BMW’s Brave New World

By Jonathan Spira on 17 October 2007
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Visitors to Munich have always thought of the city as a kind of BMW world.  Not only is the automaker headquartered there, but the cars themselves are as ubiquitous as the beer and are even used as police cars and taxis.

As a company, BMW has always presented a distinctive image, from its logo, a stylized spinning propeller against a blue sky, to its buildings, which include the Vierzylinder (Four Cylinder) headquarters designed by Karl Schwanzer, which reopened last summer after being closed for a top-to-bottom reconstruction for over two years and as much a showpiece today as it was at the time of completion in 1972.  The unusual BMW-Werk-Leipzig designed by Zaha Hadid, where a hypnotic ballet of cars in various states of assembly passes through the central building of offices, is representative of the untraditional

On 17 October, BMW made it official by opening BMW Welt (Welt is “world” in English), after six years and well over €100 million (US $134 million).  Located adjacent to BMW headquarters, the Munich assembly plant, and the 1972 Olympic complex, and bearing the address Am Olympiapark 1, the cloud-like 73,000-square-meter glass-and-steel structure is a portal for all things BMW,  a futuristic amalgam of showrooms, cafés, and shops, a paean to the BMW brand, and a delivery center capable of presenting 250 cars per day to customers.

At 11 a.m., the opening ceremony began with soloists from the Opera Studio of the Bavarian State Opera.  Dr. Norbert Reithofer, Vorstandsvorsitzender (chairman of the board) of BMW AG, then greeted the 800 guests, which included the new Minister-President of Freistaat Bayern (the Free State of Bavaria) Gunther Beckstein and Munich Oberburgermeister (mayor) Christian Ude as well as local and national business leaders.

In his opening remarks, Dr. Reithofer emphasized how BMW wants the world to “experience” the BMW brand.

Speeches and music continued. Oberbürgermeister Ude seemed especially pleased to have a new icon for the city which did not cost him anything. Religious leaders from the Olympic Village drove onstage in a BMW motorcycle with sidecar to recite a benediction.

A Cirque de Soleil-like performance, with two dancers descending from the roof of the Premiere, captivated the audience.  Hundreds of blue balloons were released outside the Welt with the Vierzylinder building as a backdrop and hundreds of smiling BMW Welt employees waved to the guests from the bridge leading to the Welt.

The design comes across as a dynamic, free-floating, sculpted landscape of rooftops and clouds with a prominent 28 m high “Doppelkegel” (double-cone).  The building was designed by Coop Himmelb(l)au, an architectural firm founded in Vienna, Austria by Wolf D. Prix and Helmut Swiczinsky in 1968.  The firm has in recent years become Austria’s most important architectural export, with projects in Denmark, France, Germany, Mexico, South Korea, and the United States. The firm’s designs have always been out of the ordinary, to say the least.   Prof. Prix is rightly proud of BMW Welt: it is a “very sophisticated machine,” he told me.  With 4,000 tons of steel and 15,000 sq. meters of glass surface on the roof alone, BMW Welt, which looks stunning from any angle, is already an architectural tour de force

At BMW Welt, which BMW bills as a “car delivery and experience center,” visitors experience the brand through product presentations, ephemera, shops, various services, factory tours, an adventure area for younger visitors, and dining. BMW Welt also allows visitors to learn about BMW’s vision for future-oriented technologies.

BMW Welt offers visitors multiple dining establishments, ranging from a bistro to more sophisticated cuisine, cafés (including a bookshop café), and snack shops.  BMW accessories and lifestyle products are, of course, available for purchase.

From the open terrace, visitors have a grand view of the Olympiapark and the Olympic Stadium with its unorthodox suspended tent-like roof designed by Frei Otto.

Event planners take note: BMW is also making BMW Welt available for meetings and conferences, with a high-tech auditorium that seats 800, several large meeting rooms, and indoor and outdoor terraces suitable for dining and cocktails.

In the past few years a competition that might be called “my museum is bigger than your museum” has broken out amongst German car companies, which have been busy creating costly showcases for their brands.

