Industrial Modern

From culture to cars—German, of course—Wolfsburg offers travelers a vision of the future.

By Peggy Sijswerda


nside a cylindrical glass tower 20 stories high, my husband, Peter, and I twirled in a modern merry-go-round. But instead of prancing ponies and graceful swans, 400 colorful, new Volkswagens, fresh from the nearby factory, surrounded the glass elevator that spun us in circles.

Our visit to Wolfsburg, Germany, was full of surprises—like the dizzying ride we took at Volkswagen’s unique Autostadt attraction, located about an hour west of Berlin. This hip, forward-thinking city offers visitors an ideal look at why Germany has taken the lead in the 21st century as a center of innovative thinking, artistic expression, and cutting-edge technology.

Wolfsburg (population 123,000) is making a name for itself as a hub of commerce, industry, and art. Volkswagen’s factory, built in the 1930s, employs 48,000 workers and produces 4,000 cars a day. “It’s as big as Gibraltar,” said Maria George, the guide who showed us around Autostadt on a glittering afternoon.

Created by the Volkswagen Group, Autostadt, which opened in 2000, serves myriad purposes. Combination theme park and car delivery center, the attraction draws nearly 20 million visitors a year. Many new owners pick up their VWs at Autostadt, stay overnight at the adjacent Ritz-Carlton, and explore the museums, restaurants, and exhibits spread throughout the campus. Building brand recognition is what it’s all about.

Car aficionados will lose themselves in the ZeitHaus, where five floors of iconic car models repose for your edification—from sassy Beetles to the mammoth 1922 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Other attractions include pavilions for each of Volkswagen Group’s brands, a children’s driving school, a car design studio, and the newest exhibit, Level Green, which focuses on sustainability.

Allow at least a day to explore Autostadt. If you have time, tour the nearby VW factory, the most highly automated car factory in the world, with six robots working on one unit at a time. Our schedule didn’t allow for a factory tour, but we did fit in a stay at the Ritz-Carlton, Wolfsburg, a unique luxury hotel with an earthy, unpretentious vibe.

“It’s shaped like a hug,” said Hendrik Malinowski, the hotel’s director of sales, describing the open circle architecture. Inside, very few right angles and corners interrupt the building’s flow. Instead, undulating walls in shades of cream and taupe enfold visitors as they walk along gently bending hallways. Peter and I stayed in a suite with gorgeous views of both Autostadt and KraftWerk, the old power station whose four giant brick chimneys symbolize the city.

The Ritz-Carlton, Wolfsburg is also home to Aqua, the only three-star Michelin restaurant in Northern Germany. Dinner here mirrored the cutting-edge yet earthy themes that Autostadt embodies. Chef Sven Elverfeld has received many accolades, but is most proud of Aqua’s trio of Michelin stars. Peter and I chose to try the tasting menu, called the “surprise menu” in Germany, and for three hours swooned over the eclectic dishes Chef Sven and his talented team created in the kitchen.

After dinner we joined a throng of people outside for the summer’s hottest event: the water and light show called “St. Tropez Moments.” This pyrotechnic display combines water fountains that propel water 200 feet in the air with torches spewing hot flames toward the black sky. Add to this spectacle film clips played on sheets of water cascading like a flat movie screen and hot dance music, and you have a sure crowd-pleaser.

Peter and I spent the next morning exploring another local attraction, the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg. This visionary museum opened in 1994 as a forum for contemporary and modern art. The stunning building composed of glass and steel offers flexible space for the museum’s myriad exhibitions. We caught a show called “Ease and Eagerness: Modernism Today,” which emphasized the disconnect between humanity and technology.

Showing through April 2010 is a monumental light installation called The Wolfsburg Project, by James Turrell, a renowned L.A.-born artist. The Ganzfield Piece, the exhibit’s primary work, covers a floor area of 7,500 square feet with two interconnecting rooms: the Viewing Space and the Sensing Space. These areas are completely empty but remain flooded with subtly changing colored light. James Turrell says being immersed in pure light is “feeling with your eyes.”

Combining innovation, art, and industry, the visionaries who created Autostadt and the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg clearly discovered a recipe for success, one that a world of visitors can learn from and enjoy.


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