April 2001--Last summer, European carmaker Volkswagen AG unveiled Autostadt next door to its world headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany. The gleaming, $417-million complex is a precise blend of theme park, museum and architectural statement, spread over 60 acres of lawns crisscrossed with waterways and footpaths. It is the result of international creative collaboration, headed by a world-class corporation that knew what it wanted.
Munich-based Henn Architekten Ingenieure master planned the project, creating the high-concept design of the main buildings: the KonzernForum (corporate forum), ZeitHaus (auto museum), AutoTürme (auto towers) KundenCenter (customer auto delivery center) as well as the five-star Ritz-Carlton hotel. Each of the individual brand pavilions for VW’s subsidiaries--Lamborghini, Bentley, Audi, Seat, Scania, Skoda, VW-Nutzfahrzeuge and VW – was designed by a different architect hailing from the country where the brand originated.
Autostadt is the brainchild of VW’s maverick CEO Dr. Ferdinand Piëch. It began with plans for a new auto delivery center – a centralized location for customers to pick up their new cars – and mushroomed from there, inspired partly by the coming Hanover Expo 2000. Piëch saw an opportunity to open the company to the public. To coincide with the start of the Expo, the opening date was set for June 1, 2000.
"VW wanted to be seen as more than just a manufacturer of cars," elaborates Jack Rouse, CEO of the Cincinnati-based entertainment design and production firm Jack Rouse Associates (JRA), which helped master plan the Autostadt guest experience. JRA defined and executive produced the contents of the KonzernForum and the ZeitHaus, and some of the interactive exhibits in the KundenCenter. "It wanted to express itself as a company concerned about safety, quality, social responsibility and the environment."
Cruising the AutoLab
The tour begins in AutoLab, the 25,000-square-foot exhibit space inside the KonzernForum, with live demonstrations, immersive walk-throughs, touch screen displays, interactives and special-format theatres. Its crisp and neutral environment reflects VW’s design aesthetic. "VW believes in very calm lines and monochromatic colors," explains JRA art director David Ferguson. "We used lots of powder-coated surfaces and stainless steel." In the low-ceilinged space, a series of curved interior walls create fluid, interlocking spaces, enriched with maple and marble flooring.
Getting that clean, uncluttered look was no small feat. The building’s cooling, heating and sprinkler systems were contained in the ceilings and came up through the floor. Gielissen Interiors & Exhibitions, the Dutch scenic shop based in Eindhoven that fabricated the AutoLab exhibits, had to ensure that the interior walls did not impede the air flow. Gelissen provided the solution with the Fractal modular display systems. Manufactured in the Netherlands, this is a modular, aluminum-clad system that comes in segments one meter long (3.3 feet) and 20 centimeters thick (about eight inches). These can be joined to build interior walls and display units.
The building’s mechanical systems also put limitations on mounting lights directly to the ceiling. "We could only mount fixtures every nine feet, in contrast to the standard four feet," says Kathy Abernathy, a lighting designer with Boston-based Available Light. "And the building was equipped with low-voltage sockets inadequate for our needs," Again, Gielissen came up with the answer, working with Fractal to custom-produce curved, truss-like strips. These were affixed to the ceiling, with Erco track lighting mounted to them. "It enabled us to go great distances without tying up the ceiling," says Abernathy. "At the same time, it matched the look of the exhibits. We ended up with a very clean and tidy installation."
AutoLab’s toned-down backgrounds lent even more importance to the lighting design. "Autostadt originally asked us to use no color--not exactly an ideal lighting situation," says Abernathy. Available Light complied by mixing orange, red and dark blue to make white. "The composite white created textures and shadow. We washed the walls with Erco track halogens, fitted with blue filters, and punched the exhibits with the white light, using Erco low-voltage track fixtures, to create dimension and focus."
Some exhibits called for more dynamic lighting, such as Durability Testing, an immersive walk-through in which guests pass through a vibration room, a wind tunnel, a heat room and a cold-testing chamber to simulate the environmental tests that new cars undergo. Available Light lit the heat room with warm reds and oranges. Stonco jelly jars with red globes are suspended from the ceiling, and RSLI Fiber Optic pavers recessed into the floor, emitted a sequence of red and amber lights. "The room also had windows with metal grids on them to effect a factory sensibility," says Kathy Abernathy. "We shot red and amber light from the outside to create line patterns that dance across the walls." For this effect, Available Light used a series of Philips PAR 38 halogens and Erco low-voltage QT12s.
About 30 short video pieces shown in AutoLab were executive produced by JRA in conjunction with New Sentimental Film of Zurich and two Hamburg companies, Zoss and Medium AV. Some deliver information; others, such as Angela Gläser’s live-action short on children’s creativity, inject an emotional note. Shown on five, 50-inch plasma screens, the video depicts a boy designing and making a paper airplane which he sends flying over the rooftops of a city. The videos are stored as MPEG2 files and played on Alcorn McBride DVM2 video playback units.
