Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations,” reads a quotation on a glass wall next to the entrance of The Garage—B+ Automobile Service Center in Beijing, located on a relatively quiet downtown backstreet. While this insightful saying could refer to the company’s business, it might also allude to the creation of its unique base of operations, which houses offices, meeting rooms, an auto repair shop, a café, and a rooftop parking lot. For more than two years, the Shanghai-based firm Neri&Hu Design and Research Office transformed the site, a 361-foot-long, three-story decommissioned missile factory built in the 1950s, into a contemporary 29,000-square-foot space that is both welcoming and functional. The architects preserved the original brick structure—the main hall still features tracks for soldering missiles—and added a system of “boxes” supported by steel girders to accommodate a car elevator, a mezzanine, and two top floors reinforced to support the weight of equipment and numerous vehicles.
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“The best attribute of the space is the raw quality of the existing structure. Obviously, the brief made it more interesting by having a hybrid typology, combining programs that often do not go hand in hand, such as the café and garage,” says Neri & Hu coprincipal Lyndon Neri.
A car elevator shaft, enclosed in black metal mesh, serves as the core of the space, humming throughout the day as vehicles enter and exit. This activity subtly transforms the quality of light in and the aura of both the offices and café on each side of this conveyance, serving as a reminder of the main purpose of the building and the ambition of the project, which cost about $3 million (20 million renminbi).
“For us as a practice, it was important that the old and the new have a dialogue and that the tension be expressed through the details,” Neri says. On the outside, the original factory walls are painted black and dark gray, while anything added on top is white. The offices and café can be accessed from the car-sized entrances of the garage or through the extension’s small side door.
In the new section of the building, the dark walnut stairs and comfortable metal furniture designed for the project by the architects make for a reassuring atmosphere. In the adjacent ground-floor work shop, mechanics in the sporty black shirts of their uniform go about their day in the bright, open room. Its walls are painted in white and a light blue that suggests the typical color palette of Chinese government factories.
Noting the highly competitive nature of his line of business, B+ owner Bu Tian embarked on the project intent on highlighting the full-service aspect of his offering as a differentiating factor. “I thought it would be fun to revolutionize the industry,” he says.
In 2008, China became the world’s largest automobile market, bigger than all of Europe. Experts predict that China’s roads will have 200 million vehicles on them by 2020. Beijing, home to 26 million people, has about 7 million cars. “The market is huge, but there wasn’t anything geared toward innovative services for them after the sale,” says Bu, who hopes to build B+ into a game-changing brand with a string of garages throughout Beijing and perhaps, one day, across China.
At the moment, he is aiming mainly at Beijing’s burgeoning middle class, people who drive sensible sedans and minivans. B+ does repairs, auto detailing, and bodywork, among other things. The company also sells car insurance and car-care products, and offers a 24-hour service hotline. Bu reckons that his thousand or so customers patronize the shop primarily because he charges 30 percent less than official dealership service centers for comparable products. But it’s the environment and personal touch that has them returning.
Determined to take the garage his father and uncle started in the 1990s to the next level, he spends most of his waking hours at B+, sometimes attending to customers himself. “When you come to a garage, you are like a patient—you come because something is wrong. We want to make your worst day your best,” says Bu. B+ clients like to wait for their cars in the café, enjoying their drip coffee while lounging on metal, leather, and wood furniture, thumbing through a copy of GQ from the shelf of books and magazines, and enjoying the indie-music playlist.
The outlet has also become a favorite hangout for the residents of the neighborhood, and a destination for the city’s hipsters. In today’s China, they all typify a new generation of hardworking consumers who want much more out of their days—and perhaps out of their garages as well.