At once the world's most cutting-edge museum and a repository of the most deep-rooted traditions, the Mercedes-Benz Museum combines an elegant appearance with a unique structure based on a double helix. All aspects of this architecture are in flow, with no closed rooms or straight walls. Ceilings span 33 metres without any supports whatsoever and each of the 1800 triangular window panes is unique.
Three architecture firms have been instrumental in defining the character of the museum: Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos's UNStudio created the building's exciting design. HG Merz evolved the concept in close cooperation with the then DaimlerChrysler AG, from the initial invitation for tenders to detailed planning of the museum's presentation. The former company DaimlerChrysler Immobilien GmbH assumed overall responsibility for the museum's construction as the general contractor.
UNStudio's initial outline sketch depicted an apparently simple geometric figure consisting of three loops turning endlessly back into themselves. The routes through the building intertwine on nine levels along a time axis extending from the invention of the automobile to the present day in the foyer, where visitors are furthermore provided with an insight into the future of the automobile.
Situated directly outside the factory gates at the parent plant in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim, the museum forms a link between the plant and the Mercedes-Benz sales and service outlet. Rising as a vertical landmark on a hill of six metres in height, the building raises the site above its surroundings, its round forms at the same time harmonising with the hills and curves of the Neckar Valley. The building acts as a portal, with motorists turning off federal highway B 14 into the Neckar valley passing by the building as a key hub on their way into town. Ben van Berkel used these topographic conditions as the starting point for his planning. The aim was for motorists to perceive the museum as a welcoming presence. In the twilight especially, the 110,000 ton building appears to hover weightlessly over the ground.
The museum's shell consists of materials which are also used in the automotive industry – aluminium and glass. The bright polished aluminium panelling has the appearance of intertwining bands, while the darker-looking window strips beckon mysteriously inside. This impression is reversed at night-time, the external shell blending into the darkness while an enigmatic light glows within.
HG Merz was involved from the outset in developing the concept for the museum. He is an architect. His work is concerned less with the design of new buildings, however, drawing rather on the given historical context – Merz's specialities are designing museums and incorporating new designs into existing buildings. Merz has been associated with the Mercedes-Benz brand for over 25 years now. Together with the architects Knut Lohrer and Dieter Herrmann he was involved in the revamp of the old Mercedes-Benz Museum back in 1985 and 1986. He worked on the design of the Gottlieb Daimler memorial in Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt from 1990 to 1992 and the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Fellbach between 1992 and 1993. Merz acquired great renown for his conversion of the Alte Nationalgalerie on the Museum Island in the centre of Berlin in 1993, since when the architect has also run an office in the capital.
The double helix depicts the more than 125-year evolutionary process of the automobile, taking in the history of the Mercedes-Benz brand and its predecessors. The DNA that has driven the evolution of the automobile since its invention in 1886 is to be found in the history of the Mercedes-Benz brand. The architectural design of the Mercedes-Benz Museum embodies this inseparable link between tradition and innovation. The journey through time culminates in the final "Legend" room, which ends both tours and leads back to the present. Dozens of racing cars dating from 1900 to the present day bring the essence of the Mercedes legend to life here. The high-bank curve in which the legendary high-performance vehicles are presented takes up the complex geometry of the building while also alluding to renowned race tracks.
There are no right-angles in the Mercedes-Benz Museum. All walls and ceilings, ramps and columns are arched or turn in on themselves, gently flowing into one another. In reality, there is no strict division into different storeys. The Legend rooms are almost twice as high as the Collection rooms. And there is a difference of level between the two of more than a metre. It is not even possible to establish a strict distinction between horizontal and vertical surfaces: the so-called Twists, - as the name suggests, building elements incorporating two twists - are the most spectacular innovation in the building. They emerge from the lift shafts as a vertical wall and then spiral upwards in a gentle sweep, supported by the next shaft. Finally, behind the light window strips of the facade they support a flat stairway that connects one Collection room with the next.
This complex geometry is continued in the ramps running along the outside of the building which connect the Legend rooms. In turn, these ramps rest on inclined pillars which perform their static function in ingenious fashion while also lending the large window areas of the Collection rooms a structured appearance. The pillars themselves gradually evolve from a triangular ground plan into a hexagon, before ending up as a reversed triangle.
Numerous prizes and awards attest to the unique architecture of the Mercedes-Benz Museum. The museum most recently won the 2009 Hugo Häring Prize for exemplary buildings in Baden-Württemberg.