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Temples of vroom

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In a town where the car is God, there's a new cathedral. Silvery and enigmatic, the Mercedes-Benz museum sits just off the B14 highway as it dips into a gentle fold of the Neckar Valley. Designed by Dutch architects Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, the 15-story building looks like a loosely interleaved stack of postmodern pancakes, its bands of aluminum and glass rising in an undisciplined kinetic wobble above a granite pavilion. Mercedes-Benz has long had its stamp on Stuttgart's sky — a three-pointed star rotates above the Hauptbahnhof, or train station — but now, with the $50-million edifice planted on the outskirts of the city as a kind of ceremonial gateway, the company's dominion seems more ecclesiastical than corporate.

And why not? Germany's automakers are locked in a fierce competition — reminiscent of medieval city-states' cathedral wars — to see which can build the grandest temple. For travelers tired of schlepping from one Our Lady of Whatever to another, the German automakers' building spree offers a rich new itinerary — showrooms, museums and tours — that traces the technological triumphs of the Automotive Age, the passion for motor sports, the renaissance of postwar Germany and the cost-is-no-object ambitions of brand-name architects.

Of course, automakers routinely commission futuristic buildings from rock-star architects to serve as metaphoric extensions of the brand. General Motors' Technical Center in Warren, Mich., was designed by Eero Saarinen; Ferrari's wind-tunnel facility in Maranello, Italy, is the work of Pritzker Prize winner Renzo Piano.

But never has the competition been so close or so intramural. While the first season of tourists is trooping through the Mercedes-Benz museum — the building opened in May — BMW is rushing to complete its own major expansion of its group headquarters in Munich. BMW's distinctive teacup-shaped museum is being renovated as part of a sprawling and astonishingly avant-garde project scheduled to open in summer 2007.

And so, a car-buff's dream.

Mercedes-Benz: Historic siteTHE place to start is the Mercedes-Benz museum, built on hallowed ground. Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach — founders of the Daimler company and fairly called the inventors of the automobile — sorted out their first chuffing engines only yards from here in the early 1880s; nearby is Mercedes-Benz' heroic-scaled Unterturkheim assembly plants and the Gottlieb Daimler Stadium.

It's here that Mercedes-Benz has chosen to house its 120 years of history — the trembling, motorized surreys of the early days, the grosser sedans of the Nazis' Third Reich, and the Silver Arrows, the company's indomitable competition cars from middle 20th century.

"As a museum structure, it's fascinating," says Dennis Adler, an automotive historian and author of four books about Mercedes-Benz.

"It's beautifully built, imposing from the outside and impressive from the inside. As a statement of technology, it reminds me of the SLR McLaren" — Mercedes 200-mph, $450,000 super sports car, Adler says. "They're both 21st century Mercedes."

In my capacity as The Times' automotive critic, I've been to Stuttgart many times (Porsche is also headquartered here), but I've never shaken the sense of seismic consequence, the awareness of the repercussions, good and bad, that emanate from this place. The automobile changed the world, and that change started here.

Cynics might dismiss Mercedes' museum as just another temple of corporate self-love, but some part of it — perhaps its thick, over-engineered sturdiness — seems intended as a signpost to history.

Inside, there are nine levels warped dramatically around a towering open atrium, providing space to display 160 cars and other vehicles. In this building that knows no right angles, the word "level" is merely a convenient misnomer.

Designed as a double helix, the interior curves and loops and pours through open spaces in a way that defies quaint architectural distinctions such as floors. Visitors take a futuristic elevator-capsule to the top and descend on parquet ramps, à la the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

I'll leave it to specialists to debate whether the building is particularly effective — it seems to require two trips to the top to see it all, and the floorplan does supply moments of "Where are-the-stairs?" bafflement — but it sure is an architectural spectacle, a statement of corporate mastery and modernity that tries very hard to be overwhelming. It succeeds.

"I don't know if it's good for architecture," says Paul Tesar, professor of architecture at North Carolina State University and a onetime Stuttgart resident. "But it seems to be good for business."

VW: A drive to 'Car City'OTHER carmakers have their showplace factories and museums. Volkswagen has its own city. Roughly two hours west of Berlin on the A2, in Wolfsburg, the Autostadt (literally, Car City) is a sprawling automotive theme park.

Built in the style of an off-world colony, the complex is a mad cavort of futuristic buildings, some with roofs strung from canted pylons, some with exterior walls undulating like sea snakes and all of it jigsaw-fitted into a park landscape with a large connecting lake. Designed by Gunter Henn, the Autostadt offers visitors — the lucky ones stay at the Ritz-Carlton on campus — a full day of auto-centric adventure.

