The impressive display cases of prestige car brands

The credit crunch may be curtailing car fans’ ability to buy their dream vehicles, but it doesn’t stop them worshipping their favourite brands. Guy Bird looks at
prestige marques that have built imposing display spaces, and visits the newest

Damien Hirst-style dissections split into multiple glass boxes – in this case cars, not sharks – and upside-down vehicles stuck to ceilings are just two examples of the unusual approach to exhibiting that Porsche has taken within its brand new, bold and dramatic museum in Stuttgart, Germany.

The €100m (£87m), 25 800m2 project – which opened on 31 January – is the result of four-and-a-half years of planning, and aims to attract 200 000 visitors a year to see a rolling selection of its 400-odd collection of cars and exhibits, bring their classic cars to be restored in the museum’s ‘transparent workshop’, or take a bite to eat on the third-floor restaurant.

The dramatic steel structure, designed by Viennese architect Delugan Meissl, is a massive statement building resting on just three huge concrete legs, thus appearing to hover above the ground.

Going up a long escalator from the lobby brings you to the main 5600m2 exhibition space where the exhibits are arranged according to core Porsche values – ‘fast’, ‘light’, ‘clever’, ‘powerful’, ‘intense’ and ‘consistent’. The last value is illustrated in a wall display that overlays silhouettes of the various incarnations of the 911 to show how that model has evolved over the decades, always adhering to a design philosophy governed by ‘a consistent reduction to the essential’.

The museum can’t be physically ‘fast’ or ‘light’ (the building weighs some 35 000 tonnes), but its multi-directional displays, often arranged in lines, give the static cars a strange sense of movement, of being part of some multi-level race track. White and brightly lit, the space itself feels light too. Three ‘sound showers’, reminding visitors of the distinctive sound of Porsche cars, add an extra aural dimension.

As a metaphorical reflection of Porsche’s brand values the space is largely a great success, and the latest in a growing list of car-makers that have sought to reinforce their brand with expensive architectural homages.

BMW, Citroën, Maserati and Mercedes have all recently built structures that go a long way beyond the often-uninviting car showroom or sterile museum space. All seem united by considerable ambition and some liquidity. Porsche is far from the biggest car company in the world, but it has been the most profitable for many years, and now has a controlling stake in the much bigger VW Group – home to brands such as Audi, Lamborghini and Bentley.

They also all have a desire to build on an impressive heritage to create demand from existing and future customers. As a case in point, BMW’s BMW Welt (BMW World) – opened in 2007 – has an interactive exhibition specifically aimed at children.

As well as being a ‘brand experience centre’, this structure – designed by Coop Himmelblau – is intended to act as a delivery centre where upmarket customers can come to be wowed before collecting their latest ride, courtesy of an amazing spiral ramp working its way down from a vortex-like structured roof. The whole building is very complex – overtly so, physically mirroring BMW’s current range of elaborately shaped cars with their mix of concave and convex surfaces – and also suggestive of the brand’s technological expertise.

That other upmarket German brand, Mercedes, opened its nine-level museum in Stuttgart – designed by Ben van Berkel of UN Studio – alongside its brand experience centre in 2006. Porsche’s senior management were clearly impressed, using the same exhibition organiser – HG Merz – as the Mercedes museum employed, even recruiting its curator, Achim Stejskal.

It’s not just German brands either. Exotic Italian maker of sports cars Maserati chose Ron Arad to create a giant twisted loop made of glass fibre on which various Maserati cars sit in a flagship showroom at its global headquarters in Modena, Italy. The shape – painted in Maserati’s Pantone-referenced signature blue – apes the famous US Indy 500 oval track and race that Maserati has won twice, and also echoes the brand’s lozenge-shaped grille and ‘nose’.

Even the more mainstream – but historically innovative – carmaker Citroën has got in on the act, opening a new concept store for its brand at 42 Avenue Champs-Élysées in Paris in September 2007. The French manufacturer still intends to make affordable everyday cars, but also wants to be seen as innovative and future-facing. Architect Manuelle Gautrand’s interior features seven rotating platforms presenting Citroën’s vehicle history, covered by a 25m curved window facade featuring a repeated abstraction of the brand’s double-chevron logo. It’s a wonderful space to view exciting cars and concepts, as well as looking out over one of Paris’ most famous streets.

All these spaces strive to make experiencing their products a near-religious experience. How many other car brands intend to build similar ‘cathedrals’ now that an economic crisis is under way is unknown, but Audi’s Wilkinson Eyre-designed showroom-cum-billboard alongside London’s Westway is due for completion in late 2009. For those marques that have already built and opened them though, these car cathedrals will act as powerful marketing tools to keep their brand message strong until times improve.



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