In the spring of this year, DaimlerChrysler opened the €150 million Mercedes-Welt in Stuttgart, in a new building that pays homage to the Guggenheim museum.  In 2000, Volkswagen opened its 250,000 square meter car theme park, Autostadt, at a cost of €430 million.  And Porsche is upgrading its tiny museum, which had room to display only ca. 20 cars, with a €50 million facility.  (BMW Welt is a separate entity from the company’s museum. The BMW Museum, a 1973 building that looks like a giant soup bowl, is undergoing renovation and significant expansion and is expected to reopen in Spring 2008.)

BMW expects 800,000 visitors a year, many more than those taking delivery of new cars. Of the 45,000 cars expected to be picked up each year, about 80 percent will go to Germans, the rest to other Europeans and Americans.  This year (2007), BMW  of North America expects over 3300 Americans to pick up their car in Munich – an increase of almost 25% from 2006, when 2635 purchasers came from the U.S. Since the program’s inception, most customers have picked up their cars at the New Car Delivery Center in Freimann, in northern Munich.  With the opening of BMW Welt, several hundred discriminating customers from around the world will experience factory delivery each day, leaving BMW with a new car to drive home (cars destined for the U.S. will still go via ship).

BMW Welt began with a design competition entitled “Realisation Competition: BMW Experience and Delivery Center.”  275 firms from around the world participated and 27 were selected after the first round of eliminations.  All were given the same question: how to fill an empty space the size of four football pitches.  The jury looked for successful integration into the surroundings, including the Olympiapark and BMW’s headquarters, transportation connections, economic factors, a practical climatic concept, and making the BMW brand an experience.

From the two finalists, Coop Himmelb(l)au was selected (the other finalist was Sauerbruch Hutton).  Coop Himmelb(l)au’s final presentation was almost as ingenious as their design: they used special equipment to project their studies into the room so that the jury felt almost transported into a real BMW Welt.  BMW Welt counts among the first of a new generation of twenty-first century communication centers, communicating both the BMW brand and the enthusiasm contained therein.

Construction began on 1 August 2003.  The cornerstone was laid on 16 July 2004, in the presence of Bavarian Minister-President Dr. Edmund Stoiber, Munich Lord Mayor Christian Ude, architect Professor Wolf. D. Prix, and then BMW Chairman of the Board of Management Dr. Helmut Panke.  BMW Welt was originally planned for completion in June 2006 in time for the FIFA Weltmeisterschaft but there were some construction delays that pushed the opening well into 2007.

Since construction began, I’ve had the opportunity to visit the site multiple times, watching BMW Welt evolve from a mere concept to a finished structure.  Now, opening day has arrived.

Entry to BMW Welt is free but certain sections are reserved for those picking up a new car.  Ca. 60% of the building’s space is underground, including a gigantic garage, storerooms, and space for infrastructure and technology.

The heart of BMW Welt is the “Premiere” vehicle delivery area.  Hanging above this space are customer lounges that allow views of the space and the Vierzylinder headquarters building.

Using specially developed multi-media technology, each new car owner will receive an individual explanation and overview of the vehicle’s standard and special features before delivery.  The customer then descends into the vehicle delivery area where the car will be presented to the owner on a revolving turntable (there are 30 of these, with an eventual capacity of 250 deliveries per day, or 45,000 per year, which should give an idea as to how large this facility is).   A delivery specialist reviews the vehicle features in more detail and goes through vehicle settings, ensuring driver familiarity.

At that point, the customer is handed the keys, starts the motor, and drives along a path inside BMW Welt Premiere, getting a unique perspective of the building’s interior and starting his ownership experience with a special kind of Freude am Fahren.


  • 2001 Design awarded to Coop Himmelb(l)au
  • 2001 Start of planning
  • 2003 Design phase
  • 2003 Start of demolition
  • 2004 Cornerstone
  • 2005 Start of excavation and structural work
  • 2005 Steel construction, topping out ceremony
  • 2006 Completion of construction, interior work begins
  • 2007 Open for employees (June)
  • 2007 Grand opening Oct. 17
  • 2007 Customer deliveries commence Oct. 23

–Jonathan B. Spira is the Editor of Executive Road Warrior and Chief Analyst at Basex, a knowledge economy research firm.

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