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Courtesy of BMW.
Courtesy of BMW.
Courtesy of BMW.
Courtesy of BMW.
Courtesy of BMW.
Courtesy of BMW.
Photo by Brooke Anderson, courtesy of BMW.
Courtesy of BMW.
BMW revisited the work of architect Karl Schwanzer and his ties to BMW history on the 50th anniversary of its corporate headquarters this July in Munich.
Courtesy of BMW.
Design

BMW Celebrates 50 Years of its Karl Schwanzer-designed Headquarters in Munich

By Tamara Warren

August 2, 2022

The BMW headquarters floats like a sculpture above the low Munich skyline. The facade resembles the cogs of a four-cylinder engine, one of many engines BMW is famous for in the motoring world. In actuality, the shape stands for good fortune, modeled after a four-leaf clover from a drawing that nearly ended up at the bottom of a trash can in Austrian architect Karl Schwanzer’s atelier. 

BMW revisited the work of Schwanzer and his ties to BMW history on the 50th anniversary of its corporate headquarters this July in Munich. As part of the event, a fresh cut of the documentary feature film made by director Max Gruber, He Flew Ahead, was screened ahead of its fall 2023 debut. Austrian actor Nicholas Ofczarek plays the role of Schwanzer in the dramatic retelling of the architect’s life, who died in 1975. Schwanzer was born in Vienna, received his doctorate in 1941 during the Nazi era in Austria and Germany. After the war, Schwanzer opened his studio in 1947, becoming immersed in modernism, often associated with the brutalist architecture of the era. He was a professor at the Technical University of Vienna which mentored many contemporary architects including Wolf D. Prix, founder of Coop Himmelb(l)au. Schwanzer’s work in the 1960s pushed boundaries, and the BMW headquarters and museum are among his best-known works. 

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BMW revisited the work of architect Karl Schwanzer and his ties to BMW history on the 50th anniversary of its corporate headquarters this July in Munich.

The story behind the BMW commission demonstrated Schwanzer’s characteristic ambition. To strengthen his 1968 pitch, his team constructed a model of the cylindric buildings at a local film studio and he commissioned art director Rolf Zehetbauer (who later won an Academy Award for the 1973 film Cabaret.) Footage from the film shows light spilling through curved windows into an ultra-mod office as actors typed away at IBM Selectric typewriters. The pitch sealed the deal for the BMW board of management. 

The building was constructed from the top floor down over two years, as reinforced concrete took shape along a steel beam. Over 3.5 million working hours, 500 builders, and 200 architects completed it in time to overlook the 1972 Summer Olympic site. Architect Heinz Neumann worked for Schwanzer at the time. “His attitude was not: I am the master and I’ll give you the shape. It was more like: After many tries we’re close to the result,” he said in the book Passionately Modern: Karl Schwanzer and His Architecture.

BMW was founded in Munich in 1916. In Germany, revisiting 20th-century stories can be uncomfortable, as the shadow of World War II looms large, including BMW’s cooperative role in the wartime economy. BMW nearly collapsed in the 1950s. In the end, the four-leaf clover in the sky made a strong statement after the successful introduction of the 1961 BMW 1500, as BMW was back on the way to being a prominent luxury carmaker. Modernist West German structures from the postwar era are a unique example of the determination to focus on rebuilding a different future in the early 1970s.

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Courtesy of BMW.

BMW has a history of incorporating arts into its operations, from its famed Art Car program to its commissioned structures. Zaha Hadid designed the BMW Group Plant in Leipzig, Coop Himmelb(l)au made BMW Welt in Munich in 2007, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw designed the Rolls-Royce plant in Goodwood, England, and most recently Rem Koolhaas's Rotterdam-based OMA office and Danish architects 3XN received the commission to reimagine BMW’s Munich plant as a model for sustainable urban architecture.

BMW held a large-scale celebration in Munich including representatives from the United Nations and German politicians. Schwanzer’s granddaughter, Caroline Schwanzer and Gruber spoke about the architect’s legacy. Pritzker Prize-winning architect Francis Kéré delivered the keynote speech about social responsibility. “Today, people, nature, and industry are under enormous pressure to find solutions that require an honest examination of our actions,” he said. “As a result, actors from architecture to business need to pull together more than ever, recognizing our symbioses and responsibilities in order to adapt our respective creations to focus on a sustainable future." 

After a performance by tenor Jonas Kaufmann, the unique façade of Schwanzer’s building was center stage for a new work by the Oakland, California-based dance company BANDALOOP, who performed Melecio Estrella’s choreography on the side of the building in a piece titled “Momentum Curve.” Twelve dancers dangled in mid-air, pushing the boundaries of what it means to move from surface through sky. Back on the ground, the BMW art cars were parked on display outside of the building, a few feet away from the lobby where three Gerhard Richter paintings hang. 

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Photo by Brooke Anderson, courtesy of BMW.

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Courtesy of BMW.

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