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building study - Zaha Hadid has brought revolutionary production methods into its BMW administration building in Leipzig

The administration building for the new BMW plant in Leipzig, located in the former East Germany, feels like the project that Zaha Hadid Architects was destined to build. The heart of a building that has no precedents - because of the way it revolutionises the production of cars - it has to send production workers off in three different directions, while simultaneously providing office and testing space, and acting as a hub through which partly manufactured cars pass.

The result is a building that is as packed full of crazy angles and excitement as one would expect from Hadid. But whereas her projects, at least as drawings, can seem rather wilful and extravagant, this building's drama seems supremely rational, an effect that is reinforced by a near monochrome palette and superb quality of materials, particularly of concrete finishes.

Spend a couple of hours in the building and you start to think that sitting in the canteen with blue-lit conveyors carrying cars just above your head is simply the way that things always should be. It is thrilling and fascinating, but surely in this case there is no alternative? And what could seem rather grandiose is, in truth, simple common sense.

Everybody who works in offices effectively does the same thing: they sit at a computer and create and manipulate documents, or they go to meetings. So how do you differentiate one from another? Seeing the products of your labours passing just a few feet away is certainly a reminder of what the work is all about, of the purpose of the spreadsheet, of the end product. In commissioning Hadid BMW has not created a folly; it has set a precedent that works so well it will be difficult for other architects on other sites to ignore it.

Although the Hadid building has an area of 26,000m 2, it is dwarfed on the site by the three huge sheds of the production process that surround it on the out-of-town location. These three - the first known as 'body in white', where the chassis are built, the second the paint shop, and the third for assembly - surround the central building in a U-shaped formation. It is this arrangement that makes the plant so revolutionary. Previously all production has been linear, but for Leipzig BMW has rethought the process to make access for suppliers, many of whom are also on the site, much easier. From outside the car industry, one might think 'so what?', but since manufacturing boils down to efficiency and margins, this is a truly radical move. And, as a result, the administrative building has changed from being an adjunct to being at the absolute centre of the process.

There was never any question of using an outside architect to design the production facilities themselves. BMW used its standard modular system with aluminium facades that it employs around the world. This method allows for easy expansion and change. But for the administration building it set up a competition with a rigorously devised brief and an impressive panel of international judges.

Matthias Sauerbruch, of Anglo-German practice Sauerbruch Hutton, chaired the judges and praised Peter Claessen, the manager of the new plant and the client, as 'one of the most enthusiastic lovers of architecture that I have met - he shares with Zaha the absolute determination to create and succeed'.

Hadid beat a raft of international architects, including Will Alsop, Odile Decq, Erik van Egeraat, Helmut Jahn, Dominique Perrault and Ian Ritchie, to clinch the contract, and was, according to Sauerbruch, one of the few who 'could deal with all the complex elements'. Second place in the competition went to LAB, the architect of Federation Square in Melbourne, which came up with a design for 'a net building of filaments'.

Hadid worked with landscape architect Gross Max and devised with a strategy that extends the dynamic lines of the building into the car-parking area, where the spaces are arranged to follow these lines. However, this is a low-rise building and, although the strategy looks excellent on plan, it is scarcely apparent on the site or from the building's windows.

Because it is tucked between the three giant production sheds that dwarf it, the building has little presence from a distance.

Up close, the effect is that shock of recognition of seeing one of Hadid's drawings rendered so accurately in reality. And once you move inside, the real drama begins.

There is a large foyer space, intended to be social and so housing a café as well as a public shop selling BMW merchandise. There is a dark-grey stone floor to provide a sober backdrop, but the eye is immediately drawn upwards to lines shooting off in all directions.

Concrete walls head off at angles, conveyors pass overhead, and this is all accentuated by linearity in the lighting tracks, and the continuous nature of the metal handrails.

Also rising up directly opposite the entrance is the smaller of two 'cascades' of stepped accommodation - in this case a series of office spaces that gain individual identity by differences in the changes in level, while still forming one continuous whole.

The elegant conveyors, highlighted with blue neon, carry the cars silently overhead, turning at nodes as they continue their slightly mysterious journey from one part of the production process to another. Great attention has been paid to their acoustic design, with the result that, according to Claessen, the conveyor that collects plates in the central restaurant makes more noise than them.

Patrik Schumacher, Hadid's lieutenant and jointly credited on this project, says: 'We wanted the different activities to happen together - they may be separated acoustically but not visually.' This includes not just the offices, but the test areas around the edge of the building that are acoustically and environmentally screened by glass walls, but remain fully visible. In addition, the process of audits (the thorough examination of every 50th car on the production line) takes place in the open.

Deliberately, not all the production areas are accessed at ground-floor level, so that production workers have to pass through the office at the start and end of the day, and when they come back to the canteen at midday. At the very highest level, and again accessible from the entrance, is the 'bridge' - the only part of the building from which one can look down on the conveyers.

There are elegantly detailed staircases, and the cascades are joined by a combination of ramps and steps. Escape stairs are housed in deliberately under-emphasised cores. One impressive aspect of the building's planning is that, despite the fact that one senses there is a plethora of levels, a single lift provides access to all of them.

Here, as at the Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg, Hadid has used self-compacting concrete, which can more easily follow the curving walls and the rhomboid-shaped openings. The finish is boardmarked and of a superb quality, adding a tactile and sensual feel to the deliberately austere choice of materials. A steel space frame supports the roof, and rooflights help bring in daylight.

To compensate anyone uncomfortable with open-plan working for the absence of private offices, meeting rooms are plentiful. With a total of 650 office workers, there are more than 40 meeting rooms that can accommodate up to 20 people, and a further 40-plus smaller pods, sat within the office landscape, that can be used for smaller meetings or just for private work. These lozenge-shaped smaller pods are intriguing, featuring perforated ceilings, with acoustic baffles looking like giant earplugs hanging down beneath them.

The office layout was determined by a study at the University of Stuttgart, and the furniture is by Bene. Sadly, this was the one area where the architect did not have sufficient control. So although it was able to specify carpet in two shades of grey - one for the working area and one for circulation - it was not able to prevent the introduction of low-level desk partitions in a dark-red colour that jumps out in the otherwise subdued palette.

Claessen admits that many staff were apprehensive before they moved in, saying he received complaints that 'it will smell, it will be loud and you won't be able to work'.

On average, he says, it takes people two weeks to get used to the building, and a further two weeks to realise the advantages of improved communications and transparency.

Last week (13 May) the building opened officially, and BMW launched production of its Generation 3 car. At a time when cars are becoming increasingly hard to distinguish between, BMW has commissioned a building that is utterly unlike anything that has gone before. It will be a hard act to follow.

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