Featured: The Form And Function Of Production: A Few Of Our Favorite Auto Headquarters And Factories

The Form And Function Of Production: A Few Of Our Favorite Auto Headquarters And Factories

By Colm Murphy
March 7, 2018

In light of our recent reminiscing on old car factories and assembly lines, we thought it would be fun to pick out a few of our favorites from an architectural perspective.

Winston Churchill famously said that “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” I must admit I’m not a fan of Churchill, but he made a valid point. The care and attention-to-detail we put into designing the buildings we use reflects not only our values, but also our ambitions for the future. Good architecture should always be aspirational. 

But what of the buildings that shape our cars? The quality of offices, design studios, and production facilities will have a great influence on the resultant machines birthed from these spaces. Employees must also have pride in the brand, for happy workers make the best products, ceteris paribus. Brand loyalty is often a matter of national pride in certain countries—just think of the Ford fanatics in America in the wake of the Mustang—and a factory’s presence in the neighborhood it occupies is also important. It must be a positive influence on its local surroundings in order to preserve and project a positive international image.

Let’s have a look at some prominent automakers’ factories and headquarters from past and present; like their output, these places represent the philosophies of these renowned names.

McLaren Technology Centre, Woking

Cars as technically advanced as the current McLaren lineup couldn’t be built in a mere English shed (though that proved to be enough for more than a few successful Formula 1 cars way back when). The modern home of McLaren is as advanced as their product, and the embodiment of a surgical facility dedicated to carbon fiber rather than flesh. The Woking-based company commissioned well known “starchitect” Norman Foster to design their unique headquarters, and the resultant structure is a circular planform in a yin-yang arrangement with the adjacent lake.

No matter your tastes, McLarens are undeniably an achievement of function and form. They are beautiful in that overtly aggressive composite monocoque way, and there is no superfluous facet or fold on these cars despite their complexity. There is no piece not assigned to a function, and the facility is no different. For example, the large lakes that surround the plant are not simply ornamental, for the water contained in them is circulated through a series of heat exchangers and used to dissipate the enormous heat generated by the wind tunnel.

To the rear of the HQ building lies the production facility, which appears from the interior photos to be the cleanest automobile factory on the planet. The sprawling immaculate white rooms are more akin to a computer clean-room than the production of raucous supercars. And still it’s the Germans who are known for their cleanliness and precision… 

Volkswagen Autostadt, Wolfsburg

Speaking of, the Volkswagen Group, one of the biggest empires in the auto industry, has a wild building of its own in the city of Wolfsburg. What is curious about Wolfsburg is that it was a planned town, meaning it was designed and built on a greenfield site rather than having grown organically over time. It was founded specifically as a utopian home for the Volkswagen factory workers who were living there for one overarching purpose: to build the “People’s Car.” The German government recognized that if the factory was surrounded by amenity and community, the line workers would likely be happier and therefore more productive and less likely to leave.

At the center of Wolfsburg sits the Autostadt (translated from German to “car city”), which is Volkswagen’s main campus. Despite the company’s deep history in this city, the defining feature of the Autostadt is certainly the more modern storage facilities called the AutoTürme. 

The AutoTürme are two 200ft-tall glass silos containing floors and floors of cars resembling some gigantic school child’s Hot Wheels carrying case. Designed by HENN Architects, each tower holds 400 vehicles at capacity. The towers appear to rise out of a rectangular lake, isolating them from the rest of the campus. If you purchase a new Volkswagen, you have the option of collecting it in person at the Autostadt. In scenes reminiscent of The Matrix (and more overtly, one of the more Mission Impossible movies wherein a replica was built on a soundstage), a robot elevator will zip up into the tower and retrieve your car from the cubbies above.

Fiat Lingotto factory and test track, Turin

While most carmakers were moving operations to greenfield sites (such as VW at Wolfsburg), Fiat built a factory in the middle of Turin. The siting of the factory in a metropolitan area meant that the brand would inevitably become part of the fabric of the city and the psyche of its inhabitants. “Fiat is Turin, Turin is Fiat,” or so the saying goes around the Italian city. Fiat’s strategy reflected their understanding of the place of the motorcar in Italian society.

The factory is of course most notable for its rooftop test track, made famous in the Italian Job. We’ve looked at Lingotto in a little more detail here, so rather than parrot that back, take a deeper look here

General Motors Technical Center, Michigan

The “Tech Centre” was designed by the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen as part of a major expansion of the Research and Development side of General Motors. Saarinen went on to design the landmark St. Louis Arch and the swooping TWA terminal at JFK airport, but the GM project was his first major commission as an independent architect. 

Architectural Forum described it as “an Industrial Versailles,” such was the sprawling yet geometric layout of the campus, the arrangement of ornamental lakes, boulevards, and sculptural water towers that led critics to draw parallels with the French palatial gardens.

The modernist interiors were also quite striking. From the cable-hung open-tread staircase to the UFO-esque desk for reception, they have evoke a feeling of Kubrick’s Space Odyssey. The scheme is comprised of 38 buildings and hosts 19,000 employees during the average day, working in laboratories and workshops in partnership with universities and suppliers. 

BMW Headquarters and Museum, Munich

There is much debate as to what inspired the design of the pod of towers containing BMW’s administrative offices. Some say it resembles a stack of tires or is perhaps an abstract nod to the finned “airhead” cylinders seen on their early motorcycle engines, and when viewed on plan, the barrels of the building appear to be arranged like the valves in a cylinder head. The building has an interesting structural strategy in that those four external barrel-like forms do not meet the ground but are in fact suspended from the central core—not unlike BMW’s Telelever motorcycle suspension system.

The adjacent museum is affectionately called “the Salad Bowl” and it appears to have been modeled on the old boxer cylinder head. Internally the building functions like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, in that a spiraling ramp leads the visitor up through the building, experiencing the exhibition in a chronological or otherwise strategically arranged order. You can see more of the goodness within, here. 

Image credits: McLaren, Foster and Partners, Arch In Form, BMWBMW Blog, Bimmer Todayflickr, GM, Michigan Modern, Johannes Reponen, The Atlantic, Forbes, Henn, Autostadt

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Rik de ReuverLandrovingJean-Noël Fermaud Recent comment authors
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Rik de Reuver
Rik de Reuver

Rolls Royce @ Goodwood?
BMW Leipzig i3 & i8 production site (by Zaha Hadid)

Both extraordinary!


I get the roof top track as being unique, but the old Fiat HQ in Turin as a building isn’t that inspiring. I ‘m surprised to see the Aston Martin HQ was left off, that is architecturally very interesting and unique. I would have also expected to see one of the new Porsche facilities ,as they are very unique. The GM tect center is a good call, that is an impressive campus that stands in stark contrast to the ho-hum suburbs that surround it. I can only imagine what it was like when it open in the 50’s.

Jean-Noël Fermaud

I’m surprised you didn’t include the Gläserne Manufaktur of Dresden. Built as beautifully as a high end house, with glass walls and wooden floors everywhere, it housed the production line of the debated Volkswagen Phæton. After its retirement, it was used as a concert hall and an exhibition center, but car production has now started again, with the new VW electric lineup.