When the Swiss brand was looking to expand its historical premises with a museum, they turned to Bjarke Ingels Group. Secluded in a high mountain valley of the Swiss Jura, the spiralling glass creation is a metaphorical extension of an Audemars Piguet timepiece.
In this interview, IGS Magazine’s Lewis Wilson sat down with Otilia Pupezeanu, project designer, to discuss the gravity-defying architecture, a striking, yet subtle creation from one of the most acclaimed architects of our time.
The BIG Interview – Musée Atelier Audemars Piguet
Lewis: In 2014, BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) won the architectural competition Audemars Piguet hosted to expand its historical premises. What tipped the scales in your favour for the client to choose your design?
Otilia: The advantage came from BIG’s careful consideration of the brand, the Valley, and the values intrinsic to watchmaking. Audemars Piguet’s motto, “to break the rules, you must first master them,” guided our design and decision-making process throughout the competition. We found inspiration in the pioneering spirit of the brand, constantly challenging the conventions of fine watchmaking. Our design had to reflect the inner tension between tradition and innovation that characterizes Audemars Piguet and contemporary watchmaking. We conceived a contemporary yet timeless building that stretches the performance of technology and materials to their outmost capacity. We created a gravity-defying floating architecture free from walls and columns, while simultaneously growing from the ground rooted in the undulating landscape of the Vallée de Joux. Floating yet rooted. Functional yet sculptural. Contemporary yet timeless. A building conceived as an oxymoron, much like a signature Audemars Piguet timepiece.
Lewis: The new addition to Audemars Piguet’s campus is separated from the existing structures. Was it a strategic decision to place the building as a separate entity? If so, what was the thinking behind this?
Otilia: We considered a lot of other options throughout at the beginning of the competition. However, in the end, creating an addition to the existing buildings did not seem like the best choice. Instead of an infill or a third building between the two historical structures on site, we imagined the new museum as a pavilion seamlessly integrated in the surrounding landscape. The museum sits respectful from the existing buildings, preserving the views from the historic spaces to the valley. This way, we could leave the building where Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet set their first workshop untouched, thus truly celebrate its individuality and heritage. The new pavilion, hiding from the street, reunites the historical buildings with the valley and become fully integrated in the topography. The museum and its exhibits, the watches, become an integral part of the Vallee de Joux – the cradle of Swiss horology.
Lewis: Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet set their workshop up in 1875; How does your architecture respect the rich history, heritage and context of these watchmaking pioneers?
Otilia: The new museum embodies the independent spirit of Audemars Piguet. As the oldest fine watchmaking manufacturer never to have left the hands of its founding families, Audemars Piguet has maintained its autonomy, allowing the company to follow its unique vision. Over the years, Audemars Piguet timepieces have evolved to represent reinterpretations of traditional watches that combine technological innovations with fine craftsmanship learned and passed on from generation to generation of Audemars Piguet watchmakers. The new museum celebrates the innovative tradition of the brand and of the valley. The double-spiral form of Musée Atelier Audemars Piguet is a striking landmark nested in the landscape of gently undulating Swiss topography; a contemporary yet timeless architecture that blends with the historical buildings to create an intuitive sequence of spaces – old and new.
Lewis: The Vallée de Joux, is a sweeping remote valley, situated in the Swiss Jura Mountains. What effect did the surrounding vistas and landscape have on your design?
Otilia: When we first arrived to Le Brassus in La Vallée de Joux, we were struck by the scenic beauty of the pastoral landscape. The valley framed by mountains. Fields framed by forests. Historical buildings bundled together to form the village of Le Brassus. How could we fit into the character of the village and the topography of the village? The beautiful views of the valley and the historical significance of the surrounding buildings inspired us to create a new building that becomes an integral part of the valley itself. And we wanted the roof to recreate part of the local flora – a meadow, rather than a lawn, seamless with its surroundings.
Lewis: It is clear that as you walk through, there is an ebbing spiral flow to the interior that draws/guides you to the center of the building. Could you expand on the thought process and design intentions behind this architectural composition?
Otilia: We wanted to create a museum as a storyline for the visitors. We imagined the visitor experience as a linear sequence of spaces and events connecting the entrance in the main offices through a series of lounges, galleries and workshops to the attic of the heritage building in the workshop where it all began. A visit is like a narrative sequence of carefully crafted experiences bookended by the two historical structures. To accommodate the linear sequence of galleries and workshops on the compact site, we coiled the galleries around themselves in a double spiral of interlocking spaces. From the entrance connecting the lower level of the two historical buildings with a lounge overlooking the valley, the galleries and workshops spiral towards a central gallery dedicated to complications. From here the galleries spiral out again to reach the central stair and elevator, leading to the original workshop in the attic. Like a resort spiral that coils up to minimize space and maximize kinetic energy, the double spiral of galleries and workshops compresses a long winding narrative promenade into a compact footprint giving the visitors an almost physical experience of compression and expansion – tension and release – as they move from the perimeter towards the central galleries to be propelled outwards towards the historical workshop.
Lewis: Were there any significant challenges and obstacles that you faced during the design and construction of the project? If so, how did you overcome these?
Otilia: Designing a building of this size and shape without walls or columns was completely new. Even if all the calculations were correct and allowed for some redundancy, how could we guarantee that the concept worked? How could we ensure that the façade and the clerestories work well together? How could we make certain that the curved glass maintains the right transparency and clarity when tempered to gain its performative qualities? How could we get a sense of the layered quality of the space inside? Very early on, we encouraged the client to build a full-scale mock-up of a slice of the actual building. The mock-up worked and looked great. It bestowed confidence in the concept to the entire team – clients, architects, engineers. In later design stages, we ended up using the mockup to test materials, finishes and architectural details, both interior and exterior.