For kids, there's the LernPark, a low-speed course where they can practice the fundamentals of driving in electric cars (Germans take driving skills very seriously).

Adults can tune up their behind-the-wheel chops on either the safety training range or the Gelande Parcours, where they will negotiate 11 off-road style obstacles in one of VW's sport-utility models.

It may surprise American visitors, but VW Group — Germany's largest car company and the very synonym of proletarian transport — owns some of the world's most prestigious brands, including Lamborghini and Bentley. Most of VW's corporate subsidiaries have their own high-tech pavilions at the Autostadt, and if you are that rare aficionado of Skoda or Seat, you will have a really good time.

There's also the ZeitHaus museum of mobility; the AutoLab, an exhibit about the technology of car building; and the "virtual" Car Design Studio, which explains how cars are drafted and styled. (You can even design your own car and take it with you on a printout.) In all, a car-geek's wonderland. Bring your walking shoes.

But the Autostadt's primary mission is what's called car "collection," where buyers take possession of their new VWs. Up to 40% of European buyers make the trip to Autostadt to receive the keys to their new car in a bonding moment of great ceremony.

Not surprisingly, this process has an architectural component. New cars are stored in two 20-story cylindrical glass towers, each of which has a robotic car lift in the center. At the appropriate moment, the robotic arm plucks the car from one of the honeycomb-like cells and brings it to the ground floor to meet its new owner.

Interested? Unfortunately, VW's European delivery program for U.S. buyers folded in the 1980s. However, Canadians can still arrange through their local dealers to pick up their cars in Wolfsburg and have them shipped back home.

Automobile factories were once dirty and noisy, spark-spitting caverns full of hazards requiring hardhats, earplugs and eye protection, but in the last decade the process has become cleaner, quieter and far more visitor-friendly.

Seizing the opportunity to connect with the consumer, manufacturers are increasingly turning their factories into stages where the car-building process is rather like performance art, a ballet of automated pallets and overhead claws with lab-coated players hitting their synchronized marks.

You don't have to be a car buff to enjoy seeing a rack of seemingly irreconcilable parts transformed into a living automobile.

BMW: Production on viewSUCH a theater of technology is BMW's facility in Leipzig, southeast of Wolfsburg.

The $1.7-billion plant, opened in 2005, has a unique architectural core called the Central Building — an extravagant multilevel conduit that zigzags between the box-shaped production halls.

Designed by Zaha Hadid, the Central Building "bundles and distributes all the essential movements of the plant," says Hadid, and indeed, it has the multi-vectoring quality of a grand highway interchange.

In a surprising twist, the design routes incomplete 3-series automobiles along an overhead rail above the heads of the office workers and executives, so that the cars and the process always remain tangible to them.

The design eliminates the white-collar/blue-collar divide that separate most factories' assembly lines from their administrative offices — a caste system that has not always worked in the car industry's favor.

Tours of the production halls are available during most days; however, architectural tours of Hadid's Central Building are conducted only on a limited basis after working hours.

VW: A glass show-stopperBY far the most theatrical, even stagy, car factory in the world is located to the southeast, in the heart of historic Dresden, now largely restored after the twin disasters of Allied fire bombing in World War II and East German postwar reconstruction.

The architecture of VW's Glass Factory, or Die Gläserne Manufaktur, building takes the notion of organizational transparency — in which processes and results are visible from the outside — and makes it literal. The production hall is a vast, halogen-flooded glassine case in which the car chassis, floating by on a slow-moving river of parquet wood flooring, can be observed from glass bridges.

Here, VW builds its flagship Phaeton sedan and the Bentley Flying Spur. White-gloved workers in lab coats move at the tempered pace of NASA ground control employees. (What dirty work there is to do, such as trimming and grinding the steel car bodies, is handled discreetly in the basement.)

The factory is hushed, even reverential. As the chassis move along at floor level, the car bodies — hanging from U-shaped cradles — move along on overhead tracks, until at last body and chassis come together at the Hochzeit, the marriage place, and a car is consummated.

If you are in the market for a $100,000 VW Phaeton or $175,000 Bentley Flying Spur, well, good for you. For all the architectural happy talk about transparency and intelligence processes, the Glass Factory is also the world's most exalted showroom. Buyers are welcomed at an upscale lounge, then conducted to the Konfigurator area, where they can digitally customize their car, choosing from a palette of interior leathers, paint schemes and equipment options.

Like the Autostadt, the Glass Factory has its own car tower, where the finished products await their new owners. But you don't necessarily have to plunk down six figures to make the trip worthwhile. The factory is curiously, wonderfully located in the central city, in the northwest corner of the Grosser Garten, or Great Park.

