BMW World: Come worship at the temple of style

More cathedral than car showroom, the German car giant has conjured a shrine to a brand, says Nargess Shahmanesh-Banks

Tuesday 13 November 2007 01:00 GMT

A huge cloud of steel and glass watches over Munich. BMW Welt opened its doors to the public this month. It sits on prime Bavarian land in the north of the city, adjacent to the 1972 Olympic Stadium and sharing the same site as company headquarters, factory and museum.

Making clouds in the sky is architectural firm Coop Himmelb(l)au's signature design language. Co-founder of the avant-garde Austrian practice and lead architect on the project Wolf Prix calls his creation: "a complex puzzle in space".

And, indeed, this is not only pure eye candy, it is an engineering triumph. The huge, football stadium-size 16,000m2 roof, contains something like 2,000 tons of steel, and is supported by just 11 slanting concrete columns. It resembles an inverted landscape.

The cloud-like roof sweeps into a sculptural double cone structure (designed to look as if it's supporting the roof) that twists around its own axis facing the sky. The top of the cone is made of 900 individually shaped glass panes.

If this sounds a tad futuristic, well, entering BMW World is stepping into the future. Welcome to year 2020, albeit the visuals are a hint, or perhaps a wink, to the world of James Bond. Think Moonraker or, in fact, any of Ian Fleming's fantastical creations.

On launch day there was also an air of Gattaca around. The 1997 futuristic film is set in a sterile, genetically modified world of Gattaca where the population is completely flawless.

As the building opened to the press, an army of tall, blond, pearl-teethed BMW personnel ushered journalists briskly through the magnificent building. Lingering was certainly not encouraged, as I was to find out.

Having spent a little over the given time in the "junior campus", playing with the oddly placed hammer and saw (perhaps German kids are extremely sensible), I was scolded and promptly escorted out through a dark rear door.

So what is BMW World? Is it a showroom, a museum or a place where customers pick up their cars? Is it a concert hall, a conference centre or a place to showcase innovation? Well, it is all these and much more. It is, essentially, extremely clever branding. In the words of BMW, "it is one of the first examples of a new generation of buildings for the 21st century".

Prix likens it to the Acropolis in Athens, which was a market place, a meeting point; it was an area that encouraged debate. BMW World, he says: "isn't just an envelope for delivering cars, it is, above all, a public building. This is a three-dimensional world of encounters," he notes. The designer has simply interpreted an old concept in a modern way. "This is a hybrid building. It's a mix of market-square, theatre, and a hub of information."

All current BMW products are exhibited. There are multi-media presentations showing the brand's latest R&D. There's an eco-section with all the latest green technologies. There is a junior campus where kids can learn all about engineering. The central area is large enough for concerts. Fine art exhibitions are planned. And there is a well-equipped conference hall.

The magnificent double cone, though, forms the core of the building. It's where the customer, having learnt all there is to know about his or her purchase, is handed keys to their brand new, shiny, probably customised, car and gets to drive it down the wide ramp, through the building and out into the street. It is pure theatre.

The architect has a reputation for working closely with his immediate environment. Here, too, the building completes the two others that already existed on site – the four-cylinder, starkly modernist headquarters and factory, and the cup-shaped museum, which is currently being enlarged.

"It forms a visual link to the existing buildings," says Prix. An exceptionally elegant bridge also physically unites the World to the museum and to the factory. The home plant is the factory that originally made the iconic Isetta or bubble car back in the Fifties. This is where all five generations of the 3-Series have been made, and it now produces 800-a-day of the company's most popular model.

The "BMW experience" includes a tour of the hi-tech factory where robots assemble the cars in a beautifully choreographed dance. Our guide reassures us that despite obvious financial disadvantages of making cars in pricey Bavaria, the factory will always remain a working one. With a 9,000-strong workforce it is good for Munich, she says proudly. It is also very good for BMW to be seen making cars in its home turf.

Prix says his firm worked closely with its client in designing the building, although he refuses to make much visual link between the cars and the building, saying: "their only common tool is the computer", meaning the software that made this all possible.

I beg to differ. The building shows "speed and elegance", as the architect himself puts it, which is arguably the core quality of BMW. And this could possibly just be me, but there is a definite hint of the sexy, moulded, masculinity of BMW cars inside BMW World. The metal on the bridge, in particular, seemed to be almost sculpted by hand.

As if engineered from above, on launch day the sun shone its crisp autumn light, magnifying the season's radiant yellows, oranges and reds, then reflecting them back on to the building. Prix says the building "opens up views from inside to outside and from outside to inside". It really is a visual treat.

The company expects 850,000 visitors a year, not all of them car buyers. It also plans to sell 45,000 cars a year at the centre.

BMW World is a modern Acropolis, but it can only really encourage brand-related debate, and it is a public building only for those who can either afford BMW products, or aspire to ownership. As a branding exercise, however, is exceptionally well executed.

The carmaker is astutely aware of the power of architecture in pronouncing the brand. Only a couple of years back it hired star architect Zaha Hadid to design its factory in Leipzig. Her creation is a theatre of car making – cars move along the elegant conveyor belt high above the foyer.

BMW World is a brilliantly choreographed piece of theatre and thus is, quite unashamedly, far more than a showroom. It is more like a cathedral for cars. In the words of Munich's mayor at the opening ceremony: "It is a temple for branding." So it's just as well that BMW is such a desirable brand.

All eyes are now, presumably, on arch rival Mercedes. The striking UNStudio-designed museum in Stuttgart may not be enough any more to woo the premium car-buying market.

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