Monday, November 01, 2010

Of Branding and Behemoths

By Beth Herman

It survived decades of war, recession, a Great Depression, whispered and public liaisons (Studebaker-Packard Corporation, for one), changes in demographics and even a post-WWII employee in its Argentine division named Adolph Eichmann. But for all of its challenges, and to make it a true daily double, Alex, Mercedes-Benz remains the world’s oldest automotive brand still in existence.

In 2004, when the time came to gild the proverbial lily, and with something close to 1,000 automotive facility designs in the firm’s fight book, Chris Lessard, Lori Hall and Hernani Codera of The Lessard Group took Mercedes-Benz’s branding philosophies out for a test drive when they designed a 27,000 s.f. Old Town Alexandria, Va. dealership at 200 S. Pickett Street, one that embraced both the product and the neighborhood. And they did it again this year as the facility experienced a renovation in a mid-Atlantic salute to the brand’s progressive, industrial, high-tech German image.

“Auto manufacturers create branding books so when you go to different dealerships, you can identify with some of the elements in each dealership,” Lessard said, noting that Autohaus is Mercedes-Benz’s image and branding program. But in a storied venue like Old Town, where historical parameters govern building design, applying branding principles such as Mercedes-Benz’s steely facades can be like walking a diplomatic tightrope at best. “As a firm, we do a lot of other things, not just auto dealerships,” Lessard said, emphasizing that zoning and entitlement work often follow suit, though Alexandria is one of the “tougher jurisdictions.”
“We also had to present some renderings to the residents,” said Hall, who is the firm’s director of automotive facility design, because they, too, were concerned with how it was going to look. They wanted to know what their view was going to be.”

The Demise of Mini-Me

The structure, which was built essentially to swallow and to some extent incorporate a small, deteriorating mid-century Oldsmobile dealership on the site, is wood and red brick (think: ubiquitous northern Virginia) with traditional detailing and arched windows. But because the city’s saga’d image has evolved and become less restrictive in the last six years, and in compliance with Mercedes-Benz’s current identity that sanctions exposed steel, a blue arcade, silver panels and blue columns with chrome caps, the architects were able to integrate these elements into the renovation.

According to Lessard, Autohaus examines each dealership and estimates the level of business it’s going to do. “With that, they give a very defined programming requirement that they want to have appropriate service and waiting areas,” he explained, noting they are adding more bays in Alexandria to deal with the dealership’s service component. “It’s very prescriptive,” he said, “especially with Mercedes, where you’re getting the high level of service for the consumer that either buys or services a car there, or while servicing a car, looks at a new car.” To that end, according to project manager Codera, the Old Town facility will also be able to accommodate 580 vehicles, up from 520, when the renovation is complete. “In the 1950s, you had auto sites that didn’t have a lot of cars on them, but that’s not how it works today,” Lessard said. “You have to count every square inch of the site to make sure you can meet the requirements of inventory.”

Message in a Building

In Silver Spring, Md., a roughly 60,000 s.f. two-story Mercedes-Benz dealership at 3301 Briggs Chaney Road, that actually turns a corner, careens toward a March, 2011 delivery date with LEED Gold looming. “At the time we were designing it (first submission was in 2008, though construction issues stalled the process), LEED wasn’t really a factor,” Hall said, referencing the firm’s best practices standards. But with Montgomery County’s current mandate for all new commercial construction to meet LEED certification requirements, and actual construction beginning just this year, energy efficient lighting comprised of both LED and CFL’s is just one component of the glass and steel building which, by its nature, will also utilize natural light.

Trumpeting Mercedes-Benz’s perspective on precision and luxury, and branding elements such as exposed steel, black high gloss tile and “beam outriggers” that reinforce the German industrial machine look all withstanding, the psychology of the Silver Spring facility will involve what the automotive company calls its “triad,” where the service area and lounge, parts accessory boutique and the showroom are all visible from the middle of the building.

“If I’m going to get my car serviced, I’m going to want to sit in this beautiful lounge and enjoy myself, wander through to accessories thinking about whether I want to get a new keychain or new wheels, and while there, I can be looking at all the brand new cars thinking maybe it’s time to upgrade,” Hall explained. In fact, when a new car decision is made, the new car delivery area, painted an effervescent yellow, is sited so that a new owner and family can be somewhat isolated from the throng (think: sort of a private screening), but other customers can also experience the “bragging rights” of the new owner driving away. In the service lounge, according to Codera, customers can actually see their car being serviced through glass that abuts the service bays. “It’s a retail selling process,” Lessard said in summary, “whether you’re servicing or buying a new car – it’s making you feel happy whatever you’re doing and making you want to come back.”

Speaking to any perceived constraints of working within the parameters of branding specifications, Lessard maintained that while the auto manufacturer has certain standards, they are not always precise and do allow for creativity and change over time. “You can be part of that change,” he said, affirming that as an architect, he’s “not necessarily into social engineering.

