STUTTGART, Germany --In a town where the car is God, there's a new cathedral. Silvery and enigmatic, the Mercedes-Benz museum sits just off the B14 highway as it dips into a gentle fold of the Neckar Valley.
Designed by Dutch architects Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, the 15-story building looks like a loosely interleaved stack of postmodern pancakes, its bands of aluminum and glass rising in an undisciplined kinetic wobble above a granite pavilion. Mercedes-Benz has long had its stamp on Stuttgart's sky - a three-pointed star rotates above the Hauptbahnhof, or train station - but now, with the $50-million edifice planted on the outskirts of the city as a kind of ceremonial gateway, the company's dominion seems more ecclesiastical than corporate.
And why not? Germany's automakers are locked in fierce competition - reminiscent of medieval city-states' cathedral wars - to see which can build the grandest temple. For travelers tired of schlepping from one Our Lady of Whatever to another, the German automakers' building spree offers a rich new itinerary - showrooms, museums and tours - that traces the technological triumphs of the Automotive Age, the passion for motor sports, the renaissance of postwar Germany and the cost-is-no-object ambitions of brand-name architects.
And so, a car-buff's dream.
The place to start is the Mercedes-Benz museum, built on hallowed ground. Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach - founders of the Daimler company and fairly called the inventors of the automobile - sorted out their first chuffing engines only yards from here in the early 1880s; nearby is Mercedes-Benz' heroic-scaled Unterturkheim assembly plants and the Gottlieb Daimler Stadium.
It's here that Mercedes-Benz has chosen to house its 120 years of history - the trembling, motorized surreys of the early days, the grosser sedans of the Nazis' Third Reich, and the Silver Arrows, the company's indomitable competition cars from the middle 20th century.
"As a museum structure, it's fascinating," says Dennis Adler, an automotive historian and author of four books about Mercedes-Benz.
"It's beautifully built, imposing from the outside and impressive from the inside. As a statement of technology, it reminds me of the SLR McLaren" - Mercedes' 200-mph, $450,000 super sports car, Adler says. "They're both 21st-century Mercedes."
Inside, there are nine levels warped around a towering open atrium, providing space to display 160 cars and other vehicles. In this building that knows no right angles, the word "level" is merely a convenient misnomer.
Designed as a double helix, the interior curves and loops and pours through open spaces in a way that defies quaint architectural distinctions such as floors. Visitors take a futuristic elevator capsule to the top and descend on parquet ramps, a la the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
"I don't know if it's good for architecture," says Paul Tesar, professor of architecture at North Carolina State University and a one-time Stuttgart resident. "But it seems to be good for business."
VW: 'Car City'
Other carmakers have their showplace factories and museums. Volkswagen has its own city. About two hours west of Berlin on the A2, in Wolfsburg, the Autostadt (literally, Car City) is a sprawling automotive theme park.
Built in the style of an off-world colony, the complex is a mad cavort of futuristic buildings, some with roofs strung from canted pylons, some with exterior walls undulating like sea snakes and all of it jigsaw-fitted into a park landscape with a large connecting lake. Designed by Gunter Henn, the Autostadt offers visitors - the lucky ones stay at the Ritz-Carlton on campus - a full day of auto-centric adventure.
For kids, there's the LernPark, a low-speed course where they can practice the fundamentals of driving in electric cars. (Germans take driving skills very seriously.)
There's also the ZeitHaus museum of mobility; the AutoLab, an exhibit about the technology of car building; and the "virtual" Car Design Studio, which explains how cars are drafted and styled. In all, a car-geek's wonderland.
But the Autostadt's primary mission is what's called car "collection," where buyers take possession of their new VWs. Nearly half of European buyers make the trip to Autostadt to receive the keys to their new car in a bonding moment of great ceremony.
Not surprisingly, this process has an architectural component. New cars are stored in two 20-story cylindrical glass towers, each with a robotic car lift in the center. At the appropriate moment, the robotic arm plucks the car from one of the honeycomb-like cells and brings it to the ground floor to meet its new owner.
Interested? Unfortunately, VW's European delivery program for U.S. buyers folded in the 1980s.
