Zaha Hadid's BMW factory in Leipzig 23.03.07

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Zaha Hadid’s new BMW factory in Leipzig is the latest strike in the war of architectural one-upmanship that has broken out amongst German car manufacturers

In the blue corner is Mercedes, with a new museum by Dutch radicals UN Studio. In the red is BMW with its soon to be built BMW World visitor centre by Austrian deconstructivists Coop Himmelblau, and now a new factory building in Leipzig by Zaha Hadid.

The architecture that BMW and Mercedes have chosen is the formally hyperactive shape-making most obvious in the work of Hadid, brought in to give a certain intellectual and aesthetic sheen to the business of selling luxury cars. Hadid’s reputation has famously been built on drawings and paintings of her buildings more than built product. Although that situation is changing, we still know her for the battery of impressive visuals that comes out of her office – the semi-transparent layers and the trademark “whoosh” effect of fading colour out of surfaces to give the impression of movement. A car factory, then, seems like just the thing for Hadid’s office, with all its implications of high-tech manufacturing processes, and the seductive speed and motion of the products themselves. This building, however, is the central hub of a brand new BMW car plant but contains no manufacturing facilities, accommodating only offices, restaurants, some quality control points and providing, perhaps most importantly, the daily entrance point for all of the 5,500 workers at the plant.

But as well as managing the flow of the workers to and from their workplaces, the central building handles the flow of cars between the three immense halls, which deal with body parts, assembly and finally painting. The distinctive feature of the building is the three car tracks suspended from the ceiling, which silently convey cars between the halls, through the office spaces. The Hadid press material describes the central building as the focal node of the entire complex. “It seems as if,” it gushes, “the whole expanse of this side of the factory is oriented and animated by a force field emanating from the central building.” In reality, the building is dwarfed by the €1.3 billion complex that surrounds it, and the real business goes on in the three huge hangars that flank it, which contain 4km of production line and thousands of robots building the cars. Hadid’s building is big – 25,000sq m – but a dot on the map of the site, which occupies 1.5km by 1km of former farmland. A massive landscaping project by Edinburgh-based Grossmax attempts to deal with environmental impact of this imposition.

Icon has published two car factories in the last two years – Rolls-Royce’s factory in Goodwood and McLaren’s plant in Woking, both of which produce very high specification automobiles at the rate of perhaps one a day. BMW’s plant in Leipzig can produce 1,000 3 series BMWs every day when it is running at full capacity. Even now it produces 650 a day, and it is just one of the dozen or so factories that the company has in Germany. The country’s automobile manufacturing industry is still much more than a cosmetic sop to a bygone age, and a plant like Leipzig provides much-needed jobs at a time when Germany’s economy is creaking.

Zaha Hadid won this project in competition in March 2002, and the building has been built very quickly. Lars Teichmann, the project architect, told me that he thought the reason for the win (against a shortlist including LAB, Reiser Umemoto and others) was that Hadid’s proposal most closely reflected the client’s desire to make the central building the nerve centre of the complex.

The speed of the project has given the building’s layout a clarity that might have been lost had there been more time to think about the arrangement of the office space. There are two cascades of offices, stepped in opposite directions, with a canyon between them that functions as the main access for workers to the production line buildings.

Along this gulley, through which almost every worker must walk, are arranged testing facilities and quality control areas. One of the claims that BMW makes for the factory as a whole is that its quality control is among the most sophisticated and comprehensive of any car plant in the world. Along with the quality control points at the end of the production line, there are a series of glass-walled laboratories along the chasm for testing the cars. If problems are found, the offending cars are displayed in the chasm for all workers to walk past and learn from their mistakes.

Apart from this quality control issue, there is apparently a social agenda here, with the aim of mixing blue and white collar workers in order to “avoid the traditional segregation into status groups that is no longer conducive for a modern workplace”. The idea that the central building is a social melting pot is a nice aspiration, but slightly absurd – egalitarian but with no societal effect. The best bits of the building skate the line between infrastructure and architecture in a muscular and impressive way. The bridge section at the front of the building is a remarkable piece of concrete construction, and its 60m span, achieved by using bridge-building engineering techniques, gives an exaggerated sense of scale to the lobby.

The contemporary aesthetic of industrial buildings is generated out of pure pragmatism. Cheap, light, and usually uninsulated skins sit on space frame or truss structures, enclosing as much space for as little money as possible. Where holes need to be cut, they are cut. The planning of these buildings has its own grandeur, and is built at the scale of the process, not of the human beings who operate the machinery. Hadid’s aesthetics enjoy and indulge this scale, but Leipzig is too fussy in its detail (how many swooping lines does one reflected ceiling plan need?) and too clumsy in its social aspirations to get me very interested. It is a piece of BMW’s image more than it is a place of innovation in workplace design or manufacturing buildings.

Leipzig is an important project for Hadid’s office, but it is the imminent Phaeno Science Centre, in Wolfsburg, Germany, that is holding the hopes of the practice. Hadid’s buildings have been broadly well-received thus far, but talking to those in the office, it is Wolfsburg that they expect to really secure critical acclaim. Leipzig is a compromise between Hadid’s whizzy, futurist aesthetics, and the need to make an everyday workplace. I, personally, find it difficult to get excited about her buildings, with their slanted, space-age style windows and incredibly vague programmatic and social aspirations.

 

Words

Kieran Long

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The speed of the project has given the building’s layout a clarity that might have been lost had there been more time to think about the arrangement of the office space  

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