Reporting by Kat Bauman
This season, Germany is for car lovers. Last week's Frankfurt Auto Show saw the debut of a slew of new cars—some slated for production, some beautiful, high-functioning pipe dreams. Audi, a fatherland favorite, unveiled several new models, including an A3 E-tron plug-in hybrid, coming soon to an America near you, and a sick 700hp Sport Quattro Concept (above), coming someday to... something, maybe.
A few days later, Audi pulled the curtain off another new but utterly functionless car. As people milled about the vehicle-stacked white spaces of Munich's Die Neue Sammlung International Design Museum, I squinted at a shining wall studded with 1,800 miniature aluminum rally cars and begrudgingly considered the intersection of cars and art.
Another unambiguously car-shaped object, full-sized and covered by a dramatic white dropcloth, hovered high on the wall. The shrouded figure was the focal point of the evening and of the museum's new permanent exhibit on vehicle design, the spooky centerpiece of the new "Audi Design Wall." Its unveiling marked a re-opening of the museum, now a century old and home to seven collections of rare and groundbreaking objects in design. And so, between fiddling with the headphones for real-time English or Chinese translation (hey, growing markets, how ya doin'?) and eating small geometric foods off small geometric plates, we were treated to a little piece of engineered engineering history.
Dedications were made by Audi lead designer Wolfgang Egger, Dr. Ulrich Hackenberg, a technical development board member at Audi, and Dr. Florian Hufnagl, director of The Pinakothek Der Moderne (the design museum's parent institution). Each mentioned the company's design-minded history, the link between history and future. The spectacle was consummated as all three pressed an Audi-logoed white button, dropping the veil to reveal the star of the Audi Design Wall: a totally unexpected white dummy version of the new Sport Quattro Concept. Shocking? No. Thrilling. Slightly. Art? Maybe it was something in the geometric food, but I was potentially open to that interpretation.
Something new, something old. Something silver, something matte white to symbolize open-ended future creative development.
This institutional partnership particularly makes sense if you're familiar with Audi's history. As the story goes, the spark for Audi began in 1899, founded by August Horch, an engineer who quit working for Karl Benz (yes, that Benz), and then his own eponymous company, to pursue greater creative freedom and technical advancement. As in most German industries, war and a fluctuating market wreaked havoc with both the innovation and the ownership of the company, but Audi was one that survived. By the early 1930s, it was one of four companies sublimated into the massive Auto Union brand, along with Wanderer, DKW and Horsh.
Four companies, four rings
You can lead a Portlander to water, but... oh look, bikes!
All associated factories were repurposed during WWII and later gutted by the Soviet occupiers, who liquidated the company then shamelessly continued producing Auto Union's pre-takeover models. Over in West Germany, a new Auto Union was established in Ingolstadt, bolstered by the Marshall Plan and other savvy steps like "fleeing early." Auto Union changed hands a few times (ironically held by Benz for a bit, to little profit) until the 1960s, when it started slapping cars with the Audi name again as a last ditch makeover attempt. Volkswagen took notice, invested, and bought the whole operation outright in '64.
Here's where it gets fun. After relegating the Ingolstadt facilities to producing supplemental Beetles, nixing future use of the Auto Union brand, and banning product design by the Auto Union team, VW had an insurrection on their hands. The outcome: irritated Auto Union designers secretly developed the Audi 100—a car so reasonable, attractive and powerful that they couldn't produce enough and had to expand their facilities. Audi was reintroduced as a separate brand shortly thereafter. Pressured internally by designers and engineers, the subsequent line of cars morphed from grandfatherly daily drivers into engineering-heavy racetrack gobblers. The Audi Quattro (a shocking 4wd revelation and the model for our aluminum installation) destroyed competitions and fundamentally changed expectations of auto design for both track and street. Rallying, technical innovation and precision have defined their design ethos for the 33 years since, pushing them to develop new materials and production methods.
World's shortest game of chicken
All aluminum frame? Who does that, engineers from space?
With that in mind the unveiling seems less about the new Quattro Concept, the orthogonal centerpiece of the show, and more about Audi's genuine legacy of adaptation and innovation. As the oldest design museum in the world, Die Neue Sammlung is a fitting host. The museum was established before design was was spelled with a capital D or distinguished from making and manufacturing. With this exhibition, a century-old car company is investing in preservation and education around art and design, supporting an historic design institution in the process.
Like the other collections, "Vehicle Design" presents immaculate examples of objects that changed industries—Flaminio Bertoni's Citroen!—and often lives (originally commissioned VW Beetle, anyone?). Plus, they covered a huge wall with 1,800 solid milled aluminum models of the first Audi Quattro, which is admittedly awesome. I'm no proponent of backward-facing self-congratulation, but knowledge of creative legacy is vital to good new work. As they say, those ignorant of history are doomed to design terrible racecars.