Can a design-driven theme park devoted to automobiles help Wolfsburg, Germany, transcend its past?Carly Berwick reports


An hour's drive east of Hanover and two hours west of Berlin is the unimposing industrial city of Wolfsburg—a crosshatch of broad streets and squat apartment buildings on the Mittelland Canal. Home to 125,000 people, it's also the site of the Autostadt, a gleaming, Modernist "auto city" that celebrates the wonders of the car as well as the virtues of its owner, Volkswagen. Here visitors (mostly German) come to watch their customized Passats and Golfs roll off the finishing floor; view contemporary art by Matt Mullican, Ingo Günther, and Julian Opie; tour a museum of the automobile; and stop by pavilions dedicated to Volkswagen subsidiaries such as Audi, Lamborghini, and Scania. They might even spend the night at Europe's first purpose-built Ritz-Carlton.

A theme park dedicated to the car is a natural afterthought in the country of VW, Mercedes, BMW, and Porsche. Law-abiding Germans like almost nothing more than driving precisely engineered machines at speeds most Americans would consider suicidal, and kids here dream under posters of race-car drivers. Theme parks reflect, even anticipate, a culture's values: Disneyland's relentless optimism not only is typical of sunny southern California but also helped to shape that region's image. Yet the Autostadt, unlike most theme parks, has a particular, peculiar past to contend with. It was in Wolfsburg, during World War II, that the Nazis rounded up thousands of forced laborers to make armaments in Volkswagen factories. For VW and the city, the Autostadt is a decisive step in refashioning Wolfsburg into a tourist destination—and leaving a painful historical legacy behind.

The Autostadt began as the solution to an economic problem. From 1992 to 1995, Volkswagen made massive cutbacks because of a decline in consumer demand for cars and corporate restructuring, and 20,000 jobs in Wolfsburg—VW's headquarters—disappeared. "We had a very deep crisis here," Rolf Schnellecke, Wolfsburg's mayor, told me in his office overlooking the town square, which fills up twice a week with produce, pastry, and sausage vendors. "It was necessary to ask, Where is the city going?"

In 1995, Schnellecke met with city leaders and with Volkswagen managers to discuss the loss of jobs. What emerged from the meetings, according to Schnellecke, was the idea of reinventing Wolfsburg's economy, shifting it away from the industrial sector and toward service. In addition to the usual municipal projects, such as a new industrial park, the city decided to build a massive "adventure center"—the ErlebnisWelt—with a water park, an indoor ski hill, a soccer stadium, and an extreme-sports center. It should all be complete by late 2005.

So far, the centerpiece of the city's reinvention has been the Autostadt, built by Volkswagen across the Mittelland Canal from the railway station for $400 million. The park opened in June 2000 with a key incentive for Germans: anyone buying one of the company's new cars could pick it up at the Autostadt, saving the usual dealer delivery fee and getting a free day at the park. The Autostadt has already surpassed expectations, attracting nearly 4.5 million visitors in its first two years.

True to its name, the Autostadt is practically a city unto itself. At the edge of the park are two glass towers filled with rows and rows of cars awaiting their owners. Walking paths curve past grassy knolls and ponds and lead to the stark pavilions that showcase Volkswagen's cars. I sat for a while on a bench watching a Lamborghini rotate in and out of a big black box; the white whorl of the Audi pavilion in the distance brought to mind an elegant mollusk. The largest and most imposing structure, the KonzernForum, has a soaring atrium built around a giant globe. Here drafting computers let you design your fantasy car—I left with a printout of a compacted red Passat—and in one of three theaters you can watch the first narrative film made with a 360-degree camera.

It all looks like a greener, more stylish Epcot Center, which isn't so surprising given that Cincinnati-based theme park designer Jack Rouse worked on the Autostadt's exhibits. "We are part of the theme park family—Disney, Universal, Warner," says Autostadt CEO Otto F. Wachs. But unlike the park's American cousins "we are not a fantasy world."

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.

The Facts


Autostadt Stadtbrücke; 49-5361/401-970;; Admission $14
Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg 53 Porschestrasse; 49-5361/26690;; Admission $6


Ritz-Carlton, Wolfsburg Stadtbrücke, Autostadt; 800/241-3333 or 49-5361/607-000;; Doubles from $275