BMW’s Spartanburg, South Carolina plant is the car brand’s largest production plant by volume in the BMW Group’s international production network. It produces more than 1,500 vehicles a day with over 5 million BMW’s having been produced at the South Carolina plant in total. A lot of strategic design and planning goes into creating car plants and Matthias and Florian Kohlbecker know a thing or two about the architectural side of making automotive plants. In fact, the duo brothers did extensive work on BMW’s Spartanburg plant and with ninety years of leading their family firm, they aren’t showing any signs of slowing down.
In 1930 their grandfather Karl Kohlbecker started his own architectural firm in the small southwest German village of Gaggenau. A year later he caught the attention of Daimler-Benz, building their employee facility, “Haus der Sauberkeit,” a place for employees to do their laundry, change, and wash. His breakthrough pitch and win was to build Volkswagen’s Wolfsburg, Germany plant for 200 million German Reichsmark with colleagues, which set the foundation for the firm to produce automotive plants and more. Florian points out that as of today, Kohlbecker Gesamtplan has built automotive plants for Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW, Porsche, Jaguar Landrover, Magna Steyr, HK Motors, and fiat in Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Spain, China, the US, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Slovenia, Serbia, and Russia.
By 1959, Karl’s son Christoph, and Matthias and Florian’s father had joined the company. At twenty-four he built Fichtel & Sachs’ cafeteria at their administrative headquarters. Christoph led his father’s company in building for Audi, IBM, Daimler-Benz, Heidelberger Druckmaschienen AG, as well as three police academies in Germany’s Baden-Württemberg state.
Three generations of Kohlbekcer men have steered their architectural family firm into the titan that it is today from not only constructing automotive plants around the world, but also Berlin’s famed Potsdamer Platz, and Olympic villages.
Born in 1965 and one of his family’s architectural pioneers, Matthias Kohlbecker wanted to do something other than the path his father and grandfather had chosen. Working in Scotland and Canada, he returned to Germany to do his compulsory military service, discovering thereafter that he wanted to be a forester, but he didn’t have the university marks for the career path, so at his father’s urging he went to study in Biberach, Germany, later taking an internship at Richard Meiers in New York City.
“I had the opportunity to go from this little village in the forest to see the skyline of a real big city and survived one year with little sleep and constant working. Coming back to Germany I finished my school and started working directly for my father.”
In 1993 Matthias graduated from university and rushed to Berlin to pitch for the redesign of Potsdamer Platz, a 7 million square foot project that went from the U-bahn down to the Spielbank Berlin casino. For anyone that knows Berlin, Potsdamer Platz is like the Times Square or the Piccadilly Circus of Berlin.
“There was this competition and I went immediately to Berlin and also to Paris for three months to work on the competition for Potsdamer Platz. We didn’t know if we’d win so I went to work in an office in Stuttgart and worked nearly for one year there. We won the competition and it was such a big fee, at that time of over 70M Euros ($78M). So, I was working for this other company and on the weekends, I was working on the competition project here [Gaggenau, Germany]. They designed Potsdamer Platz to benefit from its intricate ventilation system, which allows buildings to be able to capitalize on daylight, not needing to rely on air conditioning. Matthias and Renzo Piano also built the first IMAX movie theater in Potsdamer Platz, and in 2007 the Blue Man Group took residency, as they continue to perform.
“In 1994 I started working at Kohlbecker Gesamtplan full time and worked my way to the top. I also worked in Berlin for 7-8 years, and by 1997 I was married and a father, and a father again in 2003.”
Joining the family firm in 2002, having studied at the Brandenburg Technical University in Cottbus, Germany, and completing his internship at Renzo Piano Building Workshop. The youngest of the Kohlbecker brothers, Florian is the Managing Director.
He also leads the firm in what he calls entertainment architecture, creating the digital side of Hollywood films. After getting a movie script Florian and his team in Vienna illustrate for the film’s director, giving them the look and feel of the setting and characters. “For 2016’s Independence Day Resurgence, for example we designed all the spaceships and the alien queen, as well as did urban planning for Washington, DC after the first attack in the film. To speed up the production they asked us to produce the construction planning of the film’s setup. But usually we illustrate story books and create art production,” he notes.
The duo brothers pushing for another ninety years
Most recently, the firm designed and oversaw the building of an Audi plant in Asia that was built by their K:AVATAR- a very sustainable project. No single person built the plant and it was done during the pandemic as well. Leading the project was Andreas Tomaschewski, the Chief Digital Officer. “As architects, we have a great responsibility to our environment. The construction industry is one of the biggest drivers of climate change,” he shares. “Approximately 850 million tons of construction waste is generated annually, representing 30-35% of all waste in the EU. Therefore, we at Kohlbecker Gesamtplan are concerned with the question of how we can positively influence the major issues of sustainability, circular economy, shortage of raw materials and many others. This Audi project is a lighthouse project and shows very clearly how 100% digital project handling can also positively influence the CO2 footprint.”
Though Kohlbecker Gesamtplan is headquartered in a small town, and lots of great things have come out of small places, they have offices in Munich, Cologne, and Berlin overseeing 150 staff. “We develop ideas that can really be realized because we are pragmatists; and we believe in accuracy, which is why we are pioneers in the field of digital architecture,” muses Matthias. “But, everything evolves,” chimes in Florian, “including us and our services. We plan and build with a holistic view, and we act in a resource-conserving and sustainable manner.”