The Ultimate Factory?

Here’s a version of my May piece for Building Design – which provoked some interesting comments. My book Factory, which came out in 2003, was a journey through the architecture of industry but BMW Leipzig was still to come.

After 1989, the haemorrhaging of employment in the former GDR, particularly in heavy industry, drew BMW’s attention east, and the Leipzig area was identified for the site of the company’s newest manufacturing centre on home soil. Production began nine years ago and currently employs around 6000.

In the city recently, with an afternoon to spare, I set out on the trail of the BMW works. They lie several kilometres out, slung low and grey amidst seemingly endless fields of vivid green and yellow, wheat and rapeseed. Wanting to see for myself a Zaha Hadid building larger than the Vitra fire station (the first ZHA building I visited) or the Serpentine café (the most recent) getting there without a car turned out to be quite a trek. It’s well out in the horizontal Saxony countryside, the local bus taking you via a small, untouched villages, one with a war memorial (a simple plinth with a helmet on it) on the central green. Then, all at once, you arrive.



It could hardly be less like VW at Wolfsburg where the works are the town. Here, out in the fields, amidst extensive car parking (but few BMWs), is a mesh of single storey, single process plants (press, body and paint shops, followed by assembly) all tied together by Zaha Hadid’s nodal Centre Block. Here the sweep and brio of the design reflects the ambition of the factory, which aims to clean up (in every sense) with a new generation of electric vehicles, BMW i3 and, next year the i8, while still continuing to manufacture conventional vehicles.


Hadid’s svelte reception area, through the turnstiles of which some of the workers were coming at the end of their shift, appearing from the furthest reaches of the immense site, is a metaphor for modernity, efficiency and clean industry. Overhead, bathed in blue sub-aqueous light, the silvered carcasses of BMWs roll quietly along on two levels, in opposite directions, a kind of Sorcerer’s Apprentice framed by the immensity of the structural concrete. In silent choreography the car shells rhythmically, and yet not entirely predictably, appear and disappear along unseen tracks. Add electronic soundtrack and it would be a fantastic performance piece. It is, self evidently, a very expensive front of house but how many other companies, even in electronics or other 21st century production facilities, can so succinctly offer an image of the processes occurring off stage?


BMW Welt, their spacey distribution centre in Munich was designed by Coop Himmelb(l)au and opened in 2007. Here in Leipzig, BMW describe ZHA’s Central Building as showing just how ‘different industrial architecture can look’. And that’s the point.


Even briefly glimpsed, (we missed the English language tour, two and a half hours of it) the endless revolving cars overhead are mesmerising. I doubt many of the teenage boys gathering for their tour will have seen Charlie Chaplin’s disturbing Modern Times – probably just as well. BMW has worked hard and with consummate skill to present and mediate modern industry within contemporary society. How many major companies, in the UK or elsewhere, would even dare to try?

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