“I’m really trying to make sure the building is servicing the needs of whoever’s using it, whether it feels good inside, or whether it encourages someone to do something. That’s what this firm is about, so branding actually helps me,” Lessard said. “It makes clear what the program needs to be, and I can improve on the requirements by making the building even better. It really reinforces the message.”

Bottom 2 photos of Mercedes-Benz Annapolis.


IMGoph on Nov 1, 2010, 2:19:00 PM said...

it just seems that, by default, an automotive dealership shouldn't be able to qualify for LEED certification. by design, it's sending more carbon out into the world, not less.

Ken on Nov 1, 2010, 3:23:00 PM said...

Point taken, though I think you could say that about alot of the buildings designed now, i.e. that the business that inhabits the green space might have a huge carbon footprint, no reason that car owners should be singled out.

IMGoph on Nov 1, 2010, 3:25:00 PM said...

give me an example then, if you don't mind.

Anonymous said...

The new Alexandria dealership is ugly as sin. Who thinks this look good, seriously? Of and the phony keystones really make it. Architecturally speaking, this is about as bad as it gets.

Ken on Nov 1, 2010, 4:25:00 PM said...

Well, if you're going to put me on the spot...the Council on Foreign Relations (jetting around is very ungreen). But really, many of the LEED certified office buildings hold all kinds of paper-generating corporations whose mission has nothing to do with environmental protection. I'm sure if you went to the lobby of one and looked at the directory you would not find a list of tree huggers.

IMGoph on Nov 1, 2010, 4:31:00 PM said...

i'm sorry you consider it "putting you on the spot," ken. i would think that, if you publish a blog and publish your opinions, you wouldn't feel uncomfortable defending them. :)

that being said, sure, that's a good example. and sure, 99% of businesses are "not green". national geographic produces paper and flies its photographers to far-off places. does that make it a company that doesn't work to make the environment a better place? hardly.

the fact remains that the automotive industry contributes more greenhouse gases than just about anything else out there that would be in a building (other than cattle, maybe), so calling their building green is fine, but it's not sticking to the spirit of what LEED is about.

Evan said...

Both of those are bland pieces of garbage, a generic mishmash of "traditional" elements we've all seen a million times before. There's nothing special about the exterior or interior of either.

Anonymous said...

How do you really feel? Just think about how it could be worse though, we could have had two "bland pieces of garbage, a generic mishmash of "modernist" elements we've all seen a million times before."
Count your blessings!

Anonymous said...

God, I'm such a pedant, but really the word needed is not "careen," but "career."

Both of these buildings are generic pablum. They're not offensive, but seem to be a waste of perfectly good brick. I think that a Deco/mid-century modernist look would be much more effective for a car dealership - the surviving Lustine Chevrolet building on Route 1 in Hyattsville is a neat example, with floor to ceiling curving glass.

The Alexandria dealership (this is not Old Town!) looks like it should be selling Ethan Allen furniture.

Anonymous said...

It's true, of all the times glass modernism should be employed, it's car dealerships. Mieses museum in Berlin is a perfect example. Strange the Germans missed that one, although the second one is a bit prairie moderne.

Anonymous said...

Lessard's Automotive division Lead Principal and team left the demented firm many months ago, they deserve the credit.

Anonymous said...

the dialogue here on who has or doesnt have the most or least carbon offset/ footprint whatever seems a bit masturbatory to me...but whatever.

anyway...the architecture of this really sucks. so, if anything, its LEEDness is its only redeeming quality.

Anonymous said...

Yes dont mistake this from old town. This is far from Old Town Alexandria. To say that this is Old Town Alexandria does not do Old Town Justice. I know this is not the point of the post but they would have been better creating a more modern look to cater to the folks in the Cameron Station area.

Anonymous said...

Both designs are kind of pathetic. Brick? Fake keystones? These things don't exactly shout "sophisticated automotive technology" to me. I have seen car dealerships in other cities that are architecturally spectacular, environmental issues aside.

Anonymous said...

A better example of how to incorporate large format uses in a historic setting is the new Social Safeway in Georgetown. It nods to its historic context while at the same time being very modern with the sunshades and modern glazing details. This Mercedes dealership is the worst kind of knee-jerk historicist off-the-suburban-shelf crap. Typical for Lessard.

Anonymous said...

Is this an ugly town center/shopping center with a fake tower at the corner or a dealership for one of the better, well designed cars on the road? This makes me sad, and what is worse that in 40 years they will want to preserve this as historic.

As far as LEED goes, buildings in the US account for more energy consumption and subsequently more carbon pollution than cars. So actually it is as important (if not more important) that all the buildings are all "green".

Cars are not going anywhere for a long time (hopefully they will be replaced with electric vehicles that are powered by clean or renewable energy) but we will still need to buy them somewhere.

Anonymous said...

I love all the "saddness" and anger spewed towards a brick car dealership off a mini-highway.


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