Every two years at the international car fair in Frankfurt - the most prestigious of its kind in the world - manufacturers vie for every precious minute of attention they can get from over a million visitors. Naturally every company needs to be represented and to invest vast amounts of money in the design of its stand. In recent years, however, the battle between the German luxury brands Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and - to a lesser extent - Audi has been the centre of attention. Their competitiveness represents a distant echo of the golden age of rivalry in the car industry, a time when manufacturers wanted to establish real symbols of their power - John Jacob Raskob, the founder of General Motors, for example, commissioned the construction of the Empire State Building on the spot in an act of one-upmanship over the headquarters of his arch-rival Walter P. Chrysler.
When every marketing strategy in terms of cost, quality and design seems exhausted, the display environment becomes a means for the brand to differentiate itself from the competition. At the same time architects have discovered the possibility of creating a distinctive image for themselves when they offer their skills in the service of brand communication. Two extravagantly produced books have recently drawn attention to this conjunction of interests.
The rivalry at the Frankfurt international car fair always takes a similar route. Mercedes-Benz moves into a 100-year-old multi-purpose hall, which also stages events such as tennis tournaments and Kylie Minogue concerts. BMW, in contrast, traditionally leases a large undeveloped area and erects a specially designed building. In 2001, however, the image of both manufacturers was under particular pressure. Mercedes-Benz was celebrating the centenary of its brand name and the launch of the new SL, the successor to the 1952 Gull-wing, a legendary creation reinterpreted roughly every decade. The problem was that this rich history could be seen as lacking in futurist vision. BMW, on the other hand, wanted finally to end the reign of the Stuttgart S-Class in the luxury car sector by heralding the arrival of the new 7-series, pepping up the model with all kinds of technological knick-knacks. Mercedes-Benz attempted to solve its problem of excessive reliance on tradition with a gesture from the arsenal of the classical Modern: no shrewd intervention in the original architecture, more a restrained emphasis on the existing building, with its two tiers and central atrium. Against this, BMW took the offensive in the form of an architectural coup from the school of virtual design. It was a success - few buildings have received as much publicity as the 'Dynaform'. Now even a monograph has been dedicated to the temporary structure: Gernot Breuer's Architecture as Brand Communication (2002).
The building, designed by Bernhard Franken in association with Frankfurt Architects ABB, will be reconstructed in 2003 and 2005. In the computer design the foundations were covered with a grid, through which a simulated car was driven at high speed. The distortion of the grid through the Doppler effect was used as the ground-plan of the geometry and developed into an unevenly formed construction, which was intended to create an impression of speed and dynamic movement. In his contribution to the book the architect speaks of his work as if he were a member of the marketing department, fluently reiterating the appropriate vocabulary: 'In the age of cybernetics, physical space can produce the tangible 'bridge' between market image and manufactured product, bringing the world market to life.' He draws support from the director of the agency that has overseen BMW's corporate identity for many years: 'A company that builds something like this must be different, must cultivate new ways of thinking, must be future-oriented. The 'Dynaform' is an architectural vessel for communication, which outwardly transmits the desired content, while translating it into a singular experience of spatial movement on the inside.'
As impressive as the building may be as a piece of architectural discourse, it hardly seems to fulfil its function. Visitors had to queue because of overcrowding - the fact that there would need to be room to accommodate them as well as the exhibits had apparently been overlooked. Moreover, the lined-up cars made the small building seem like a car ferry and the lavishly produced film projections could not compete with the overarching structure, let alone the lighting. In short, the architecture felt oppressive and actually hampered communication rather than providing spectators with a 'marketing brand experience'. As conservative as Mercedes' approach may have been, in BMW's Futurist vision the actual content and effect of the building - something that also can be felt in the book - were treated in a rather stepmotherly fashion.
Enter Audi. A collaboration between the architectural bureau Ingenhoven Overdiek & Partner and the communication agency KMS, the construction of the Audi stand at Frankfurt was distinguished by the drafting in of Christoph Ingenhoven, a young star architect whose design for Stuttgart Central Station is a talking point in Germany. This strategic choice of architect by the car manufacturers, comparable to those pairings evident in the fashion world for some time (Calvin Klein/John Pawson, Prada/Rem Koolhaas), is not the issue here: even a design-oriented brand such as Audi has too wide a target audience for such an approach, based on hipness and name-dropping. And yet the exhibition stand they developed, the 'Loop', has proved very successful, precisely because architects and communication specialists worked closely together. A relevant architectural piece has emerged that can still communicate effectively without being obstructed by text panels and video walls. Its polarity to the approach of the BMW building is also visible in the book published by Ingenhoven and his collaborators, 1/1 Architecture and Design: New Synergies (2001). The designers' favourite Asian cook is given a photo panel the same length as the explanation of the cars' construction principle; the sound balance given as much attention as the clothing of the stand personnel.
Running through this very stylish-looking coffee table book is a genial conversation between Ingenhoven and the designer Michael Keller. 'Architecture is always a kind of ego-drama', Ingenhoven muses at one point. 'Architects, after all, are often egomaniacs. And now, suddenly, other professions enter the scene. Depending on the type of project, these could be philosophers, museum experts or communication designers ... For architects, this is difficult to accept, since they are not used to the idea of equal rights.' In the light of this, exhibition stands - the much solicited laboratories for 'speaking' architecture - can also serve as a therapy centre for a profession with an ego problem.