Audemars-Piguet, Between Modernity and Tradition

On 19 February 2021, by Virginie Chuimer-Layen

The Audemars Piguet museum-workshop unveils its heritage collection in a new avant-garde building, boasting an image halfway between tradition and innovation, and a certain boldness.

Audemars Piguet museum-workshop, Le Brassus, Switzerland.
© Audemars Piguet

In the Vallée de Joux, the home of cutting-edge watchmaking for 250 years in the heart of the Swiss Jura mountains with their lakes, pastures, rocks and forests, a strange building reminiscent of a snail shell and a watch spring has risen up. After six years' work overseen by Danish architects Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), Audemars Piguet's new museum-workshop has opened in Le Brassus. On site, the founders' house, built in 1868, has housed the workshop of Jules Louis Audemars (1851-1918) and Edward Auguste Piguet (1853-1919) since 1875, as well as its archives, heritage department, restoration workshop and foundation. "Over the years, the world's oldest refined watchmaking factory, still run today by the founders' families, has been steadily creating the superb watchmaking 'complications' for which it is famous," says Sébastian Vivas, director of the museum and heritage department. "But after the quartz crisis of 1992, many Swiss cities decided to highlight the beauty and history of their watchmaking heritage by opening private museums. So our own, housed in the original building remodeled in 2004, presented our collection to our customers in its historical context."

As the staging was somewhat unimaginative, the idea of designing a building reflecting the brand's values and worthy of its collection gradually gained ground. In 2013, a competition involving both architecture and museography was launched. BIG's project was selected from five pre-selected international firms. "It was chosen because it is a tour de force in terms of architecture and design, just like the mechanisms of our "grandes complications" [watches featuring at least three complications—Ed.]. And by making contradictions part of the whole concept, it evokes the oxymoronic aspect so intrinsic to our creations. In addition, by integrating two workshops within the museum, the building truly embodies the family spirit and the desire to pass on knowledge to succeeding generations: two of our core values."

An All-transparent Helicoid Design
How could this rhetorical figure be expressed in architecture? By combining the founders' house, whose vernacular construction was modernized by the Swiss architects' firm CCHE, with a remarkable contemporary glass spiral. Covering 2,500 sq. meters (26,909.6 sq. ft), this totally transparent helicoid project in glass, designed by BIG and built by CCHE, was constructed using 108 curved glass panels. It supports a 470-metric ton steel roof covered with a blanket of plants, which "neutralizes temperature variations while absorbing water," to quote CCHE. It is the first glass building in the world to be set up at an altitude of 1,000 meters (3280.8 ft)," says Sébastian Vivas. "Both light and temperature are regulated by a brass mesh partly covering the outer surface."

"Universelle" pocket watch, 1899, 18 ct rose gold case, dial by Uhrenfabrik Union Glasshütte, 22-line caliber, perpetual calendar, minute

"Universelle" pocket watch, 1899, 18 ct rose gold case, dial by Uhrenfabrik Union Glasshütte, 22-line caliber, perpetual calendar, minute repeater, grand and lesser strike alarm, alarm clock, chronograph with 30-minute counter, counter indicating 5ths of a second, split-seconds and deadbeat seconds. Audemars Piguet Collection.

Making play with the surrounding countryside, this elegantly designed concentrate of engineering seems to invite the landscape into the building. From the two workshops devoted to "Grandes complications" and "Applied arts" set up by the glass walls of one arm of the spiral, the eye is drawn directly into this timeless nature. The fact that these workspaces are integrated into the circuit encourages visitors to observe the creative marvels carried out by not only one of the factory's master watchmakers, but also master jewelers, setters and engravers. This proactive presentation, conceived as a kind of hands-on experience, helps the public grasp the scope and excellence of the company's expertise.

Clockwise
Another clash of opposites is seen within the collection itself, stage designed by German firm Brückner, through a clockwise circuit converging towards the center. Selected from a corpus of over 2,000 pieces, 300 historical and contemporary watches illustrating the brand's heritage through their aesthetic and mechanical development are displayed in an area of 900 sq. meters (823 sq. yds). The pieces on show are highly varied, ranging from the consummate masterpiece of 1769 by Edward Auguste's ancestor Joseph Piguet to the first all-steel Royal Oak of 1972 by way of the chronograph created for racing driver Michael Schumacher and a few iconic Royal Oak Offshore watches.

Either belonging to the original heritage collection or purchased at auction (a regular occurrence), many of the pocket timepieces, miniature pendants and highly accurate wristwatches are displayed chronologically and thematically in handsome showcases. Calendar, striking and chronograph "complications" are presented in glass spheres, all revolving around the most impressive: the Universelle, produced in 1899. Considered the most complex watch to date, with its 21 complications and 1,170 components (including 300 screws), this required over 400 hours of restoration work. Each section of a circuit that is both meditative and experiential is punctuated by breaks in the stage design, with surprise effects created by splendid automata recently added to the UNESCO World Heritage List (these were designed by François Junod, a well-known local automaton maker), as well as models and devices that can be handled by visitors, and a display of archive documents.
 

"Universelle" pocket watch, 1899, 18 ct rose gold case, dial by Uhrenfabrik Union Glasshütte, 22-line caliber, perpetual calendar, minute Musée-atelier Audemars Piguet, Le Brassus.
© Audemars Piguet

At One with Nature
The presence of contemporary art in this heritage site also bolsters a tried-and-tested communication policy. For the partner of the Art Basel fair since 2013, it is natural to call on artists. At the entrance to the building, Subliminal Moving Shapes, a sound work by French visual artist Alexandre Joly, renews the vision of the company's multidisciplinary world by mixing natural sounds collected in the Vallée de Joux with those of the museum, like the tiny, haunting music of the watch movement. We also discover the photograph series Vallée de Joux no. 10 by British photographer Dan Holdsworth, and Remains #A_027 by Italian artist Davide Quayola, all casting a fresh eye on the geographical surroundings and spirit of the place. Through the unobtrusive futuristic elegance of an architecture at one with nature, a highly original building and brand values combined with a heritage collection and an immersive experience of know-how, Audemars Piguet hones its image as a living company with an eye to the future. "We wanted to broaden our audience," says the director. "A visit seen through the prism of this incredible building is a new gateway to the very heart of the company. And there's something for everyone."

The family business, which goes back four generations, offers visitors tailor-made tours, but that's not all. Near the spiral and the founders' house, a watchmakers' hotel, also designed by BIG, is set to open in 2021. The originality of its geometric architecture lies in a series of zigzag ramps leading directly to the ski slopes, thus integrating it naturally into the landscape. With this momentum through construction and a multifaceted experience at the heart of the approach, would the company envisage a time road, as with wines? "For the time being, we want to create a watchmakers' destination with our future hotel." In any event, the idea of opening a company's heritage to everyone, as Omega in Biel, Philippe Patek in Geneva and others have already done, seems to be picking up pace. The highly exclusive Jaeger-LeCoultre company, which has understood what is at stake with "time tourism", is also considering opening its private museum to the public.

Worth Seeing
Musée-atelier Audemars Piguet, Le Brassus, Switzerland
www.museeatelier-audemarspiguet.com
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