Watching The Cars Roll By

It's hard to imagine a less likely location for an auto plant than the center of one of Europe's oldest cities. But Volkswagen's sleek new $162 million Glass Factory sits smack in the middle of Dresden, Germany. It is the first successful, modern attempt to re-integrate heavy industry into urban culture, contradicting a century of urban-planning wisdom that required factories to be isolated from residential and leisure zones. When VW starts rolling out its new luxury Phaeton model later this month, the company hopes the city's cultural charms will help lure a more upscale consumer. Dresden was ideal for the experiment: its city center, where blocks bombed in World War II still stood empty, desperately needed innovative development. Michael Manser, former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, says the practice should become more common. "Now that factory work can be done without colossal dirt and filth, there seems very little reason to separate homes from industry," he says.

Not everyone in Dresden agrees. About 17,000 residents petitioned against the factory when it was first proposed in 1998. They are far more interested in seeing Dresden's center gradually restored to its former baroque glory. Locals who hid in the cellars of its ornate palace during the Allied bombing raids of 1945 joked that if they couldn't live there, at least they would die surrounded by splendor. Those who survived saw ugly concrete tower blocks spring up when East Germany fell under Soviet domination. Plans to build a car factory seemed merely like the latest indignity, explains the plant's architect, Gunter Henn, who fled the city with his family when he was 6. Henn argues that in addition to baroque culture, the city historically has been known for it industrial innovation--even if the only car most Dresdeners knew firsthand was the flimsy little East German Trabant, produced in a stinking factory in nearby Chemnitz. VW wanted to be different. "That was [our] challenge," says Henn. "Can the building and the work here be integrated into the town so it's not a noisy place, it's an esthetic place?"

So far, the answer seems to be yes. Henn maintains that his factory, built on a wasteland formerly occupied by a decrepit exhibition hall, has given Dresden a beautiful public space in keeping with the city's culture and history. Indeed, Dresden's state, Saxony, was the hub of early 20th-century German car manufacturing. Moats that surround the building echo those in the old city center. The factory's transparency helps it blend into the old town. "You can look through this building and on the other side you see these housing areas; you look through it and connect the restaurant with the working area, so you have different combinations of atmospheres," Henn explains. Inside, glazed pods and pavilions create distinct spaces for amenities like a piano bar and conference rooms. From every part of the structure, the assembly line is visible. VW anticipates that when the factory opens to the public in March, locals will enjoy coming to concerts and exhibitions in the main atrium or visiting the factory restaurant, a cocoon of burgundy leather chairs and smoked-oak floors.

But by opening up the plant so completely, VW also aims to revolutionize the way people think about cars. Though beer and chocolate factories have long offered guided tours, heavy industry is one of the last to become a source of public entertainment. The Magna Center in Sheffield, England, a former steelworks turned science-adventure park, and VW's own factory in Wolfsburg, which is attached to a theme park, both tap into a growing interest in understanding the process of manufacturing. "More and more we want to know where things come from, with food, with cars, with our clothes, our shoes," Henn says. "People are more trusting when they see how it is created."

VW is aggressively capitalizing on that trend, seeking to involve new customers in the assembly of its cars from start to finish. First stop: a curving second-floor hall, furnished with couches and Persian rugs, which overlooks gardens and the production line. Customers are invited to plan their new cars over a drink, choosing the body color and interior fabrics. They also learn to use the navigation system and CD player. It takes 36 hours for a car to work its way around the production line, and buyers are encouraged to check on their vehicle's progress at any time. A guide will arrange for theater tickets or a gallery visit to help pass the time while they wait. "It's an emotional thing to buy a car, it's not a rational thing," says Henn. "We wanted to create a place where this emotional bond can develop."

Environmentalists should have no problem bonding with the new factory. There are no belching chimneys or delivery trucks to clog the city's streets. Materials are brought in by nearly silent blue trams. The assembly line, glass walled with blond parquet floors and subtle lighting, wraps round the rectangular building on two floors. There are no forklifts or heavy machinery; all assembly is done by hand. On the factory floor, workers look more like craftsmen in an atelier, and glass-walled offices open on to the production line. "It makes the people on the floor work better," says Henn, who used the idea in a previous factory for Skoda. "The people in the offices can see what's going on and the people on the factory floor can go in there and back. It's a social relationship."

The Glass Factory's success thus far is merely theoretical. It doesn't begin producing the Phaeton--designed to compete with the Mercedes S-Class and BMW 5 Series--until the end of the month. Some argue that the notion of transparency, which is central to the design of the Glass Factory, is a gimmick. "It shows a willingness to be open, but what do you actually see, what do you understand?" asks Iain Borden, director of London's Bartlett School of Architecture. "You can look round the factory and see your own VW, but do you see the quality assurance and the design decisions that have gone into it?"

Henn remains confident that the new plant will revitalize not just VW but Dresden as well. Both the Phaeton and the factory are designed to attract a new type of VW customer: one keen on visiting the Dresden opera, who will be interested in researching fine Bordeaux in the factory's Internet pod and eager to practice a virtual drive from London to Oxford. In other words, a customer who in the past might have turned to Mercedes or BMW. "You can't create this kind of community with magazines or Internet platforms," Henn says. "We wanted to have a real place to meet people, to have it be authentic. Like a tree is connected with the earth, you need roots. You can go to Venice or you can go to Las Vegas," he says, gazing out over the bridges and streams of the gardens he has nicknamed Hyde Park. "I prefer Venice." Or, better yet, Dresden.

Watching The Cars Roll By | News