Architecture at the physical limits

Feb 12, 2016
Making the Mercedes-Benz Museum a reality meant building in new dimensions. Despite its complexity the project was successfully completed – and even within the timeplan and budget. This was ensured by close cooperation in the project control centre and digitally based planning.
Visitors looking around the Mercedes-Benz Museum will find hardly any right angles. Instead they find twisted and curved concrete walls which make the light-flooded architecture appear organically formed and also light in weight. This was achieved by sheer hard work during the construction process: "At the time of its construction the Museum was at the limits of what was technically feasible," says Tobias Wallisser. Now a professor for the design of innovative construction and space concepts at the State Academy for Visual Art in Stuttgart, he was then the project partner in the UNStudio of Ben van Berkel responsible for implementation of the undertaking – from the architectural competition to handover of the project to the client.
The computer as a planning tool
"A building of this complexity could not be planned and constructed using conventional planning and representation methods," says the structural and facade planning specialist Professor Werner Sobek. Accordingly the then largest three-dimensional computer model in the world was created for the implementation phase. The architects, engineers and contractors made the Museum a reality using this digital master plan.
"From the very start, all the planning was done in 3D at the computer," Tobias Wallisser emphasises. This meant that the geometrical relationships within the highly complex structure were precisely defined. Nonetheless it was possible to adapt details of the plan to suit new requirements at any time. "Parametrical design" is the name for this procedure, which allows the greatest precision with maximum flexibility throughout the entire process.
It was not only in the planning, but also in the construction process that those involved continuously explored the boundaries of existing methods. For example, the form given to the reinforced concrete sections required new production methods: a dedicated forming process was developed for the "twists", the double-walled, double-curved elements weighing up to 2500 tonnes. This was based on formwork of flexible slabs which was brought precisely into the required shape before the concrete was poured. This solution reminiscent of a silicon cake-baking form was ideal for concreting complex components whose surface look and feel would later have to meet the highest standards.
Parallels with automobile development
Compacting the concrete was also an art in itself. This is because the concrete had to be poured between the strong steel reinforcements (up to 700 kilograms per cubic metre of the structure) and between the numerous pipes and lines integrated into the ceilings (ranging from air conditioning and the sprinkler system to automation systems and the energy supply). A prototype of a complete twist was even constructed to test the potential of this process in practice. Erected in a public place like a work of art, it bore witness to the skill of the engineers and concrete construction specialists: the one-off showed that the complex technology works. Building a prototype is also a method used by engineers in automobile development before a new model enters series production.
The mighty test prototype of steel and concrete was not the only model used to perfect the digital plans. The architects also worked with small-scale models to test spatial effects and other factors. These representations of the Museum-to-be ranged in scale from the model train format of 1:87 (H0) including corresponding vehicle models to the 1:8 functional model with which the smoke ventilation system was tested.
Other challenges in addition to the extremely complex geometry of the design included the sheer size of the Museum, the high loads imposed by heavy exhibits, large unsupported spans and difficult ground. For example, the nature of the ground required that the building foundations had to be as flat as possible owing to mineral water bearing rock strata. So instead of digging down deep, the contractors drove 850 concrete piles into the ground, standing on gypsum marl as a protective layer for Stuttgart's mineral waters. These piles support a two metre thick base slab which bears the weight of the building via the three concrete core structures and the facade with its supports. The "materialised energy flows" (Professor Werner Sobek) become obvious when one studies the filigree structures in the outer skin of the building.
A grand design, the application of technical know-how and planning to the last detail, combined with careful and intensive cooperation: these were the strengths that made the Mercedes-Benz Museum a success right from the planning and construction phase. Accordingly the new building also became a milestone for the systematic use of digital technology in construction. "This procedure has meanwhile established itself as the conventional method," says architecture professor Wallisser – and the Mercedes-Benz Museum sets standards in this respect too.
Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart, construction phase, January 2005, exterior view with cranes.
Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart, construction phase. work on the structural cores.
Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart, construction phase, April 2004, "Twist" built as a prototype.
Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart, construction phase, July 2005, facade with scaffolding.
Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart, construction phase, August 2005, curved surfaces predominate in the rooms.
Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart, construction phase, October 2004, view into the atrium with exposed concrete surfaces.
Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart, construction phase, July 2005, view of the atrium.
Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart, construction phase, August 2004, foundations.
Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart, construction phase, rebars for concrete reinforcement.
Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart, construction phase, general view.
Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart, construction phase, December 2004, aerial photograph.
Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart, the facade consists of 1800 triangular plates, each one unique.
Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart, construction phase, October 2005, view of the Museum when erecting the Mercedes star on the sales outlet building.
Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart, construction phase, August 2005, interior view with facade support structure.
Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart, construction phase, July 2004, bare stairway at the end of the exhibition tour.
Mercedes-Benz Museum, construction phase, November 2004, view of the construction site, building plan in the foreground.