Striking a balance in the quiet valley

In La Brassus in Switzerland, the country’s famed predilection for precision and Danish nonchalance join forces: Luxury watchmakers Audemars Piguet are expanding the company headquarters to feature a new build by Bjarke Ingels. The latter’s BIG office won the closed competition back in the summer of 2014. During the interview, Kai-Uwe Bergmann, a partner at BIG, is still very much in the throes of ‘Swiss fever’. Only a few weeks earlier, he recalls, 120 of the “Bigsters” from the company toured Switzerland by bus to see Swiss architecture with their own eyes and seek sources of inspiration. The impressions gained during the excursion are still very much present in the air during the interview, making Bergmann’s comments on the planned architecture all the more lively.

Adeline Seidel: You’ve just done a grand tour of Switzerland. In your opinion, how does Danish or Scandinavian architecture differ from that in Switzerland?

Kai-Uwe Bergmann: I can of course only speak for BIG’s projects. But anyone who is familiar with them notices from the playful way we design architecture that we actually have a lot of fun at work. I would go so far as to say when considering our proposal for the Audemars Piguet building: A Swiss or a German architect would have done it differently. The architecture corresponds to the unconventional Danish or Nordic way of tackling space. The new build will bring together three different purposes: It will combine a museum, new workshop rooms for the watchmakers, and give visitors an insight into the fascinating craftsmanship of the ancient art of watchmaking. Similar projects have been undertaken by carmakers: You pick up your new car, after first having a look at the production lines in action, finding out exciting things from the history of the company, and thus as a client feel a strong bond to the product and marque, because you know how and where it was manufactured. Incidentally, company staff members will get the best spaces, as the watchmakers’ desks will enjoy a marvelous view out over the wonderful countryside.

Adeline Seidel: The spiral-shaped building is reminiscent of the balance in a watch. Is this analogy pure coincidence?

Kai-Uwe Bergmann: No, of course not. We came up with the spiral shape very early on. The interesting thing about these watches is that they really are all handmade. They are made up of really tiny elements that use springs to create tension and then drive the highly complicated and extremely precise time machines. It’s incredibly impressive. And we thus asked ourselves: How can we transpose this power onto the architecture? This spawned the idea of a building without any visible supports, entered through an underground access route. Underground to create a respectful distance to the historical building. Inside the new build you then follow the course of the spiral, find out all sorts of interesting things from the history of Audemars Piguet and can gaze at the watchmakers busy at work, all before you reach the center of the spiral, where you can collect your watch. As stated, all of the rooms are support-free, the only load-bearing structure being the glass of the façade.

Adeline Seidel: In winter it gets pretty cold in La Brassus, yet because of the altitude solar irradiation is exceptionally high. Quite apart from their load-bearing function, how will these two large glass surfaces stand up to the impact of such extreme conditions?

Kai-Uwe Bergmann: The curved glass frontage as is required for the spiral-shaped building affords us any number of quite different structural opportunities: It can easily bear the load of the roof, and thus the main load. And incidentally, we also want to dispense with any glass fins, you know like the ones you see in the glass cubes of Apple Stores. Sure, it’ll be a challenge, but a building of this kind by definition always is. In Switzerland it is mainly the energy saving regulations that tend to dissuade people from going for such large glass surfaces. But nowadays that are the right solutions to be found in that regard, too.

What materials do you intend to use alongside glass?

Kai-Uwe Bergmann: Concrete and brass are the two materials that will shape the building’s interior. And it will boast a greened roof to blend with the countryside.

Developing a brand space is not easy without the brand experience simply becoming reduced to a platitude. What brand values do you think the new build will convey?

Kai-Uwe Bergmann: Audemars Piguet says that its watches are all truly unique. There is no other company that can make such watches, it claims, and its products are absolutely outstanding in technical terms. I can safely say of our building that it will likewise be unique. In the new build, we will show what constitutes the core Audemars Piguet value: Its watchmakers and their truly fascinating craftsmanship. It is tantamount to watching a play when you follow their art, seeing how pure metal is suddenly turned into a wonderful watch.

Adeline Seidel: What did the Audemars Piguet family say to the design proposal?

Kai-Uwe Bergmann: I’m really so taken with the feedback. As the nicest thing a developer can ever say is that he is immediately commissioning you for another project. That shows genuine satisfaction. And we are now already at work on a third project for Audemars Piguet, although I am unfortunately not able to reveal what the two projects are.

The new spaces of the museum merges with the natural setting. Visualization © BIG
The exhibition space is stretched into a linear continous spacial experience. The sequence is bended into a continues spiral. Visualization © BIG
Through the spiral shape, the architects create optimum lighting conditions in the studio spaces. Visualization © BIG
Floor plan of the new building. Drawing © BIG
Section and detail of the glass front. Drawing © BIG
The watchmaker can enjoy from their new studios an undisturbed view of the landscape. Visualization © BIG
In the center of the spiral to the buyer is then handed over to his clock. Visualization © BIG

The cricket’s got rhythm

As part of the very first Audemars Piguet Art Commission, artist and composer Robin Meier has create a fascinating environment: “Synchronicity” explores forms of spontaneous self-organization and collective intelligence. It is both living sculpture and laboratory at the same time.

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The Architecture of the Watch

Architects and watchmakers have many things in common – although the scale in which they work is completely different. While those designing buildings seek to avoid complexity, those watchmakers who can manufacture a “Grande Complication” are greeted with accolades.

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