Designing a museum in the sublime form of a shimmering peel of glass unfurling from a mountain in a tiny Swiss village is one thing. But, as architect Bjarke Ingels now knows, actually building it in the remote Jura Mountains is most definitely another.
Six years since his practice, BIG, won the competition to design the Audemars Piguet Founder’s House Museum in the Swiss village of Le Brassus, the museum is on course to open its doors in summer 2020. But, like all best laid plans at present, the brand has delayed the opening date until the end of the year, in light of the necessary Covid-19 restrictions. Created in association with Atelier Brückner, engineers Lüchinger+Meyer, and landscape specialists Muller Illien, BIG’s poetic glass swirl exists despite the fact that construction was predestined to be difficult: whipped by mean north-east winds, temperatures in the Vallée de Joux can fall severely in the long winter months. The glass used in the project was designed to withstand extreme temperature fluctuations, but also proved so tough that it is load-bearing enough to negate the need for other walls.
‘It’s a complicated building. At first, we thought it was crazy, then we just thought, let’s do it,’ says a smiling Jasmine Audemars, chairwoman of the board of directors at Audemars Piguet. ‘We make complicated watch designs and we like to complicate our lives.’ Now in her seventies, the great-granddaughter of founder Jules Audemars has inherited the family knack for taking the long view and doing the wrong thing brilliantly.
Her father, Jacques Louis Audemars, was, after all, the man who backed the most lauded watch designer of all time, Gérald Genta, when, in 1970, Genta proposed a new ‘luxury’ watch that eschewed gold in favour of steel but that was no less expensive. Beautifully finished and polished, the humble metal took on a precious quality. The result was the groundbreaking Royal Oak watch. Initially derided, it is now hailed as a design classic and remains Audemars Piguet’s bestseller.
The decision to build a world-class architectural structure in the protected environs of the watchmaker’s valley home, lay, ultimately, on Jasmine Audemars’ shoulders. A trained economist, and 12-year editor-in-chief of the Journal de Genève newspaper (now known as Le Temps), she took the helm of the family-owned business in 1992. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that she says the decision to invest in a specifically ambitious architecture commission was ‘simply because today we have the time and the means. The museum is an extension of my grandfather’s house, where the business was established in 1875. Yes, there have been problems, surprises, but this is our legacy for the next 200 years. And, if you divide the investment by 200 years – it’s cheap!’
When the yellow winter sunlight swathes the museum’s layers of thick glass in a reflective golden haze, illuminating its spaceship-like watch vitrines and architectural twists and turns, the effect is kaleidoscopic. But, while that otherworldly atmosphere, heightened by the museum’s quirky mechanical installations, is a magical visitor experience, the unhampered sunlight had threatened to overheat the on-site watchmakers. The solution was to wrap a steel-and-brass honeycomb veil around the exterior that provides shade at pertinent times in the day. ‘The shape and the glass of the museum design mean you immediately discover the landscape, the changes in the light across the valley – you can see where the watches come from,’ says Audemars. ‘It really was love at first sight for BIG’s design. Bjarke got the spirit of what, who and where we are but in a global way. It’s a very distinct building but it’s discreet.'
What it does boast is a compelling interior design, where a carefully curated exploration of 145 years of Audemars Piguet’s horological and technical innovation gets the balance between its past and future vision just right.
Another aspect of the brief was highlighting the work of the Audemars Piguet Foundation, established in 1992. And so, in one corner of the museum atrium, a carefully cultured linden tree grows. ‘The Vallée de Joux is surrounded by magnificent, protected forests, mostly untouched by civilisation, so tree and forest conservation were a natural subject for the Foundation back then. We wanted to contribute to and enable communities around the world to benefit from forests as beautiful as ours.’
The Foundation is also testament to the strong survival instincts of her family business. ‘We have strong roots in the valley – we have survived wars and crises, and this new museum is our vision for the future. The people of the valley deserve it. It’s a celebration of all our culture. It is not ruining the landscape but adding a new tradition.’
A version of this article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Wallpaper* (W*253) — on newsstands now
The Founder’s House Museum will open for public visits, by appointment, at the end of 2020.
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Caragh McKay has been a contributing editor at Wallpaper* since 2014. She was previously watches & jewellery director and is currently our resident lifestyle & shopping editor. Caragh has produced exhibitions and created and edited titles for publishers including the Daily Telegraph. She regularly chairs talks for luxury houses, Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier among them. Caragh’s current remit is cross-cultural and her recent stories include the curious tale of how Muhammad Ali met his poetic match in Robert Burns and how a Martin Scorsese film revived a forgotten Osage art.
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