, as if you were above the clouds. The atrium is then hidden from view for the opening sequences, until you turn the corner and begin the descent.

It’s a cunning arrangement. The long descents on the ramps give a sense of seeing the cars three-dimensionally and in constant motion – somehow appropriate in a museum of mobility. The best part, though, is when the building’s topography combines with views out of the museum. The site is next to an elevated and very straight section of motorway, which allows for dramatic views, mostly at the moments of transition between one gallery and another.

Although the aesthetic has a contrived, concrete Piranesian look about it that tries to be highbrow, it will be children who will appreciate this building the most, and I mean that as a compliment. As an architecture critic, I can see and appreciate how unbelievably complex this thing must have been to build (in only two and a half years). But more interesting is what that complexity means. The answer to that is theatre.

What’s refreshing about Ben van Berkel is that the complexity he creates here is justified purely by its entertainment value. He clearly loves the way pieces of double-curved concrete look (Villa NM, UN Studio’s 2005 summerhouse in upstate New York, looks like a concrete test for the Mercedes museum) and here we get soffits twisting and writhing in dramatic fashion.

Like a car, the building’s finish is almost implausibly bespoke. Each panel of a modern luxury car has that sense of being made from a set of components that could have no possible other application. This building has 1,800 unique window panes and complex in situ concrete volumes with 750km of pipes and wires cast into them. It’s brilliant fun. You kind of wish they’d clear the cars away (along with the too expensive and heavy-handed exhibition design by HG Merz) and just let kids race each other around the place.

Before the phrase computer baroque becomes a commonplace, I’d like to say that this institution has little or nothing to do with the baroque. The pleasure to be gained here is from iteration, the fascinatingly repetitious and complex forms that one finds in a pine cone or a crystal. In that sense the double-helix arrangement is utterly hermetic, too, a closed system with limited implication for the world beyond the building. But van Berkel’s attitude is very relaxed; he talks almost like a burlesque entertainer: “The chronology of the car unfolds along a spiraling trajectory, which is counter-balanced by horizontal platforms providing restfulness. The building twists and turns around you; now you see things and people, now you don’t.” He’s pulled it off with impressive conviction.

The strangely unsatisfied feeling I was left with was caused less by UN Studio’s building and more by the implications of this expensive brand embassy. I can’t help recalling Reyner Banham, the ultimate chronicler of the relationship between automation and architecture, and his 1985 essay on the monumental Fiat factory in Lingotto (designed by Giacomo Matte-Trucco and completed in 1926). In it he surmised that rhetoric is the difference between Lingotto – with its futurist credentials – and the “neutral containers for alternative uses” that he preferred in the abandoned car plants of the US.

Banham’s objection to Lingotto, broadly speaking, was that the rhetoric was empty. The corners of the famous test track on the roof of the Lingotto building were too tight for it to be used for testing automobiles at speeds higher than 60kph, without having them zoom to their deaths on the streets below.

So what would he have made of UN Studio’s PR exercise for Mercedes? The museum is pure rhetoric, empty or otherwise. The extraordinary technical invention on display in the building is merely to communicate the brand values of a car company, not to accommodate any part of the process of making those products. The concrete ramps that descend through the building in such dramatic fashion might look like road bridges, but they are not, they are just attractive backdrops to the display of expensive old automobiles. It is perhaps not rhetoric but advertorial, to borrow a phrase from publishing. At best (and it is good) it is entertainment and scenography, related somehow to the hermetic entertainments of computer games, virtual media and film.

Banham thought that the expressionism of the Lingotto factory was mendaciously trying to imply order in a godless world. Well, the Mercedes-Benz Museum is a brand basilica, a local gesture from a transnational corporation that presents a paradigm that critics as recent as Banham may have found to be a new and mystifying phenomenon.

As I was being driven back to Stuttgart airport (in a Mercedes people mover, naturally), I realised where I had seen the gunmetal grey of the museum’s facade before. The Mercedes I was sat in was sprayed in the same metallic silver. Mercedes Silver.

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