We recently visited the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart,Germany (see Photo 1). The building, which is designed by Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, appears at first glance to resemble three gigantic loops turning endlessly back into themselves (see photo below). This architectural design underlines the company’s view of itself as being the quintessential automobile designer and producer in Europe, if not the world. Even the museum’s location, which lies next to the highway in Unter-Türkheim, is intended by Mercedes-Benz to symbolize a fixed point greeting the passing motorists who are ensconced in their daily routine of driving ever longer distances.
In the museum, Mercedes-Benz has documented its 125-year history of spectacular design and productivity; with the van Berkel and Bos building they establishing an iconic and material representation of their proud history. The building’s interior is equally extraordinary (Photo 2).
Within in the interior, visitors are lead along a historic time-axis that sets the company into a historical path-dependency of German history and the history of Fordist production. Walking down the aisle in this cathedral dedicated to engineering and business prowess, images and information panels enlighten the visitor and document important events in the company’s history. For example, one series of panels explains how the company bore witness to the horrific events of World War I. Another series of panels 100 meters down the ramp informs the visitor of the company’s relations with the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945, when the company was turned into a armament factory and employed slave and prison labor. It engages emancipation and tells the story of Bertha Benz, Carl Benz’ wife, who was the first woman to make “long-distance” car ride – without Carl Benz knowing of it.
These events came and went. Society changed. The economy changed, too. Daimler-Benz witnessed it all.
Toward the end of this proud and colored history there is another panel that made us stop and take pause. The topic of this panel is climate change. The panel explains the new challenges climate change has brought to the automobile industry and shows how Mercedes-Benz deals with it. First, solar cars were developed in the 1970s, electric vehicle prototypes in the 1980s, the “Smart Car” in the 2000s. Daimler’s engineers were there changing technology, improving lives, modernizing society.
The reader is left with the impression that — like the war to end all wars, the Nazi’s, and human alienation — climate change too will come and go. Furthermore, in the rhetoric of the auto industry, as in the Obama Administration and others, just like new technology that is implemented in the cars: climate change is there to be managed. In fact, according to the panel it already has been.