During the 20th century, the museum became architecture’s most sophisticated means of expression, a symbol of modernity, and a key area of study. The Mercedes-Benz Museum is the latest in a long line that started with Wright’s Guggenheim, the Pompidou Centre by Piano and Rogers and continued with the more recent Bilbao Guggenheim by Gehry and the Wolfsburg Phaeno Science Center by Hadid.
The Mercedes Museum will also become part of museum-architecture history. Not only as a statement of contemporary architecture but for having put the digital design process squarely on the map. Ben van Berkel works with a diagram that contains all the requirements of the project. It is a vector that accompanies him throughout the whole design process, indicating everything from spatial organisation and structural design down to the smallest detail and finish. The system creates a self-sustaining 3D model from the architectural drawings, and generates services, volumes and openings.
Unlike those who use digital architecture merely for aesthetic research, UN Studio sees the computer as the means of imaginatively managing a mathematic model without being cramped by formal, preconceived solutions. Indeed van Berkel is not so much concerned with the final appearance of a building as with its afterimage: the image it leaves in our minds. The building’s location close to the motorway is paradigmatic. People see it from the inside of a moving car; a slightly blurred image is what will remain in their minds.
The entrance opens into a wide, full-height triangular-shaped atrium leading immediately to the top floor where the exhibition starts. Designed as a double spiral that twists around the empty well of the atrium, the building has six horizontal exhibition floors, alternately six single and six double height. Contrary to appearances, the structure is not one continuous flowing surface. The six floors are separate and slightly inclined, to create a dynamic space around the cars on display, and also to provide the structural support for the building. The result is a sequence of open and closed spaces, some opening to the outside, others - darker and more dramatic - giving frequent glimpses of the interior. The floor folds, becomes a wall and then a ceiling. Sustained by three huge central pillars, it leaves vast expanses of untrammelled exhibit space where the cars can take centre stage. The two exhibition circuits - a chronological account of Mercedes production, and the history of a myth - employ a variety of exhibition methods: cars are hung on the walls or theatrically displayed on pedestals, and there is a vast sequence of alternative circulation routes. Ancillary services and plant are contained in the walls, leaving uncluttered flowing space that is used in different, surprising ways. In UN Studio’s more recent works, diagrams and the actual structure relate in ways that recall the Baroque architects. Van Berkel is amused by the comparison. “Certainly”, he says, “I have always been really fascinated by Bernini and Borromini. Not just by their buildings but by their incredible ability to cast their discipline into question with innovative representation techniques”. For van Berkel these techniques - whether inspired by the Baroque period, great 20th century artists or mathematical models - are the indispensable means of bridging the gap between abstract thought and real-life construction. They are essential to comprehend new horizons and give architecture a holistic dimension, a means of creating volumes that respond directly to project requirements.