Dresden, oriented around a bend in the Elbe River, has spared no trouble or expense reclaiming its Alte Stadt, or Old Town, charm. The city's famous Frauenkirke cathedral has been restored on the spot where it was destroyed in World War II, as has the Baroque district along the Konigstrasse, the main thoroughfare. The city is beautiful and gracious, with barely a trace of ersatz reconstitution showing. And yet, since the day it opened in 2002, the Glass Factory has been one of the city's most popular attractions.

Audi: Downshifting a notchMOVING southwest across Germany and somewhat off the autobahn path you will find Ingolstadt, home of Audi, VW's luxury brand. The Audi Forum Ingolstadt, opened in December 2000, is a relatively more restrained affair than VW's stadt and crystal palace museums. The museum, also designed by Gunter Henn, is another circular structure in which visitors wind their way through the years and various car models.

Audi's history is less linear than such a plan would suggest. It was founded by August Horch in 1909, after Horch had been driven out of the company that bore his name. Eventually, Audi merged with Horch, DKW and Wanderer to form Auto Union, whose alloy-skinned racing machines presented the only real challenge to Mercedes-Benz.

Unfortunately, the company's headquarters was located in Zwichau, which fell into the Eastern bloc after World War II, and many of the company's most cherished vehicles were lost.

It's a rather tortuous route west toward Stuttgart. Despite its reputation, the autobahn does have speed limits — enforced by automatic cameras — and recent roadwork can cause significant delays. Stuttgart traffic is tough sledding too. Plan accordingly.

Besides the palace of Mercedes, there's the small, serious Porsche museum in Zuffenhausen. The building can hold only 20 cars at a time, and so Porsche rotates the collection several times a year. You might be lucky enough to see the original Porsche 356, the company's LeMans-winning 917s or even one of the open-wheel cars from Porsche's brief flirtation with Formula 1.

The uses and abuses of architecture by powerful corporations is the subject of Deyan Sudjic's recent "The Edifice Complex," which argues that such corporate Taj Mahal's are capitalistic propaganda. And, as critic Witold Rybczynski has noted, such grand architecture is often an early sign of an organization's decline — the Pan Am building in New York is a good example, as is Versailles outside Paris.

German automakers have struggled a bit lately. The Dresden factory was set up to build one car, the VW Phaeton, which has had disappointing sales. The automobile itself seems bound for tough times. Perhaps the German auto business won't last forever. Yet like the soaring cathedrals of increasingly agnostic Europe, these buildings seem to have destinies all their own.


Automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.

*

(INFOBOX BELOW)

On the autobahn, in high gear

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Lufthansa, US Airways, United, Air France and Aer Lingus offer connecting service (change of planes) to Munich, Germany. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,059.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 49 (country code for Germany) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

The Ritz-Carlton Wolfsburg, StadtBrücke, D-38440 Wolfsburg; 5361-607-000, http://www.ritzcarlton.com/hotels/wolfsburg . On the grounds of Volkswagen's Autostadt. Doubles from $344.

Hotel Taschenbergpalais Kempinski Dresden, 3 Taschenberg, Dresden 01067; 3514-9120, http://www.kempinski-dresden.de/en/home/index.htm . in the heart of Dresden's Old Town. Doubles from $265.

WHERE TO EAT:

Bar/Restaurant Lesage, in VW's Glass Factory, 1 Lennestrasse, Dresden 01069; 3514-204-250. An exceptional setting. Main courses from about $22.

MUSEUMS:

Mercedes-Benz museum, 100 Mercedesstrasse, 70372 Stuttgart; 71-117-30-000, http://www.mercedes-benz.com/content/mbcom/international/international_website/en/com/Brandworld_Museum.html . Admission $10.

VW's Autostadt, GmbH Stadtbrucke, Wolfsburg D-38440; 536-1400, http://www.autostadt.de/info/cda/main/036062100.html . Admission $19.

BMW plant, BMW 1 Allee, Leipzig D-04349; 3414-450, http://www.bmw-werk-leipzig.de/leipzig/deutsch/lowband/com/en/index.html . Admission $6.

VW's Glass Factory, 1 Lennestrasse, Dresden 01069; 18-05-896-268, http://www.glaesernemanufaktur.de/gmd.jspdok . Admission $5.

Audi museum, Ingolstadt D-85045; 841-89-37-575, http://www.museummobile.de . Admission $5.

Porsche museum, 1 Porscheplatz, Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen D-70453; 711-911-25685, http://www.porsche.com/international/faq/museum . Free.

— Dan Neil

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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