The Mercedes-Benz Visitor Center and Museum, heralded by an enormous Mercedes logo raised atop a sleek pylon, is the striking public face for a sprawling manufacturing complex that opened a new chapter in Alabama economic history. In 1993 the German-based automobile manufacturer announced construction of its first North American plant near Tuscaloosa. Four years later, the plant began operation as part of the international Daimler AG conglomerate. Other auto manufacturers (Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota) have also established plants in Alabama, enticed by a combination of factors but chief among them the state’s powerful tax incentives. In the case of Mercedes-Benz, state officials also sweetened the agreement by donating the wooded, thousand-acre tract where the complex is now situated, just off busy I-59 between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa at what was then the sleepy rural crossroads of Vance.
To design its $300 million Alabama facility, intended to produce the M-Class sport utility vehicle for a worldwide market, Mercedes sought the cutting-edge expertise of Detroit’s venerable Albert Kahn Associates. The firm’s impressive portfolio included two of America’s earliest automobile production facilities: the Packard Plant in Detroit, and the renowned Highland Park Plant, where Henry Ford had perfected assembly-line production of the Model T. Kahn’s charge for the Tuscaloosa project was to introduce into Mercedes production the “under one roof” concept, bringing together all assembly and managerial functions. It was a physical layout aimed at fostering teamwork amid open, clean, light-filled, and environmentally sensitive surroundings.
For the adjacent visitor and museum complex, lead architect Reiner Goers and his local architectural associate, the Birmingham office of the Nashville-based Gresham Smith and Partners, developed a scheme that invokes a rhythmic, undulating roofline to suggest vehicular motion. This visual play is also intended to reference the rolling piedmont landscape of North-Central Alabama. At the same time, tautly stretched surfaces of aluminum, combined with generous horizontal expanses of glass, suggest automotive sleekness while reaffirming neo-modernist architectural tenets of form, function, and aesthetic. Grounds surrounding the visitor center incorporate a fountain which, as Mercedes representatives put it, “super-polishes” storm run-off and waste water.
The carefully contrived, illuminated openness of the visitor center interior is intended to echo the open environment of the nearby assembly areas, which are normally off-limit to tourists. On display is more than a century of automobile innovation ranging from early gasoline-powered “horseless carriages” developed in late-nineteenth-century Germany to the latest model off the Mercedes production line.
Unexpected demand for the M-Class SUV prompted expansion of the Tuscaloosa plant as early as 1999, and then again in 2004 and 2011; these expansions included construction of a childcare and wellness center for employees. Meanwhile, three additional classes of vehicles were added to the production repertoire, more than tripling output to some 300,000 units annually. For Alabamians, the Mercedes logo at the entrance to the Visitor Center and Museum has come to represent not only thousands of jobs but also a significant image boost for the state and a milestone in the state’s embrace of an ever more integrated world economy.
“About Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc. (MBUSI).” Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc. Accessed June 29, 2018. https://www.mbusi.com.
Albert Kahn Associates, Inc. “Mercedes-Benz Teams with Detroit Architect-Engineer Albert Kahn Associates, Inc. to Design New Tuscaloosa, Alabama Manufacturing Plant.” Press release, May 16, 1997.
Bowsher, Alice Meriwether. Alabama Architecture: Looking at Building and Place.Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 2003.