Edwards Technologies, Inc. (ETI) based in El Segundo, Calif. developed the design packages for the audio, video and show control systems for the KonzernForum, ZeitHaus and KundenCenter. "We were involved in the project from the very start of the concept development phase," says ETI president Brian Edwards. "We acted as JRA’s virtual technical department." Autostadt contracted directly with ETI to install and integrate the video and show control systems. ETI also worked closely with Siemens, the electronics giant headquartered in Munich, which wired AutoLab’s audio systems. Most of the exhibits in the AutoLab have their own Alcorn McBride V16 "brains," masterminded by 12 V16s in the show control room. Several of the exhibits are triggered by the live hosts, a feature that allows Autostadt to pulse the shows based on foot traffic. Given the copious number of exhibits and theatres and the 70 DVM2 Video playback units site-wide (according to Edwards, the largest installation of this technology in the world) ETI strove to deliver as simple and elegant a control package as possible. "We always want to minimize the craziness," says Edwards.
Each of the four main exhibit areas is capped with a specialty cinema experience. Three of the theatres are housed in giant floor-to-ceiling cubes, painted in bright primary colors. These cubes are an integral design motif of the KonzernForum. "From the beginning, we felt that film was the best way to deliver VW’s message," says JRA design director Mark Snell, "and it was also the best way to utilize the KonzernForum’s eccentric cubes."
Rainer Kaufmann’s film Day Out whimsically addresses the topic of social responsibility through the story of a romance that develops between a school teacher and the bus driver hired to take her class on a field trip. The 248-seat, 3,830-square-foot theatre uses a Kinoton 8/70 projection system, with Alcorn McBride show control, and a GAE digital sound system. The theatre is also integrated with a manual 35 mm projection system and set up to accommodate video as well.
Showing in the nine-screen, 360-degree, stand-up theatre is director Dani Levy’s 12-minute film The Mystery of Safety, a lyrical adventure tale teaching that the concept of absolute safety is a fallacy. Shot in Zurich and Iceland, the film was a collaboration between Zurich-based Condor Films and Burbank-based Iwerks Entertainment, which also produced and mixed the 89 audio tracks. The 5,050 square-foot theatre accommodates up to 300 guests. Nine Barco projectors, integrated with nine QuVis QuBit video playback units, encircle the guests with panoramic images. The QuBit system alleviated the need for a central film projection booth, and also lowered the operational overhead. The EAW speakers (nine EAW LA 460s, four SB 528 subs and four JF 200s) are hung overhead and directly behind each of the nine perforated screens to create an optimal sound environment. Audio is provided in English and German, with a Siemens C-TRANS multi-lingual Infa red translation system providing additional languages through headsets.
The Snorri Brothers’ Viewpoints, a multi-screen meditation on the environment, is shown on 22 50-inch plasma screens dispersed through a 3,070-square-foot space. The central screens slowly pivot around, alternating close-ups of humans’ and animals’ eyes. Filling the remaining screens are four individual works: Sky, Land, Ocean and Mankind. All the sequences relate to one another, but there is no set linear flow to the experience and guests are free to walk about as in a gallery.
Paths to Quality is a 3D CGI simulation ride film produced by former San Francisco special effects house Xaos. The four-minute film is an abstract treatise on order, chaos and creativity. The simulation theatre and hardware were provided by SimEx, of Toronto. Michael Stearns created the sound design.
House of the (Auto) Spirits
The 50,000-square-foot ZeitHaus traces the evolution of automobile transportation and how the auto has shaped and reflected society. "We knew that we could do something extraordinary," says Juergen Lewandowski, one of Germany’s leading authorities on the global auto industry, who consulted on the project. "We wanted to tell the complete story, even if that meant showing cars from other brands and telling some of the darker aspects of that history. Lots of different manufacturers have evolved the car into the perfection that it is today."
The high-ceilinged, interior exhibit space of ZeitHaus sports a deep blue background. Red, blue and white Ecru track lighting dramatically illuminates this immaculate, opulent, theatrical showplace. Panels of frosted glass etched with technical drawings subdivide the space. Exhibits range from period gas stations to spit-shined engines gleaming on pedestals, to cultural artifacts such as television sets from the early 1950s. Video monitors play short historical clips that illustrate the novel consequences of mass travel with such scenes as newly-mobile Germans struggling to master spaghetti in Italian cafes. But the central focus is on the cars. "We were designing environments that were jewel cases for the cars, each of which was an incredible artifact," states Ferguson.
Close by the replica of an 1886 Bentley three-wheeler is a sign thanking its inventor, Karl Bentz, for launching the era of individual mobility. A 1964 Honda 600 illustrates the beginning of the Japanese automobile industry and a 1959 Cadillac El Dorado symbolizes an American status peak. The advent of luxury autos is represented by a 1922 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. The sporty 1950 Porsche 356 Coupe on display is credited as the model that became the technical prototype for the Beetle. This is also where you’ll find John Lennon’s 1967 white Beetle, which graced the cover of Abbey Road.
