Carmen without the sound of car men

A working automobile factory quiet enough to double as a concert hall? It exists, says Tom Stewart
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A couple of years ago the River Elbe burst its banks. Wait, that is an understatement; it did not merely burst its banks, it rose by nine metres, or almost 30 feet. As a consequence, much of Dresden, through which this river flows, was flooded, including the city's opera house. This would have been an inconvenience at the best of times, but as the opera company was about to stage a major production of Carmen, it was doubly problematic.

A couple of years ago the River Elbe burst its banks. Wait, that is an understatement; it did not merely burst its banks, it rose by nine metres, or almost 30 feet. As a consequence, much of Dresden, through which this river flows, was flooded, including the city's opera house. This would have been an inconvenience at the best of times, but as the opera company was about to stage a major production of Carmen, it was doubly problematic.

Aware of this predicament, the local car factory, also located in the city but on slightly higher ground, offered its capacious foyer for this operatic fest. Tiered seating, stage props and lighting were erected, and the lady duly sang, all within feet of a car production line. Nothing so impressive about that, until you learn that car making continued uninterrupted throughout the entire performance.

In my experience, you are usually better off wearing ear-defenders inside car plants. But here at Volkswagen's Transparent Factory, or Die Glaserne Manufaktur, there was just a single-pane glass wall between the makeshift concert hall and the rolling production line. In other words, the factory is amazingly quiet, something made even more impressive by the fact that much of it is constructed from non-sound-absorbent glass.

Designed by the architect Ernst Henn, the factory required 18,000 tonnes of steel and 60,000 tonnes of concrete on an 83,000sq m site. It was built between 1999 and 2001 at a total cost of £125m. For those with a statistical bent, it features a 55,000sq m production floor, including 24,000sq m of Canadian maple parquet flooring - 5,000 of which are on the moving assembly 'belt' - 27,500sq m of windows and a 15,000sq m event area (handy for staging the odd opera). Just outside there is a 30,000sq m garden with 3,500 aquatic plants living in 6,500sq m of ponds.

Impressed? How about 7,000 metres of air ducts, 17,500 fire sprinklers, 49,000 metres of piping, a quarter of a million metres of cables and wiring, all while the air conditioning pumps 1.3 million cubic metres of air every hour.

Up to 800 employees, supported by up to 3,000 others in the supply and services sector, can produce a maximum of 105 Phaetons per day, though at present, with demand for VW's flagship model as it is, a mere 25 drive off the darkened oak parquet flooring at the end of the line. (Oak was used here because tyres leave marks on the lighter maple.) Enough numbers, already!

Of course, with the aid of EU funding, it made good sense for VW to set up shop here and contribute to the economy of the former German Democratic Republic. But while is one thing to build a car factory, it is quite another to build it within a city - and from glass. According to the factory's MD, Manfred Saake, the location and materials were chosen for "philosophic reasons".

Merely having a new flagship model in the Phaeton was not enough. VW wanted a new flagship factory too, not least to lure and cosset its new flagship customers. To quote from factory literature, "VW set about creating an important centre of automotive culture which would turn the car-production process into an informative experience. With impressive transparency and clarity, VW has turned what remains hidden elsewhere into a place of communication and dialogue." And situating the factory near the city centre allows access by a greater number of people. Access? Oh, yes. The factory receives 300 visitors per day, all of whom are given a guided tour - although I am told the demand for these tours is much higher.

Another reason for siting the factory here was that the company could make good use of Dresden's existing municipal tram network. Two 60-metre, £1.2 millon cargo trams, appropriately named the CarGoTrams - shuttle between the Dresden Freight Centre on the edge of town to the Transparent Factory. Only the Phaeton bodyshells, manufactured in Mosel, are delivered by road.

As the land available beside an existing park did not allow for the ideal kilometre-long production line, the line is split into two main levels with two further floors. All the component parts required for a particular car are transported over the line's parquet flooring by automatically guided component "baskets" which negate the need for storage shelving. A driverless system also transports 1,100kg of partially completed Phaeton around the shop floor and into the glazed, driverless elevator to the second floor. The atmosphere on the "shop floor" seems more in keeping with some futuristic craft workshop than any conventional conveyor-line assembly.

Meanwhile, an audio system outside plays sounds specifically designed to prevent birds from flying into the huge glass area, which reflects nearby trees. Visitors can go for a Phaeton virtual test drive in the simulator, involving no less than seven computers, or create an idea of what their future car might look like on the world's largest touchscreen (2m x 1m). At the same time, top chefs prepare exquisite cuisine, served either in the restaurant or on the outdoor terrace. And Phaeton customers receive a special VIP service that I have not even touched upon here.

Impressive though all of this undoubtedly is, I left the Transparent Factory thinking just how tough it must be - and how VW must long ago have recognised how tough it would be - to be the Johnny-come-lately in the luxury-car market. Should the Phaeton eventually fail, it will not be for want of trying.

CAR FACTORY DESIGN CLASSICS

LINGOTTO

Completed in 1923 in the Turin district of the same name, Fiat's Lingotto building was once the world's largest car factory. It had five floors connected by spiral ramps, with raw materials going in at ground level and finished cars emerging at the top, ready for a few laps of the unique rooftop test track. Featuring in The Italian Job of 1969, Lingotto became outmoded soon after and closed in 1982. In 1989 it reopened as a complex of concert halls, theatre, convention centre, shopping arcades and hotel.

LEVALLOIS

The Parisian Levallois factory was first rented by André Citroën in 1921, and the first 2CV emerged on 2 September 1939, one day before war was declared. Full 2CV production began in 1948 and Levallois became the home of the immortal Deux Chevaux. By the 1960s there was a three-year wait for 2CVs, with no room for factory expansion and working conditions becoming distinctly passé. Despite public protestation, the factory was demolished in 1990 to make way for apartments.

GOODWOOD

Having been at Crewe for half a century, Rolls-Royce was acquired by BMW in 1998. The project team had four years to design a new car - the Phantom - and build a new factory and head office. A 42-acre site on Lord March's Goodwood estate in Sussex was chosen. Partly sunk into the ground, the low-rise plant was designed to blend into the rolling landscape. Covered in moss, the biomass roof is the largest in Europe. Goodwood employs 500 staff turning out a thousandPhantoms per year.

motoring@independent.co.uk

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