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Top Gear: BMW Central Building by Zaha Hadid Architects in Leipzig, Germany

Zaha Hadid’s new Central Building for BMW radically re-envisages the industrial workplace

Originally published in AR June 2005, this piece was republished online in August 2011

A windswept plain outside Leipzig is an unlikely place to find the latest cross fertilisation of serious architecture and luxury cars. Looming through the frost and fog of a Saxony winter, BMW’s new manufacturing plant materialises as a sprawling agglomeration of impassive grey sheds surrounded by acres of workers’ cars. From the autobahn, it looks like a nondescript shopping mall, rather than a carefully calibrated synthesis of manufacturing technology, superstar architecture, big bucks and branding.

At its heart, or rather brain, is Zaha Hadid’s Central Building, the formal, technical and social focus of the plant that keeps the entire operation running smoothly, capable of churning out 650 box-fresh Series 3 Beemers each day. It is a serious investment in architecture, and for Hadid, as car companies start to resemble the Medicis on wheels, a chance to build on an almost operatic scale and put her architectural ambitions to the test.

Officially opened in mid May by Chancellor Schroder, the new plant was one of Europe’s largest construction projects. With an appropriately mammoth budget nudging £900 million (Hadid’s building accounted for £37.1 million), it was seen as a reassuring commitment by BMW to the industry and economy of its native land. When the company first announced its intention to build a new manufacturing complex, expressions of interest came from all over Europe.

Located almost exactly at the centre of Germany, Leipzig was chosen for its auspicious geography (easy connections with BMW’s Munich nerve centre) and its skilled but languishing workforce (125 000 people applied for jobs at the plant). Historically, Saxony is car-making country, with connections dating back to 1904 when August Horch founded the firm that later became Audi in Zwickau near the German/Czech border. Today, along with Audi and BMW, Porsche and Volkswagen also have plants in the region.

Though Leipzig has fared slightly better than other former GDR cities, unemployment is still around 20 per cent and since reunification its population has decreased by some 100 000 (nearly a fifth). The half hour drive out northwards from the centre of Leipzig to the plant on its brownfield site takes you through a carious, post-industrial landscape of derelict factories and deserted streets. Yet on the northern fringe there are stirrings of revival - a new airport, motorway, the Trade Fair complex dominated by lan Ritchie’s great glazed Messehalle (AR March 1996) and, of course, BMW, whose largesse and ambition has provided the area with 5500 new jobs.

Programatically, the Central Building is a modern chimera - part showcase, part offices, part laboratory, part canteen. Drawing together these different aspects, it also mediates between factory floor and office, between white collar and blue collar, and between product and process. A key aim was organisational transparency, achieved by a fluid layering and interpenetration of space, so that people are aware of other kinds of activities going on around them.

Most especially they are aware of overhead conveyors that snake around the building at ceiling height ferrying car bodies from one production department to another. As this regimented line of gleaming ghost cars glides silently past cascading terraces of open plan offices and the staff canteen (democratically shared by workers and management), there could be no more overt reminder of collective purpose.

Hemmed in between three huge production halls, the site, pre-allocated by BMW, offered particular challenges. Hadid’s buildings are more used to being objects in a landscape, and Leipzig is clearly in the lineage of topographic, horizontal structures such as the Vitra fire station (AR June 1993) and Land Form One (AR June 1999).

Here, however, the taut, muscular streak of the Central Building (no slip at 40,000m²) is dwarfed by the grey hangars of industrial production, like burly minders clustering round a potentially temperamental film star. Inside, the production halls for body making, assembly and paint finishing (not designed by Hadid) are relatively light and airy, but their scale is mind-bogglingly vast. Staff use bicycles and scooters to get around the interiors, an endearingly Monsieur Hulotesque touch amid all the robotic sophistication. Developed especially for Leipzig, BMW’s hyper flexible work structures means that the plant can vary its operational times from 60 to 140 hours a week, depending on demand, with no loss of efficiency.

The Central Building is distinguished from its lumbering supporting players by Hadid’s characteristically dynamic geometry- in plan, it resembles a lightning bolt, physically connecting (and metaphorically animating) the surrounding sheds. Interstitial spaces are landscaped to become contemplative courtyards. The building’s sleek horizontality is emphasised by long slits of glazing cut into its flanks (Zaha’s version of Go Faster stripes, perhaps). At its north end, a huge dark blue volume, like a whale or ship’s prow, nudges out from behind the sheds to mark the main entrance.

Visitors, management and workers alike, since everyone uses the same entrance, are greeted by a soaring glazed lobby that acts as a giant vitrine for BMWs past and present, together with a cafe and the obligatory merchandise boutique. Overhead, the car skeletons (a raw steel chassis is known as a Body in White) slide soundlessly past, drenched in cool blue light. Here you also encounter the building’s imposing concrete structure, its astonishing precision made possible by the miracle of self-compacting concrete (AR January 2004). It seems as though the technical capabilities of construction and the architectural potential of form-making, through computer visualisation, has at last caught up with and made manifest the outpourings of Hadid’s imagination, for so long widely considered unbuildable.

Beyond the entrance hall lies a modern Piranesian office landscape of terraces, ramps, plateaux and staircases. The building’s primary organisational strategy is a scissors section that fuses ground and first floor into a continuous entity. Two terrace structures, like hanging gardens of Bürolandschaft, step up in opposite directions, along the north-south axis framing a long void in between. At the bottom of the void is the auditing area - every 50th car is pulled off the production line and taken to bits for quality control purposes.

Experientially, individual workers are acutely conscious of being part of a larger enterprise. There are no hierarchies or management offices - each of the 740 Central Building employees, from trainee to CEO, has an identical, no-frills modular workstation. The only enclosed spaces are technical and testing areas on the ground floor and these have large glazed walls like shopfronts overlooking an internal street. ‘Structure creates behaviour’ proclaims BMW somewhat ominously, but within the elaborate contortions of the architecture there is a discernible sense of community, of space and placemaking.

From River Rouge to Lingotto, car factories, like cinemas, are a truly modern building type, shaped by the technological and commercial demands of the twentieth century. Of their time and for their time they manifested a kind of heroic industrial spirit, even romance in the case of FIAT’s Lingotto plant in Turin with its whizzy roof top test track. At their best, such buildings stretched architectural imagination to devise solutions that could put manufacturers ahead of their competitors and express brand supremacy.

A recurring theme of this issue is the extraordinary lengths today’s car manufacturers will go to in order to hijack architecture in the service of their products. With Hadid, however, you sense BMW have got something rather different - a genuinely radical building, both formally and spatially, that re-envisages the conventions, activities and hierarchies of the industrial workplace and recasts them as an efficient, flexible and dynamic organism. This really is Go Faster architecture.

Architect Zaha Hadid Architects
Structural engineers Anthony Hunt Associates, AGP Arge Gesamtplanung
Services engineer AGP Arge Gesamtplanung
Landscape architect Gross.Max
Photographs Dennis Gilbert/VIEW

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