The vintage cars are set in historical vignettes, with realistic, life-sized figures, dressed in period costume with the color toned down, accompanied by contextual artifacts or sepia-toned archival images. Artisan Limited in Bristol, U.K. provided the graphics. Scenic Route, based in York, England, was subcontracted by U.K.-based Silverknight to fabricate all setwork, scenery and figures. Each figure is interacting with a car – turning a crank, gripping a steering wheel, etc. Scenic Route fabricated the figures in England, then installed them on site. "We were working at total arm’s length," says Colin Pyrah, Scenic Route’s director of sales. "We spent a lot of time in Wolfsburg getting the precise measurements and dimensions, but it was certainly a relief when all the figures fit precisely." In the live casting process, live human volunteers were carefully posed, then covered in Plaster of Paris to create reverse molds from which the final fiberglass figures were cast.
The ZeitHaus has two movie presentations. Dietrich Mangold’s To the Limit is a visual montage of the history of motor sports. Shot in Super 16 and projected in video, it loops in a small walk-through theatre that accommodates up to 50 guests. The second presentation is Gabriele Wengler’s How the Wheel Changed the World. Mixing archival and live-action images, Wengler’s piece, produced by New Sentimental, shows the role that the wheel has played in war as well and in opening up new vistas for travel. The 100-seat theatre features a Barco 6400 Projection system that plays off a Doremi file server.
"The building becomes the sign," says John Furneaux, president of Furneaux-Stewart Design and Communications, based in London, which designed the Bentley brand pavilion for Autostadt.
"We were keen not to play to the cliché of ‘traditional’ Britain – the burr walnut veneers and hand-stitched Connolly hide," says Ray Hole, the project’s architectural director. "We wanted to capture its sense of restrained force and accent that notion of deep reserves of power." Tucked inside a hillock, only the upper story of the 8,611-square-foot pavilion is exposed, a sleek green granite-and-glass roof that hugs the slope.
Guests enter through a slot in the granite building into a sinuous internal space, in no surface is perfectly level, and find themselves spiraling down a ramp around the 27-foot-high sculpture of an oversized W16 crankshaft rising up through three floors. EDM Ltd., a subsidiary of UK-based C-Beck Group, Ltd., fabricated the crankshaft from Furneaux-Stewart designs. Sixteen PSF LCD monitors, ranging from 6 to 15 inches, are arrayed around the crankshaft and present a story of the Bentley’s engine power and driving exhilaration.
In lighting the revolving crankshaft, London-based DHA Design Services created a sense of movement with arc lines strobing up its side and moving head luminaries washing down onto the object. "We also tied in the color sequence with what was happening on the video screens, and the powerful background audio track," says O’Donovan. "We mixed in lots of hot and warm colors to complement the sequences with the combustion engine." The minute-looping sequence is synced with the A/V by an Alcorn McBride show control system.
In the main hall, the experience opens into the Exploration section, with examples of Bentley technology, such as the 1920s LeMans engine, and a media wall that provides a virtual tour of the factory where the Bentley is produced. The highlight of this section is Project Hunaudières, Bentley’s new sports car, posed on a steep incline so that it seems to race toward the horizon. DHA lit the exhibit for a showroom effect. "We used lots of chrome and metallic fixtures to make it sing," says O’Donovan, "and lit it from above, raking it with richly-textured light to add drama." Red, recessed LED perimeter lights along the sides of the bank help foster the forced perspective illusion and also direct guests toward the exit tunnel.
The 30-meter-long exit tunnel is lined with 18 14-inch PSF1/3LSOH monitors that show footage of a B Continental traversing a Spanish landscape.
Which Love Are You Talking About?
During the months leading up to Autostadt’s grand opening, nearly 400 individuals, representing vendors from around Europe and North America, were working simultaneously on-site. Despite this, despite the tight deadlines and the cultural differences, many of those we spoke with remarked on how smoothly it all went, giving credit to the focus and participation of the client. "We were working with people who understood and appreciated our problems," says Pyrah. "We were all on the same creative wave-band. Good chemistry can overcome a lot of difficulties."
The occasional language barrier did pop up. "My German consists of ‘Do you know English?’" says Kathy Abernathy. "If the answer was ‘no,’ I broke out into charades."
Many of the Germans involved spoke fluent English, but idiomatic expressions don’t always come through as intended. "Autostadt would translate a document into English for us; we would take that document and translate it into American vernacular, then send it back to Autostadt for review to make sure we got it right," says Snell. "For instance, VW wanted to talk about its love for cars. In German, there are several different words that can be translated as ‘love,’ but they all have slightly different meanings. We had to work together to make sure that we understood just which ‘love’ they were talking about."
ETI and Siemens, which worked closely together on wiring the site, had the benefit of a common technical language. "During the three months we were there, the Siemens team’s English improved dramatically," says Mike Stone, a senior engineer with ETI. "My German didn’t improve one iota, except that by the end, I was fluent in ordering beer."
Bentley photos courtesy of Furneaux Stewart Design & Communication Ltd.
Additional photos courtesy of Jack Rouse Associates.