Lewis: It is evident that glass is a prominent feature in the architecture of the museum. What characteristics of this building material influenced your decision to use it so extensively in the design?
Otilia: The curvilinear glass walls form both the enclosure and structure of the pavilion, defining a layered experience of the exhibition and permeating the pavilion with transparency and lightness. The ultralight roof, a steel structure clad in brass, is floating on sheets of glass. The resultant architecture is experienced from within as a thin sheet of brass – cut and coiled to allow daylight and views to seep between the sheets. From the exterior, the pavilion appears like a shockwave of concentric rings of grass expanding outwards – with only glass to define the interior from the surrounding landscape. Sophisticated technology and careful craftsmanship deployed to achieve a deceptively simple architectural expression.
Lewis: Can you expand on the engineering behind the curved glass expanses that adorn the exterior façade and interior of the building? Besides the clear aesthetic value, what practical role does this play in the structural engineering of the building?
Otilia: When entering the museum, one is struck by the absence of walls and columns. The curved glass walls replace typical solid elements in supporting the vegetated roof of the building. Structurally, the curvature enhances the structural stability of the glazed walls, providing stiffness in multiple directions. The façade is made of a triple insulated glass unit which, in addition to the structural performance, also provides controlled heat transfers between the interior and exterior of the building. The interior layer of the unit consists of triple laminated glass planes, which are the main structural elements in the building. The mid-layer of the IGU unit provides shading from the sun, meeting thus the local energy requirements, while the exterior layer of the glazed façade provides security for the valuable exhibits inside. The system is thought so that in case of failure, of one or more glass panes the load is redistributed, and the structure remains safe.
Lewis: Are there any other instances within the architecture and museum where glass was used in a unique and intriguing way?
Otilia: All interior walls in the museum are glass, creating a layered experience of the exhibition spaces and workshops, with the Vallee de Joux always as the background. Moreover, as one enters the spiral, a large semicircular skylight frames a view of the historic building housing the original Audemars Piguet workshop. Glass fins ensure the skylight can support its own weight as well as up to a meter of snow, as winters in Le Brassus tend to be harsh.
The exhibition cases are also featuring glass in different ways. To preserve as many views to the valley as possible, the watch showcases had to be minimal. Glass tops, brass and glass spherical showcases or hanging glass boxes with minimal details allow the transparency of layers while ensuring the right protection for the watches.
Lewis: With the success of the Museum, BIG were commissioned to design a hotel, currently in construction a few steps away. What exclusive insights can you give to IGS readers into this project?
Otilia: The Hotel des Horlogers completes the Audemars Piguet building campus and, together with the Museum, reinterprets the watchmaking tradition of the region. The hotel redefines the program typology: instead of importing a generic slab building into the Vallee de Joux landscape, the new hotel seamlessly rises from the surrounding landscape and gently unfolds along the site, challenging the idea of ground. The weaving of building and topography engages both the Vallee de Joux local and the visitor, defining a new public landscape.
The amenities – two restaurants, a bar, a spa and a conference center – are tucked under the inclined slabs and oriented towards light and views of the landscape. The zigzagging roof slopes invite guests to descend on skis towards the Vallee de Joux.
Lewis: Many of the world’s most famous architects have something unique about their architecture by which any observer can instantly identify a building designed by “such and such”; for example, in many of Zaha Hadid’s buildings was the undulating Z shape, Gehry’s eccentricities for origami style buildings is almost legendary, Oscar Niemeyer was renowned for designing curved buildings which reminded him of the mountains of Rio. Is there a distinguishing feature/ element in BIG designs which an onlooker can say without hesitation, that’s a BIG design?
Otilia: At BIG, we try to free ourselves from trademarks or a certain style. A style keeps you confined to who you were, and inhibits you from who you could become. We see each building as a sum of its programmatic requirements, the context, the culture and the climate. In the design process, rather than trying to seek for the right answer, we are trying to ask the right questions. Each design is shaped by its function and its surroundings in the best possible way.
Lewis: And finally, can you introduce us to some of the projects that you are currently working on, and perhaps give us a heads up on some projects in the pipeline that look set to gain traction and change the game in 2022 and beyond?
Otilia: I’m currently working on a new ballpark for the Oakland As in California. The project, together with the adjacent masterplan, is to revitalize Oakland’s waterfront and to return the game to its roots: a meeting place for the local community. The roof, an elevated park, dips down towards the waterfront to offer views of the game for the public and views out towards the water and the city for ticketed guests. The roof will become a neighborhood park to be enjoyed 365 days a year.
This article was originally published in IGS Magazines Winter 2021 Issue: Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
Author: Otilia Pupezeanu, Senior Designer at Bjarke Ingels Group
Otilia Pupezeanu joined BIG NYC in 2013, and has contributed to widely published projects and competitions of various scales and programs, like the Smithsonian Institution South Campus Master Plan in Washington DC, Google North Bayshore in Mountain View, The Spiral, and 2 World Trade Center in New York City. Since 2018, Otilia has been the Design Leader for the Oakland A’s Stadium in Oakland, California. Otilia recently completed the Audemars Piguet Museum and Exhibition in Le Brassus, Switzerland. She followed the project throughout all design stages, from the competition at the beginning of 2014 through completion of construction this year. Otilia also led the concept design for a new hotel on the Audemars Piguet Museum Campus in Switzerland, which is currently in design development.
Most recently, Otilia completed WeGrow – a school facility in New York, New York commissioned by the We Company. Originally from Romania, Otilia received a Bachelors of Arts in Architecture and Mathematics, with Honors, from Princeton University and a Master of Architecture from Yale University, where her work was rewarded with honors and exhibited in the 2012 Venice Biennale.