The Benz

Posted on Aug 30 2006

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With limited time to design and realise one of the most complicated structures recently conceived, Dutch firm UN Studio brought in some expertise. Two hundred and forty six companies and engineering firms were engaged for the Mercedes Benz Museum, a castle and a labyrinth described by the Guardian's architecture critic, Jonathan Glancey, as "jet-age baroque". The structure of the Museum - three overlapping circles layered over eight floors in a twisting spiral - needed the expertise of Stuttgart University's Werner Sobek, head of the Institute for Lightweight Structures and Conceptual Design. Petra Blaisse, an interior and landscape architect known for her dramatic collaborations with Rem Koolhaas, worked on special elements.

But if forming networks of knights and squires is the basis of UN Studio's work, so too is strong, centralised organisation. Parametric design, reducing the labyrinth to a single diagram or map, is the key. "The only solution was to control the geometry of the building as completely as possible using the latest computer technology," says Ben van Berkel, UN Studio's co-founder and director. "Digitally controlling the geometry made it possible to incorporate any kind of change quickly and efficiently, immediately knowing the effects of that change on all other aspects of the building." UN Studio's computer wunderkind for Mercedes Benz was Arnold Walz. He'd been working on Gaudi Digital, an effort to digitise Gaudi's engineering experiments with hanging ropes, and generate a computer model of the Colonia Güel as it was originally envisaged.

The Mercedes Benz Museum, which opened in Stuttgart in May, was the logical culmination of UN Studio's systems of practice. Founded in 1988 by Amsterdam and London-trained Van Berkel and art historian Caroline Bos, the firm really began to take shape with the Erasmus Bridge commission (1990-6) in Rotterdam. That structure, a now iconic cable-stayed and bascule bridge with a single, asymmetrical pylon of sky-blue steel, was sufficiently complex to require a relatively large team to pull off. It was also the first test of the firm's integrative design principles. All the pieces, the five differently shaped concrete piers, the railings, the landings, the joints and the fixtures, were designed integrally, the finish of each crucial to the materialisation of the whole. And all the functional processes of the bridge - as public space, as transport system, as visual marker, as construction - were modelled simultaneously, brought together with increasingly sophisticated CAD-CAM methods.

A consolidated firm brought this sophistication to the boil in the late 90s, splicing together a mix of computer programs and writing their own in a bid to completely liberate their design from standard typologies. The fiendish experiment of Möbius House (1993-8) became an international success, mostly because the integration of a mathematical idea (the "Möbius strip", a 180 degree loop forming a continuous closed surface) seemed effortless. The house consists of two pathways that run their own trajectories and overlap and reverse roles at certain points. The interlocking lines come to stand for the two main materials used for the house - glass and concrete - which move in front of each other and switch places. Glass moves from a details material to a structural material, in glazed facades and dividing walls; and concrete moves from structure to details, in concrete furniture and stairs. This doubling was a way of organising both program and circulation for a client who worked from home, who needed separation as well as continuity of household functions. As a graphic representation of twenty-four hours of family life, Möbius House was a way of unfolding a structure in time, as well as in space: its elongated form "strolling" through the open Dutch countryside in which it's built.

So while there's no doubt a little commercial image-making and chutzpah at play, UN Studio's shape-shifting is above all a means for solving problems. The firm keep a kind of source book of useful shapes, against which all their projects are classified. The "Klein Bottle", a more complex, three-dimensional rendering of the Möbius strip, helped implement schemes that dealt with large influxes of people moving around a structure.

The Klein Bottle's capacity to be both inside and outside simultaneously was applied to the massive transfer hall at Arnhem Central (1996-2007), in order to integrate six different transport systems into a single underground terminal. To move upward from the depths of Arnhem Central is to move from the inside to the outside and back again - so it's possible to join and withdraw from the system at any time. "V" shapes were found to be useful for stacking a series of different programs vertically, as in the vertical foyer of the Theatre Lelystad (2002-5), which swings through the entire building to connect different theatre and congress halls on different floors. But recent preference has turned to the double helix, which can be seen in the two ramps which interweave - Möbius House-like - down the centre of the Mercedes Benz Museum.

The double helix contains the Mercedes Benz Museum's dual exhibitions - a history of the corporation and a collection of historic cars, trucks and aeroplanes - and it takes visitors downward from the eighth floor on a journey that would take six hours to properly complete. The visitor is brought to the top in a capsule-like escalator with an opening at eye level, through which historical images can be seen projected onto the walls of the central atrium. From here, wayfaring is encouraged. You can proceed directly down a chronological path, or indirectly through crossed time zones, moving between the historical data and the machines via linkages in the double helix. Although it can't been seen from the inside, the helix is formed out of an abstraction of the Mercedes Benz symbol, out of a trefoil of three overlapping circles. The centre of the circles makes a void, a triangular atrium that cuts light through the Museum's core. The semi-circular floors rotate around the central atrium forming horizontal plateaus which alternate between double and single heights. Oblique surfaces meet symmetrical curves, tucking deep, asymmetrical exhibition space into folds in the Museum's body. The line you follow through the labyrinth is a wall, and then a ceiling, and then a floor: the Museum "tries to set the static in motion" says one German architecture critic, "as if it wants to prove that architecture is still alive."

The Museum has already been declared one of the most bewilderingly brilliant structures of the new century. Thank god somebody drew up a map. +