Instead of two platforms of up or down, explains architect Ben van Berkel, "We wanted to make three, because then you could step in the other spiral — that's how we made a double helix. We came up with this idea: two intertwining routes, one through the collection rooms and one through the legend rooms, which make it possible for the visitor to change trajectories."
He continues: "It's very strange — the building is heavily complex in the way you go through it and very rich spatially, but the wayfinding is very simple." Estimates are it takes six hours to see the entire collection.
Re-engineering Museum Visits
The building challenges some common museum concepts. Most dramatically, it dispenses with the defined and often sheep-like crawl to admire the art and artifacts. The second difference — hallowing a mass-produced commercial product with the reverence usually reserved for Art with a capital "A" — indicates a belief that our world is shaped by everyday things, as well as ideas.
"Industrial design used to be a very important part of the collection of contemporary culture, like for instance, in the Bauhaus period. Graphic design, art, industrial design were all part of one culture," van Berkel said.
As a recent example of the art of industry, he points to the redesigned Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, in which a helicopter is displayed prominently over the entryway. He sees that as an indication of the affinity between industrial products and people and culture.
Cars have vastly affected culture in the modern world. Ask anyone who's coveted a Mercedes190 SL convertible from the 1950s, the one Grace Kelly chose to drive. It's easy to imagine the car as moving, performing art.
The previous Mercedes museum was smaller, with only 20 or 30 cars on display, attracting 450,000 visitors a year. The new building can accept about 10,000 people a day and has been consistently crowded since its opening in May 2006, timed to capitalize on the summer crowd attending the World Cup games.
Building the Museum
The construction is essentially two systems: the 100,000 plus tons of concrete that create the twisting DNA spirals and the shell that molds itself to the unique interior. It's hard to find a right angle here, and the striking flow of the facade required precision glazing — nearly 2,000 large panes, metal framed, no two alike.
Construction proceeded on a tight schedule to meet the spring 2006 deadline. "We developed special techniques in order to make the management and the organization between all the builders quick," van Berkel recalls, "so this was the most intense aspect of the design. We asked all the contractors who worked with us to work with the same 3D program so they could work with the same model that we would. And then we would control the whole 3D system."
It's been said that the triple-lobed, trefoil shape visible at bird's eye view references the famous Mercedes hood ornament. But van Berkel says no, the clover-shaped interior derives from the Möbius, overlapping DNA spiral concept. "The whole design came together through the logic. And maybe somewhere unconsciously, maybe there is a reference to the logo, but it was not literally planned in," he says.
The drive metaphor, however, was conscious. "There's a continuous relationship between car, outside, the movement, and the dynamics of the car," van Berkel says. You can almost feel yourself downshift taking the curves. And yes, there's a reason you end up on the ground, very near a highway. After touring this museum, you'll want to find a free lane and accelerate.