BMW-Welt by Coop Himmelb(l)au

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This is another excursion into recent history. It is part of an exploration of the buildings produced during the last economic boom, which focuses on buildings that in one way or another epitomise the culture of the era. Naturally, this gets easier once the buildings have had a few years to age – in the case of BMW-Welt, it’s been almost five. One could argue that MAXXI, as an art museum without art, is the epitome of the last decade’s art-hype, and that  BMW-Welt is the epitome of brand culture as an institution and its subsequent crystallisation into a building, built around the ceremony of handing over the car keys to the customer.
These buildings are fascinating, not only in terms of their spectacular forms, but also in how they mirror our culture.

BMW-Welt is located in BMW-land in the north of Munich. Four principal BMW buildings are located on both sides of one of the city’s ring roads. The pre-iconic headquarters comprises ‘The Four Cylinders’ by Karl Schwanzer; the BMW-Museum – ‘The Salad Bowl’; one of the BMW’s factories that actually makes the cars (inconspicuous in sheet metal); and finally, the BMW-Welt by Wolf Prix and Coop Himmelb(l)au, which opened in late 2007.

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The most striking feature of the BMW-Welt itself is the roof, which is a giant (grey) ‘cloud hovering in space’, according to Wolf Prix. It is. And the roof is always very much there, much in the same way a storm cloud hovering overhead tends to feel very present. Beneath it are carved out spaces – the central hall on the lowest level is a valley where the pilgrims can explore the wonders of BMW. The upper levels are reserved for devotees picking up their new cars, and these levels are replete with a restaurant area for the celebration of BMW-brethrenship. From the outside, the building’s most striking feature is a vortex (another meteorological analogy): a double cone of glass and steel which has become the iconic feature of the BMW-Welt, featured in every shot of the building’s exterior. This contains a rather nice, if surprisingly small exhibition space.

Perhaps Jonathan Glancey in The Guardian put it most aptly when he declared the building’s style “baroque n’ roll”. The materials possess an ethereal quality – the metal has that finish which makes it slightly surreal, and impressive detailing (generally, there are a few exceptions) makes the building come off as almost unreal. Yet sometimes, a quiet sliding door opens up, allowing the visitor to see beyond the stage set, to peek into the spaces that are not intended for the public eye, reminding you that you have not left planet Earth after all. It’s not unlike looking out from a stage set into the studio; such are the dramatic and scenographic qualities of this form of architecture. The slick interior is also contrasted by a technological underbelly; the cars that are to be delivered are kept in a low-pressurised underground garage to lower the fire hazard.

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One of the most intriguing aspects of BMW-Welt is how it relates to the brand architecture of the last decade. Arguably, the era of iconic architecture started with the construction of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. BMW-Welt represents a parallel strait of iconic architecture: the commercial brand where the iconic qualities are used to promote products of a brand through association to the architecture. This is a history that has yet to be written, but here is a short introduction to the theme.

At some point during the 1990’s, the notion of Brand started to signify a lot more than the product and its quality alone. Brands became a way of identification and recognition, and naturally, this eventually spilt over into architecture. Naomi Klein dubbed Nike Town, a conceptual brand store for the sports brand Nike, a ‘brand temple’ in her (by now almost classic) book No Logo.

Nothing embodies the era of the brand like Nike Town, the company’s chain of flagship retail outlets. Each one is a shrine, a place set apart for the faithful, a mausoleum. The Manhattan Nike Town on East Fifty-seventh Street is more than a fancy store fitted with the requisite brushed chrome and blond wood, it is a temple, where the swoosh is worshiped as both art and heroic symbol.’ Naomi Klein, No Logo

Nike was not alone in this, of course. In the same period, one of the first car manufacturers to attempt to find new ways to build up their brand was Toyota. Toyota constructed Megaweb on the reclaimed land of Odaiba, on the outskirts of Tokyo. If Nike Town mimicked the museum, Megaweb draws on the theme park concept. Megaweb is divided into three separate parts: the historical part, classic Toyota cars set in scenography. Many of these are the ‘actual cars that featured in films and advertisements’. The second part is a more standard showroom of the fleet of Toyotas presently marketed, and a third section is devoted to ‘Universal Design’. In addition to these, there are a number of cafés and restaurants and numerous rides that, combined, serve to increase the awareness of Toyota as a brand.

