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Gearing up for drive-thru car museum

CHINA is clearly car-crazy and the latest sign of the obsession is a drive-through car museum in Nanjing, to be opened in time for World Expo 2010. Nancy Zhang takes us for a ride.

You've heard of drive-in movies, drive-through restaurants, drive-through banks and drive-through pharmacies. Now in Nanjing there is to be a drive-through museum - fittingly about cars.

Just as the "drive-thru" was a symbol of car worship in the United States, the new museum in the capital city of Jiangsu Province is opening at a time when China is slipping into the same obsession.

As the automotive industry is one of the pillars of Nanjing's economy, the city government wanted to show "China has something to say about cars," according to Francesco Gatti, chief architect at 3Gatti, the Italian firm that won the design competition for the project last autumn.

Car sales in China surpassed that in the US for the first time in the first quarter of this year, soaring nine-fold since 2000.

There is also a taste for luxury. Anyone at the Auto Show in Shanghai late last month would have seen the crowds vying to take photos of the BMWs, Porsches and Ferraris.

These trends are reflected in the Nanjing Auto Museum.

Due to be completed before World Expo 2010 Shanghai, it is the latest in an increasing number of museums paying homage to the car in China.

The Shanghai Auto Museum opened in 2007 in Jiading District and a vintage car museum will open later this year in Beijing. This is, however, the first you can tour without ever having to leave your auto.

The brief for the Nanjing museum specified that, like the world-famous Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart, Germany, it would showcase vehicles not only for educational purposes but also for sale.

It entices visitors with the ultimate product for consumption.

The winning design for the competition, however, went one step further in car-centeredness. Named "Car Experience," the whole museum space is geared to the automobile.

According to Gatti, this concept was central to their design being chosen.

Covering 15,000 square meters, the museum looks like origami.

A continuous reel of concrete and steel spirals upwards, tapering off into a neat fold at the top.

Other corners fold in or out, with cars fixed to them so that they are cleverly displayed along with the fold.

Most of the museum is accessible to visitors without ever having to leave their cars. Given the idea that "there was no limit between street and museum," Gatti says the continuous, linear surface gives visitors the experience of watching frames of a movie as they travel through the museum. In this film, however, "the undisputed protagonist is the car," according to the firm.

Visitors drive up through the levels of the spiraling museum and park their cars at the top where vintage cars are displayed.

Newer cars are featured lower down. From the roof they can walk down through a central "pillar" with gentler ramps allowing pedestrians to look more carefully at displays, such as the workings of an engine.

On the ground floor there is a showroom for sales.

Despite the artsy design, the result looks much like a multi-story car park. Its industrial look reflects the industrial heritage of the area.

The museum will be part of a new development, the Jiangning Hi-Tech Zone, seven kilometers from Nanjing city center.

The Jiangning area is home to a number of car manufacturers, international and Chinese, including Ford, Mazda and Fiat. Further development aims to attract more international investors.

Two years ago Nanjing introduced congestion charges to relieve heavy traffic in the city center, and in Shanghai charging high fees for license plates is also an attempt to keep numbers of cars down.

Like the museum, urban planning is becoming increasingly car-centered. Beijing struggles with some of the worst congestion in the country.

"As designers, of course, we don't prefer a car-centered city, we just try to make it better," says Gatti. "In Hong Kong, for example, pedestrian levels are on the second floor while the first floor is reserved for cars and parking. It's a good model for tackling the problem of traffic in a dense urban space."

The brief for the museum may have drawn on Stuttgart, the German town that nurtured the founders of such brands as Mercedes-Benz and is closely tied to the development of the auto industry.

But Stuttgart itself has retained its historic winding, medieval roads. Cushioned in vast swathes of green valleys, the town has also retained its charm as a cultural center.


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