The premier German car maker’s historical showcase says as much about the company through what it depicts as through what it omits.
Porscheplatz 1 in Stuttgart’s Zuffenhausen district is not merely the home of Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche AG and the postal address of this proud company’s museum. It is a place defined by Porsche to such an extent that when standing in front of the building thus located, its catchy address (naming it Porscheplatz 911 was probably thwarted by mean-spirited Stuttgart authorities) appears somewhat superfluous.
The roundabout in front of the Porsche Museum is decorated with a Gerry Judah-designed sculpture, featuring three white examples of Neunelfer. And then there is the corporate style, semi-rotunda Porsche Zentrum dealership next to it, as well as the administrative buildings opposite (whose rather clumsy 1970s architecture momentarily distracts from the factory behind them).
Porscheplatz perfectly represents Porsche. A large part of it is exceptionally sleek (the museum, the sculpture and, to a lesser degree, the dealership), while some historical parts appear hardly on-brand from today’s perspective (the administrative building). Looming behind it all in the background is the factory, where, day in, day out, excellent automobiles are created - lending the glitz the substance required for it not to descend into elf-adulation.
The current Porsche Museum was opened in 2009 and could only ever been created in this form, and particularly on this scale, during that particular point in time. For it is a consequence of the astounding success the Swabian company experienced under then-CEO, Wendelin Wiedeking - a decade before or even earlier still, this grandiose temple to the Austro-Swabian automobile would simply have been a financial impossibility.
Against this backdrop, it is rather surprising that the building itself, whose exterior was designed by Austrian (naturally!) architects, Delugan Meissl, boasts a rather daring, spectacular appearance. For Wiedeking’s tenure was otherwise not characterised by aesthetic panache - hardly a big surprise, given the man’s upbringing in stuffy, deeply catholic Westphalia, where an uncut hedge has seriously damaged a great many neighbourly friendships. For a numbers man such as Wiedeking, the expense and visuals of this Porsche Museum ought to have appeared somewhat daunting. That they clearly did not means the museum’s architecture also acts as metaphor for Wiedeking’s gigantic achievements - and hubris.
What surprises more than the size and visual impact of the Porsche Museum is the elegance of the building itself. The main structure being built on stilts and at an angle allows the museum to exude a rather dashing, almost fierce kind of elegance - the resultant forced perspectives working miracles to help lighten the overall proportions. Mirrored surfaces above the forecourt are also employed to great effect in that context.
If the Porsche Museum’s exterior is quite ‘Libeskind without the strangeness’, the interior is a far more corporate affair. Apart from the escalator that takes the visitor from the basement upstairs to the museum proper - via one of the stilts that support it and an intricately patterned roof light -, it is all business as usual.
The same applies to the exhibition spaces, despite them being organised in a slightly confusing spiral. So the tour through Porsche history begins with a section dedicated to Porsche’s endeavours ‘pre-1948’ - Ferdinand Porsche’s endeavours that would be, which culminate in the Berlin-Rom-Wagen, whose design anticipates the future Porsche style, what with its unadorned, soft surfaces, small greenhouse, flat front lid and upright front wings. The Berlin-Rom-Wagen is represented in the form of a bare metal body replica. Adolf Hitler, Ferdinand Porsche’s great benefactor, is conspicuous by his absence.
The ‘post-1948’ sector starts with the cars that followed the Berlin-Rom-Wagen template, but were overseen by Ferdinand’s son, Ferry, and created at Gmünd (Austria) and then Stuttgart. Some of Porsche’s earlier race cars are also on show, but a special exhibition is devoted to the Porsche 917 at the time of visit.
More impressive than the sizeable number of 917s on show - sporting different and mostly wonderful liveries - are some exhibits highlighting the car’s attributes. One 917’s fibreglass body is presented hanging from the wall, on four spring force metres, highlighting its lightness. Another 917 is shown without its body panels, thus illustrating its layout’s peculiar trait of employing the driver’s feet as crumple zones.
Exactly this is the kind of insight one visits a museum for. Similarly enlightening is the fabulous installation of a 1/18-scale wind tunnel, into which a few scale models, ranging from a VW ‘Bully’ to a 917, can be placed, enabling one to see the varying aerodynamic traits first-hand.
An attractive full-scale clay model of a 917 homage unveiled this year tops off the Neun-Siebzehn celebrations.
The rest of the regular exhibition consists of production cars, special versions of production cars (such as an armoured 996-generation Neunelfer), race cars, prototypes (an all-aluminium 928) and a few concept cars. Among these, the Boxster Studie stands out for differing so considerably from the far less attractive production car, while a 944 Cabriolet prototype highlights that it can also be the other way around. A peculiar 911 3.2 Speedster Studie includes stylistic elements that could come into fashion a decade later, but hardly gel with the decidedly 1980s looks of the G-series Elfer it is based on.
So far, so good then. It is only after the main parts of the exhibition have been sampled that the discerning visitor finds reason for considerable irritation (apart from the omission of the Porsche Family’s dealings during the 'Third Reich', of course) - certainly if one knows his or her Porsche design history. For in an unassuming glass showcase, somewhat offside, the Porsches’ contributions to Porsche’s design heritage are ‘explained’ - as in: grossly misrepresented.
It is one thing not to pay tribute to the marque’s design history through a chief designers’ ‘hall of fame’ - after all, the majority of enthusiasts do not care if a car design was created under the watchful eyes of Harm Lagaaj, Michael Mauer or Anatole Lapine. But to present Ferdinand and Ferry Porsche as car designers of any sort is an insult. Not just to the (mostly unassuming) visitor, but certainly poor Erwin Komenda, and even Ferdinand Alexander Porsche - as both actually were designers and did design the cars that defined the marque.
On that sour note, the decision not to end the visit with dinner at Christophorus, the Museum’s upscale steak house, is an easy one. After all, its interior seems to consist of all those insignia of German bourgeoise tastes that did not feature in the Museum’s starkly impressive exterior.
Allegedly, it was furnished according to Wendelin Wiedeking’s preferences. It would certainly make for a perfectly appropriate and very upscale restaurant in Beckum, Westphalia.
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Comment by Daniel O'Callaghan |
An interesting review, thank you Christopher. All those 917 variations leave me rather cold, however. I'd much prefer to see more examples of Porsche's road car prototypes, even those that didn't make it to production, as well as design work the company carried out for other manufacturers.
Christophorus is also the name of Porsche's rather luxurious and sophisticated customer magazine, of which I am a recipient. It merely serves to remind me how far removed I am from the assumed Porsche owner demographic. I guess that's why I'm routinely ignored as I wander around the showroom when dropping off my Boxster for servicing.
Reply by Christopher Butt
The 917s were shown as part of a special exhibition, so the museum isn't always as racing-focused as when I visited.
Generally speaking, the Porsche Museum was clearly created to serve the broader public, rather than just dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts - the focus is on providing an overview of Porsche's history, rather than delving into the more complex and less apparent aspects of the marque's past. Compared to the gigantic Mercedes-Benz Museum, space is also somewhat limited, entailing certain compromises.