We are in Munich at BMW Welt, as in World, designed by the avant-garde Austrian architect Coop Himmelb(l)au as a hybrid of car showroom, entertainment venue and conference centre. Completed in 2007, it is now the second most visited site in the city. It is easy to see why. This is a fantastical structure of glass and steel that protrudes majestically up and into the clouds simultaneously sings to its neighbouring sites the Olympiapark and BMW cylinder-shaped HQ and Museum. This is pure visual drama.
Coop Himmelb(l)au means ‘blue-sky cooperative’, wordplay for the beliefs in what the firm says makes architecture ‘light and fluctuating like clouds’. There for the opening eight years ago, I was seated next to the co-founder Wolf Prix – a formidable figure as complex as the structures he envisages. Inspired by the Dadaists and Surrealists, he calls his work ‘drawing with one’s eyes closed’.
We are here to witness the unveiling of the sixth generation 7 Series, BMW’s pinnacle car in its saloon range. Automobiles like these are special jewels for carmakers and are thus redesigned once every decade to maintain their perceived value. The vast interior space inside BMW Welt helps highlight the importance of this new car. Much like the building, the 7 Series is the embodiment of luxury today – seemingly simple yet highly advanced.
Beneath the quiet, tailored metal sheet sits some serious smart tech. The 7 utilises the carbonfibre structure first seen on the BMW electric i cars whereby composite materials are combined with lightweight aluminium and durable steel to shed weight by some 130kg despite the car being taller and longer than its predecessor. This is the first BMW passenger car outside the i range to benefit from this pioneering technology.
Other advanced features include the very latest laser light headlights. The 7 can also self-park – the driver steps out of the car instructing the vehicle via the key fob to autonomously manoeuvre itself into a tight spot – and there is gesture control technology to adjust the stereo volume and accept/reject phone calls with a little finger wiggle. You could say this is a radical car in bourgeois disguise.
Adrian van Hooydonk calls it ‘modern luxury’ and for the BMW Group design director it was crucial to understand how this applies to car design today. So he sent his team to explore the world, flying them out to Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, but also ‘places you wouldn’t expect’, he notes, like Seattle, Lost Angeles and Singapore.
On their return the team filled a room the size of the vast hall we’re chatting in with objects, screens, videos from their adventures. ‘It was both enlightening and inspiring,’ he tells me. ‘It gave us lots of ideas of designing the smaller spaces. We realised it is about reviewing every detail and doing things differently.’
Van Hooydonk says it proved to him that when it comes to modern luxury there are similarities around the world. ‘For instance when you enter a luxury hotel there is a certain something there – it is about light, mood, ambience… It isn’t about, say, having gold everywhere but about being subdued, subtle. This is true of all markets.’
There is therefore no big explosive narrative with the latest 7 Series. This is a car that needs to resonate globally and so the design is restrained yet elegant with its interplay of cleanly drawn lines and the taut muscular tension of its surfaces creating a quietly expressive design. It contains tiny but nuanced changes, respectfully but determinedly updating the aesthetic of its predecessor.
Viewing the car from the profile, the strong character line that runs the length of the car dominates, directing the eye across the body. On closer inspection this is a double line and the first for BMW design. Van Hooydonk smiles saying, ‘it incorporates the door handle even better that before. It adds to the precision and quality of the car, don’t you think?’
The satellite BMW design studio in Shanghai has found that there is increasingly an appreciation of subtle luxury across the Asian markets too. Van Hooydonk has had feedback from China to reduce the amount of elements in design. Here in the 7 the smallest of details, many of which like the air vents have functional value, have been treated as little objects of desire – as graphic elements.
Inside takes a more traditional approach, yet the team has avoided any stylistic ornamentation. The cabin is an expression of easy elegance interpreting the concept of modern luxury whereby the passenger needs to immediately feel at home, at ease and relaxed so that it becomes almost a sanctuary from their busy lives. This is achieved through high levels of quality and craftsmanship and an abundance of quilted leather, tactile wood and chrome elements.
It is also about the little surprises that greet you when you enter the cabin. In the rear compartment, passengers are welcomed with the touch-operated ambient highlight around the door. And the Sky Lounge Panorama glass roof has LED lights that light up to give the impression of a starry sky at night. ‘It feels almost ethereal,’ muses van Hooydonk, ‘modern luxury is in the tiniest detail and in the elements of surprise.’
BMW turns 100 next year. And although the marque boasts a strong history, there is little association with the more sedate luxury sector the 7 resides in. Van Hooydonk explains: ‘I don’t believe people think traditional luxury should come from BMW. We are a driving company. Therefore we feel modern luxury is our niche and this has a lot to do with intelligence. This is why this car is packed with clever technology.’
I ask van Hooydonk how design should respond to cars becoming increasingly big and complex tech gadgets. ‘For us this is something worthy of exploring further,’ he says. ‘I think cars can and should become more intelligent. But they should be serving the customer. In the end the customer should be able to decide what he or she wants to do otherwise we are saying we don’t need the customer anymore and that I think is not so clever.’
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