Car Companies and the City

The relationships between automobiles and architecture are myriad: I've explored how architecture is used in car advertisements and how architects take an active role in the same; cars have long been an influence on architects (think Le Corbusier); and companies like BMW have hired architects (Zaha Hadid and Coop Himmelb(l)au) to design important buildings for them. But recently car makers have joined with museums and other institutions to take on more advisorial roles in the realms of art, architecture, and urbanism. This may not be a recent phenomenom, but I'm struck by the number of initiatives being funded by automobile manufacturers. These include:
» BMW Guggenheim Lab » It "will address issues confronting urban life through free programs and public participation."
» Audi Urban Future Initiative » It "aims to establish a dialog on the synergy of mobility, architecture and urban development by means of a view into the future."
» VW-MoMA-MoMA PS1 Partnership » Its prime focus is an international contemporary art exhibition, but the collaboration also aims to be a platform for VW's "Think Blue" initiative, which "intends to provide food for thought for sustainable action in all areas of society."
BMW Guggenheim Lab
[BMW Guggenheim Lab by Atelier Bow-Wow]

With these undertakings, car makers are taking an active role in shaping how we think about cities and how we think they might evolve. These come at a time when people look to car companies for new technologies, many incorporating alternative fuels, that will overcome the pollution and depleting energy supplies that mark the internal combustion vehicle. Sustainability and cities are the keywords used, but when I think about those terms in conjunction with automobiles nothing positive comes to mind. Cars in cities are dangerous; they pollute; they are loud; they take up a lot of space; the infrastructure for cars uses subsidies that would be better spent on public transportation and the planning of walkable neighborhoods.

[ProjektNY by Abbruzzo Bodziak, part of the Audi Urban Futures Initiative | image © Audi AG]

So what do BMW, Audi and VW hope to accomplish in these efforts? Considering that they first and foremost design and make cars, my first speculation is that they want to know people's concerns and thoughts on the future, in order to help shape the next generation of cars. After all these initiatives tap designers, urbanists, artists, and the public; they compile information. I think they also want to take an active role in the infrastructure, the urban backdrop for their vehicles. Ultimately they are being proactive about important issues, but they are participating in ways that help their long-term bottom lines; at least that's what the cynic in me thinks when I see these synchronious initiatives.


  1. I wonder if ProjektNY was conceived before or after Inception?
    I think these automakers are using architecture as a branding technique, though. Like Nike or Sprite, they're selling a lifestyle as much as an actual product -- the buildings are just one more way to advertise.
    Still, as self-interested as these initiatives might be, the sheer amount of money car companies can bring to bear for their structures allows some freedom of innovation for the architects, which in turn (hopefully) allows for refinement of those ideas at a more affordable scale for smaller (and more numerous) projects in the future.

  2. I absolutely love cross platform branding and positioning. I think it shows depth of understanding and relevance when pulled off successfully.


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