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Brave New World: Wolfsburg, Germany

The Zeithaus ("time house") is the park's museum, housed in a trapezoidal building split by a central staircase. One side displays old cars of all makes, such as a replica of Karl Benz's first motor vehicle; the other traces the history of Volkswagen. In 1934, when Volkswagen founder Ferdinand Porsche proposed making a car for the masses, Adolf Hitler embraced the idea and backed it with state money. VW was incorporated in 1938, the same year Wolfsburg was founded to be the base for its factory. Only a few dozen passenger cars were produced prior to World War II, however, and it was the British who revived the bombed-out factory and began producing consumer vehicles there immediately after the war.

A videotaped interview with British army major Ivan Hirst, who managed the company after the war, was all I could find in the Zeithaus about Volkswagen's war experience. Only a small plaque tucked away on the top floor alludes to the company's "war years." It instructs the curious visitor to make an appointment to visit a bunker in the Volkswagen factory across the road. When I asked to see the exhibit there, I confused three workers: I was the first person they'd met who'd requested a visit, and it took them 15 minutes to find the archivist's phone number. I later asked Wachs whether he thinks the Zeithaus omission is significant. "We do not think there's a real gap," he replied. "You can have more than detailed information, if you ask."

That information is part of an extensive permanent exhibition titled "Place of Remembrance." It opened in 1999 in one of Volkswagen's original 1938 factory halls, where faint imprints of Nazi decorations still flank the front door. The archivist took me through old concrete hallways, past factory workers on the job, to a basement bunker. There, photographs and memorabilia tell the story of the 17,000 forced laborers and prisoners of war who worked in Wolfsburg from 1940 to 1945. Hans Mommsen, a respected historian of the Third Reich, was commissioned by Volkswagen in 1986 to write a book on the company's past. He takes a sanguine view of the Zeithaus omission. "Certainly I'm in favor of telling the story of VW and the Third Reich. But I don't take the Autostadt museum so seriously—that's just an advertisement for the company." With a historian's passion for detail, though, he draws a parallel between Volkswagen today and the German Labor Front, which oversaw the company for the Third Reich: "The Labor Front also wanted to have a place where people would pick up cars and develop a VW culture."

Beyond the Autostadt, Wolfsburg is also creating attractions to lure the growing number of international travelers motivated by art and design. London-based architect Zaha Hadid, known for her jutting, "deconstructed" buildings, has two projects in the city. Her Science Center, currently being built across the canal from the Autostadt, is focused on the idea of "porosity," with immense nested cones running from ground to ceiling. At street level, individual cones envelop a bistro, an auditorium, and other public areas, and prop up the main concourse of the center. It is expected to open in early 2004. Hadid has already created a new lounge for the city's Kunstmuseum, which has steadily built a reputation for its exhibitions of cutting-edge art, such as recent one-man shows of video artist Doug Aitken and painter Ed Ruscha.

Across the plaza from the art museum is the Alvar Aalto Kulturhaus, a cultural center designed by the Finnish architect in 1961 and renamed in his honor three years ago, in the hopes of attracting his globe-trotting admirers. On the way to the Autobahn is a performance theater built by sixties icon Hans Scharoun, next to a working gas station from the 1950's. These are energetic design statements along an otherwise bland roadside. "For people interested in art and architecture, it will be worthwhile coming here," Wolfgang Guthardt, the tall, debonair city official who conceived the Science Museum project, told me. He added that Wolfsburg's castle, which dates to 1302, has its own art collection—just another manifestation of the city's newly minted motto, Lust an Entdeckungen: Joy Through Discovery.

Italians, in fact, are responsible for most of Wolfsburg's culinary and sartorial attractions. They arrived looking for jobs in Volkswagen's factory in the 1960's, later moved on to other fields, and then were replaced by workers from all over Europe. Immigrants make up 13 percent of the city's population today, a high figure for Germany. "People here are proud of the integration of workers from other places," says Guthardt. "Wolfsburg was a melting pot because it was a new city." Optimism and pride of place still feel fresh and a bit daring in Germany. The Autostadt, in a way, can be seen as the modern city that might have been, and now, half a century later, it stands glinting across the canal from Wolfsburg, its two immense towers of cars like beacons toward a new future.

Carly Berwick is a senior editor at ARTnews.

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