Luxury automobiles are fetish items par excellence. The advertising, branding and merchandising of this kind of consumer good is designed to appeal to our emotions, not our rationality. Why else would we buy something that devalues by up to a third the moment we drive out of the dealership? High-end cars are not sold to us based on their technological virtues, even though a great deal of research goes into automotive technology. They are sold on values that tap our desires to be seen to live a certain lifestyle and attain a certain social status. The refrain of “tell me what kind of car you drive and I’ll tell you who you are” is not entirely unfounded, and the mere sight of certain brands of high-end automobiles can conjure all sorts of stereotypes about the identity of the owner. Volvo: tweed-clad, tenured university professor. Porsche: young and nouveau riche. Mercedes: conservative executive. BMW: aggressive entrepreneur with little time to lose. Hummer: I’m super-rich so fuck off.
Over the last decade, a number of automotive companies—especially German ones such as Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and BMW—have embarked on media-friendly architectural projects designed, among other things, to build brand equity. There is now a collection of sophisticated automotive architectural works throughout Germany by the likes of UN Studio, Zaha Hadid, Coop Himmelb(l)au and Delugan Meissl, providing a perfect excuse to fly into Frankfurt, rent a roadster, load some Kraftwerk into the sound system and go on a whirlwind Autobahn tour of these sites.
The most outlandish of these new buildings is BMW Welt in Munich, an “experience” and “customer delivery centre” adjacent to the corporation’s factory, museum and landmark Four-Cylinder office tower. Designed by Coop Himmelb(l)au, BMW Welt has won several awards, including the Wallpaper 2009 Award for “Best New Public Building” (just how public is this building really?), the World Architecture Festival 2008 Award in the “production” category (was there no “consumption” category?) as well as the RIBA European Award in 2008, the jury of which praised its “spectacular cloud-like roof”.
Now, I suppose three esteemed architectural award juries can’t be wrong, but I have tried and tried and cannot for the likes of me see the virtues of BMW Welt. The building is an automobile and motorcycle showroom the size and feel of an international airport terminal. Its idiosyncratic architecture has no shortage of entertaining quirks, folds, twists, whims and conceits, but I can’t help but think that these tricks are trying pathetically to make the building feel less commercial and more artistic. They seem more like hollow gestures. Naming the roof a “cloud”, the floor a “landscape” and the entrance feature a “whirlwind” is cute, but it is still an oversized commercial showroom.
Yes, the building is formally complex and impeccably crafted down to the last detail. It is architectural bravado, but that’s just about all. Despite the beautiful cars, beautiful salespeople, and beautiful views onto the neighbouring Olympic Stadium and BMW buildings from the 1960s, BMW Welt feels empty and devoid of soul.
If the architecture is supposed to build up the company’s brand equity the way its highly effective television and print advertising campaigns have consistently done, then this building falls short in comparison. Give me the BMW ads on TV—they are more thought-provoking.