Tame Serpent – Zaha Hadid’s Central Building at the BMW Works, Leipzig
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Concept/Editing: Andreas Christoph Schmidt, Camera: Lutz Reimann, Schmidt & Paetzel Fernsehfilme GmbH commissioned by the Goethe-Institut, 2010
Somewhere on the factory complex is the administration building, representative to a greater or lesser degree, containing the standard offices, next to that the canteen, in front of it the car park. That’s how it’s been for decades. From here the men in white overalls roam through the long, noise-filled factory buildings, supervising the blue-collar workers and production. It’s different at BMW in Leipzig. For a long time production has been done by robots on near-sterile shop floors, virtually under laboratory conditions, for a long time employees in production have been as highly-qualified as the desk-based staff and wear white collars just like them. Hierarchies no longer matter or are no longer publicised, they are one big family.
The production process has changed as well. The linear works structure has given way to more of a star-shaped principle, from which you can expect more diversification and shorter paths. However a star has a heart, a centre. At BMW this heart element between the container-like factory buildings is prosaically known as the “Central Building”. It unites the organisational and technical administration, quality control and rest areas, yet it pumps the car bodies through from one hall to another like blood through the arteries. You could be focusing on your beef roulade in the casino whilst silvery 3-Series raw auto bodies float silently on conveyors above your head, on their way from the press room to the paint shop. Then the parade of painted car bodies from there to the final assembly area entertains the office workers who can watch the conveyor from the office floors, which are stacked up terrace-style.
Everything seems to be on the move
But first things first: just seeing the layout of the car parks in front of the building prepares you for the world of forms created by Zaha Hadid, the female architect who is originally from Iraq and holds British citizenship. 4 000 parking spaces are arranged on long, curved roadways leading to the Central Building. Inside the new building, visitors are greeted by two oblique, Hadid-style reception counters. They pass through a massive concrete frame, also on a diagonal, to reach the “Market Place”, a widened thoroughfare with a dozen bistro tables. Conventional spatial characteristics are nowhere to be found in the entrance zone, and the visitor quickly realises that this is deliberate. Instead there is a very dynamic feel to the space, a host of swooping ceiling trajectories, ramps with handrails streaking along them, the conveyor gantries on the ceiling, everything seems to be on the move here. The colour scheme is rather bleaker: cement grey, concrete grey, steel grey and zinc grey are occasionally accented with white paint, red-brown furniture or a yellow crane runway. And as well as that there are the car bodies, which are effectively illuminated in blue on their processions through the area.
Bringing employees in touch with each other
It is indeed a previously unknown type of building, a multi-functional link building. Labs, the health service, the kitchen and the auditorium are sealed off, but have windows so that people can see inside them. The other functions, particularly the various different office levels accessed via staircases and ramps, are arranged openly in the spatial continuum, which above all is supposed to achieve one thing: bringing employees in touch with each other, to attune them to the collective opus, to keep reminding them what it is that they are involved in. That’s why the conveyors go through the canteen. That’s why there’s a “public” quality inspection, where complete vehicles are dismantled again and measured in a very clinical-seeming laboratory with the results displayed on the notice board, intended as staff motivation but probably sometimes perceived as criticism.
How much Hadid has BMW been able to afford? Hadid’s serpentine body linking the unpretentious factory buildings definitely stands out as a focal point. It probably wasn’t possible to put extravagance into effect with the extremely predictable design of the facades. Even the floor plans reveal more pragmatism than is usual with Hadid’s designs. Thoroughfares, processes, the arrangement and character of rooms are largely plausible and have obviously influenced the architecture more than it has influenced them. It seems to be a little reminiscent of the organic outlines of Hugo Häring.
Resisting the right angle
Admittedly Hadid’s power to resist the right angle remains intact. The grammatical structure of her architectural language consists of rhomboid room shapes, slanted windows, bizarre staircases and oblique struts, her syntax consists of dynamic sequences and perspectivised drama. The bizarre splinter aesthetics of her early designs have been softened by soft, round transitions and forms that express more movement. Currents appear to flow through the building, material ones as well as spiritual, and with this she is undoubtedly on target for the statement required by BMW.
The fact that it is even possible to work properly in the building speaks in favour of her increased tolerance with regard to the trivial constraints of utilisation and economics. Her previous clients were not so well served in this respect and had to accept considerably more construction “art”. Hadid architecture has become acceptable – which can primarily be credited to the vigilant BMW works manager Peter Claussen as the client’s representative and Zaha Hadid’s project manager Patrik Schumacher. However the whole-hearted statement that a new age of industrial (building) culture has been heralded in Leipzig can probably still only be issued with a question mark.
is a historian and critic of architecture and lives in Berlin.
Translation: Jo Beckett
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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