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Next were the top fashion houses who developed their own ‘brand temples’. It is hard to pinpoint the exact point when these flowed over into architecture; perhaps it was with the heavily promoted opening of OMA/Rem Koolhaas store for PRADA in New York City in 2001 that architects and haute couture realised that they had similar interests and could benefit from each other. At any rate, exquisite architecture became an essential part of the brand culture. This led to the rapid production of a series of interiors, quickly developing into entire buildings; shrines dedicated to the promotion of the brand. Haute architecture? Focus moved to Tokyo. Along Omotesandō and in Ginza, fashion houses one-upped each other, producing great ‘brand shrines’: Herzog & de Meuron’s Prada, Toyo Ito’s Tods, and Dior by Sanaa, to name a few.

The next, or third, generation brand architecture were the self-promoting museums of the German automotive industry. Of course, many industries have been promoting their products and brands with museums for as long as there have been companies, but the ones that started popping up across Germany in the mid 2000’s were different. These were fundamentally only focused on cultivating the brand. As such, their primary function were to be icons of the lifestyle promoted by the brand: i.e. making the drivers of their car feel that they were the pinnacle of good cosmopolitan taste and members of a rather exclusive club.

Daimler-Benz brought in Ben van Berkel and UN-studio to design theirs, Porsche teamed up with Delugan Meissl, and BMW started off with Zaha Hadid, but a few years later got together with Wolf Prix and Coop Himmelb(l)au. The difference, however, was that while the other brands built museums, BMW already had one across the road. Hence, they had to come up with a different program for the new showcase building.

What they ended up constructing was a building whose primary purpose is the ceremony of handing customers the keys to their new cars. Stephen Bayley described the ritual in his Guardian article on the building back when it opened like this.

“A broker from New York, for example, will order his new BMW and jet to Germany to pick it up. But this is not a banal transaction. At BMW Welt he is confirmed in his good taste as a consumer by not only an architectural spectacle of the very highest quality, but also by technology exhibitions, shops, bars and restaurants. At the most exclusive of the latter he can lunch at altitude, a lead-crystal glass of high-specification Van Volxem Riesling to hand, while gazing through thrilling space at shiny new motors respectfully arranged for veneration as if religious artefacts. With BMW thoroughness, not to say mania, there is BMW-baked bread on the table and four varieties of salt on offer (with scrupulous descriptive notes: I especially enjoyed the Australian Murray River Pink Salt Flakes, rich in algae).

After lunch, and a period of smug self-congratulation, our New York broker enjoys the rehearsed ritual of the hand-over [involving his car presented on a rotating floor in the purpose designed hand-over hall, where up to forty cars an hour can ceremoniously be handed over to their new owners], gets into his Monaco Blue BMW 530i and vrooms off on a 14-day tour of Europe, with an itinerary (Grossglockner, Lake Garda) helpfully provided by BMW as part of its commitment to providing him with a memorable experience, from soup to lock-nuts. On his return, the car is put in a container and reverentially shipped across the Atlantic where it will be unpacked by a Jersey longshoreman probably unfamiliar with the coruscating values and unhesitating perfectionism of BMW’s World.” (Stephen Bayley, A cathedral for the god of motors, 17/2 2008)

Both Glancey and Bayley at The Guardian refer to the BMW-Welt as a cathedral, but it is a cathedral in more ways than its cavernous interior and worship of idols. It is also the physical embodiment of the sacrament, ceremony interpreted into architecture, and enhanced by architecture. Just as cathedrals were constructed around the sacraments of Christianity, BMW-Welt was constructed around its own rather profane sacrament.

The primary ceremony in this ceremonial edifice is the handing over of keys of new cars to new owners. As with all ceremonial buildings, the architecture becomes primarily a dramaturgical tool, scenography to enhance the gravity and significance of the BMW sacrament. I have no doubt there are other equally ostentatious ceremonial buildings dedicated to other brands, and I would appreciate any suggestions and pointers. The key thing is that the ceremony is no longer the act of buying, or even browsing, in itself, which has already taken place long before, but delivery of the product. This is what makes BMW-Welt a kind of bizarre milestone in the world of brand architecture.

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