BMW's facility in Leipzig, southeast of Wolfsburg, is a theater of technology.
The $1.7-billion plant, opened in 2005, has a unique architectural core called the Central Building - an extravagant multilevel conduit that zigzags between the box-shaped production halls.
Designed by Zaha Hadid, the Central Building "bundles and distributes all the essential movements of the plant," says Hadid, and indeed, it has the multivectoring quality of a grand highway interchange.
In a twist, the design routes incomplete 3-series automobiles along an overhead rail above the heads of the office workers and executives, so that the cars and the process always remain tangible to them.
The design eliminates the white-collar/blue-collar divide that separate most factories' assembly lines from their administrative offices - a caste system that has not always worked in the car industry's favor.
VW: A glass show
By far the most theatrical, even stagy, car factory in the world is to the southeast, in the heart of historic Dresden, now largely restored after the twin disasters of Allied fire bombing in World War II and East German postwar reconstruction.
The architecture of VW's Glass Factory, or Die Gldserne Manufaktur, building takes the notion of organizational transparency - in which processes and results are visible from the outside - and makes it literal. The production hall is a vast, halogen-flooded glassine case in which the car chassis, floating by on a slow-moving river of parquet wood flooring, can be observed from glass bridges.
Here, VW builds its flagship $100,000 Phaeton sedan and the $175,000 Bentley Flying Spur. White-gloved workers in lab coats move at the tempered pace of NASA ground control employees. (What dirty work there is to do, such as trimming and grinding the steel car bodies, is handled discreetly in the basement.)
The factory is hushed, even reverential. As the chassis move along at floor level, the car bodies - hanging from U-shaped cradles - move along on overhead tracks, until, at last, body and chassis come together at the Hochzeit, the marriage place, and a car is consummated.
Moving southwest across Germany and somewhat off the autobahn path you will find Ingolstadt, home of Audi, VW's luxury brand. The Audi Forum Ingolstadt, opened in December 2000, is a relatively more restrained affair than VW's stadt and crystal palace museums. The museum, also designed by Gunter Henn, is another circular structure in which visitors wind their way through the years and various car models.
Audi's history is less linear than such a plan would suggest. It was founded by August Horch in 1909, after Horch had been driven out of the company that bore his name. Eventually, Audi merged with Horch, DKW and Wanderer to form Auto Union, whose alloy-skinned racing machines presented the only real challenge to Mercedes-Benz.
Unfortunately, the company's headquarters were in Zwichau, which fell into the Eastern bloc after World War II, and many of the company's most cherished vehicles were lost.
It's a rather tortuous route west toward Stuttgart. Despite its reputation, the autobahn does have speed limits - enforced by automatic cameras - and roadwork can cause significant delays. Stuttgart traffic is tough going, too. Plan accordingly.
German automakers have struggled a bit lately. The Dresden factory was set up to build one car, the VW Phaeton, which has had disappointing sales. The automobile itself seems bound for tough times. Perhaps the German auto business won't last forever. Yet like the soaring cathedrals of increasingly agnostic Europe, these buildings seem to have destinies all their own.
Dan Neil writes for the Los Angeles Times.
IF YOU GO
For several of the Web sites below, you will need to click on the English version.
Mercedes-Benz museum -- 100 Mercedesstrasse, 70372 Stuttgart; 71-117-30-000, mercedes-benz.com (click on "to the brand world"). Admission $10.
VW's Autostadt -- GmbH Stadtbrucke, Wolfsburg D-38440; 536-1400, autostadt.de. Admission $19.
BMW plant -- BMW 1 Allee, Leipzig D-04349; 3414-450, www.bmw-werk-leipzig.de/leipzig. Admission $6.
VW's Glass Factory -- 1 Lennestrasse, Dresden 01069; 18-05-896-268, www.glaesernemanufaktur.de. Admission $5.
Audi museum -- Ingolstadt D-85045; 841-89-37-575, www.museummobile.de. Admission $5.
Porsche museum -- 1 Porscheplatz, Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen D-70453; 711-911-25685, porsche.com/international/faq/museum. Free.