Progress through technology is no longer enough to sell cars. Through its Autostadt theme park, and Dresden car factory, Volkswagen is now using architecture to connect with its customers

An all-glass building is rising in the centre of historic Dresden. Designed by one of Germany’s leading architects, it is not an office block or an institution, but a car factory.

Volkswagen’s £75m Gläserne Manufaktur will be more than just a building where automobiles are assembled. The company likes to call it an “event centre” – a place where the public will come to spend a day, where buyers will watch their car being made and where, VW hopes, visitors will be subtly converted into customers.

“VW is doing this to open itself up to potential customers, to help them build a better relationship with the company when they are buying a car and when they are not buying a car,” explains the architect, Munich-based Gunther Henn. “They’re communicating their products not just in a technical way – engine size, number of airbags – but in an emotional way.”

When it opens next year, the plant will produce VW’s new, top-of-the-range D1. The company knew it would take more than just a great car to gain market share in a sector dominated by BMW and Mercedes-Benz, and the factory is as important to its strategy as the £50 000 vehicle itself. Customers will be made to feel they are commissioning a work of art instead of buying a product. “It’s like when you go to visit an artist and you see how he produces the sculpture,” says Henn. “At Dresden, you will see the production line.”

By placing the factory in the middle of Dresden, Henn is reinventing the car plant as a civilised urban component rather than a sprawl of edge-of-town sheds. Dresdeners will be encouraged to wander through the complex, visit the exhibitions and restaurants and watch the assembly line through the glass walls as if it were theatre. “It’s a paradigm of structure and event: the structure of the building and the event of car-making,” says Henn.

This melting of the boundaries between car-buying and car-making, between the factory and the city, is part of VW’s wider strategy to set itself apart from its rivals. To survive in an increasingly cut-throat market, the car manufacturer – the third largest in the world – is turning transparency into its corporate signature.

Over the next five years, it will spend an incredible £20bn on new models and buildings, with architecture increasingly being employed as a means of connecting with customers. Henn believes that no other company in the world can match the ambition of VW’s strategy. He says only Nike, which is building a chain of Nike Town outlets in major cities worldwide, comes close.

Henn feels that as the Internet takes over as the source of hard information about products such as cars, companies will increasingly need to create touchy-feely places where people can connect emotionally with the goods. “We are not happy having just the virtual world. We will need locations that are selling without selling – you don’t sell your products, you sell your vision and philosophy.”

Other German car makers agree. Opel and Mercedes-Benz have already opened their factories to the public and BMW plans to open a “car world” in Munich. But VW is going much, much further. It has already put its strategy into practice at Autostadt, the world’s first car theme park, which opened last month at its vast factory complex at Wolfsburg in Lower Saxony.

The park was also masterplanned by Henn, who claims it is just as revolutionary as the Dresden factory. “It’s a new urban form,” he says. “VW is the first company which is combining urban place, theme park, marketing and manufacturing. Autostadt is part of the city; it’s a theme park about automobility; it’s a brand-land all at the same time,” says Henn. “But it’s not like Disneyland. It’s authentic. You see, smell and feel that it’s a production area.”

The £280m park contains a car museum, a five-star hotel, cafés, restaurants and pavilions dedicated to VW subsidiaries, all set among 25 ha of landscaped gardens and lakes. Henn brought in architects from all over Europe to express the diverse spirits of the brands in the VW stable, which include Bentley, Audi and Skoda. London architect Ray Hole’s pavilion for Bentley is exquisitely crafted in polished green granite and half-buried in a turfed hillock, while Spaniard Alfredo Arribas’ wavy Seat pavilion is clad in dazzling white ceramic and surrounded by water.

“The architecture you see here reflects the design values of our products, mixed with the philosophy of our company. It’s a summary of our culture,” says Autostadt product development director Wolfgang Müller-Pietralla. Naturally, this means a lot of glass, both in the visitor facilities and the staff-only areas. Transparency is forcing workers to sharpen up: “People here must now work in a different way. They can’t pick their noses any more.”

As at Dresden, buying a car becomes an architectural experience. Cars roll off the production line into two 50 m high glass cylinders where they await collection. When the customer arrives, the vehicle is automatically transferred via lifts and conveyors to a collection centre – all glass, naturally – where final checking and valeting is carried out. An alcohol-free café overlooking the valeting area offers drivers a choice of 40 different mineral waters.

The attention to detail throughout the park is quite exceptional, particularly inside the brand pavilions, which range from the surreal to the preposterous without ever resorting to automotive cliché or corporate sloganeering.

The Lamborghini pavilion, for example, is pure testosterone: a four-storey black box containing nothing more than a yellow Diablo caged like a wild animal. During the most deafening son et lumière you will ever see, the car spits, screams and belches smoke … and then disappears.

By contrast, Volkswagen’s own pavilion uses architectural purity – a metal sphere inside a glass cube – to express the brand as an abstract concept. Inside the sphere, a breathtaking multimedia show tells the story of a girl who learns to play the violin. The subliminal message is that car design, like a musical instrument, takes a long time to master. Cars are never mentioned.

“It’s something pure and sovereign,” says Nick Swallow of Furneaux Stewart, the London creative agency that worked with Henn on the pavilion. “The message has very little to do with crash test dummies and crumple zones, and everything to do with spirit.”

VW’s strategy is unbelievably brave but not without its risks, Swallow adds. “The risk is that people might not ‘get it’ right away. But cars are increasingly in danger of being seen as commodities. People want to feel their car is more than an object. Manufacturers are wising up to this fact – and architecture is the perfect way of expressing it.”

Müller-Pietralla is less esoteric. “This is not just a place for people to have fun. From a commercial point of view, we have won if we can win the hearts of non-VW drivers. That’s the reason we’re doing it.”