Inside Audemars Piguet’s magical new spiral museum

Bjarke Ingels unveils his most challenging and rewarding architectural project yet. By Jackie Daly

An aerial view of the pavilion – a sweeping coil of green slopes carved into the landscape
An aerial view of the pavilion – a sweeping coil of green slopes carved into the landscape | Image: Iwan Baan

Musée Atelier Audemars Piguet nestles within the Vallée de Joux in the Swiss Jura Mountains. Viewed from a distance, it appears as nothing more than a sweep of glass under a green-roof hat. The perspective from above is of a coil of green slopes carved into the landscape. Yet, up close, the double spiral formation recalls the inner mechanism of a watch. It is a feat of engineering, which Danish architect Bjarke Ingels describes as his most “challenging and rewarding”, in terms of its ambition. 

The glass pavilion is a new addition to the historical watchmaker’s premises, which have stood in the village of Le Brassus since 1875
The glass pavilion is a new addition to the historical watchmaker’s premises, which have stood in the village of Le Brassus since 1875 | Image: Iwan Baan
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The museum is a new addition to the historic watchmaker’s premises, which have resided in the village of Le Brassus since 1875. This contemporary monument to craftsmanship, which opens to the public on 25 June, will offer an interactive experience. An exhibition of commissioned artworks by Dan Holdsworth, Quayola and Alexandre Joly will be on display for the opening. Visitors will also pass automata and kinetic sculpture, discovering how the watchmaking craft began, while trying techniques such as satin brushing. There are three fully working ateliers at the site, and over 300 timepieces, spanning more than two centuries of design, will be on show.    

The brass mesh cladding regulates light and temperature inside the pavilion
The brass mesh cladding regulates light and temperature inside the pavilion | Image: Iwan Baan
Danish architect Bjarke Ingels
Danish architect Bjarke Ingels

Ingels’ architectural practice BIG beat five other firms in a competition to oversee the building. “It’s inspired in part by a montre mystérieuse – a watch in which you cannot see or tell what holds the minute and hour hands in place,” he says. “Similarly, in the museum, it is difficult to see how the building is supported due to the transparency of the glass.” The pavilion, realised in conjunction with Swiss architecture practice CCHE, is the first construction of its kind to be built at such altitude. The curved glazing entirely supports the steel roof, while brass mesh cladding regulates light and temperature.  

The curved glass walls entirely support the roof of the building
The curved glass walls entirely support the roof of the building | Image: Iwan Baan
Visitors are taken on a journey through Audemars Piguet’s museum, where its timepieces are complemented by art and sculpture, such as this three-dimensional tree
Visitors are taken on a journey through Audemars Piguet’s museum, where its timepieces are complemented by art and sculpture, such as this three-dimensional tree

The simplicity of the design also draws on horology. “I found it fascinating that these craftsmen are always trying to do more with less,” says Ingels. “You have ‘miniaturisation’, where elements are made as small and flat as possible; ‘skeletonisation’ is where you excavate or subtract, so a piece becomes light and transparent; and ‘complication’ is about loading as many functions as possible in the smallest space. This is what inspired the idea of a spiralling roof, but to be able to see it coiling above you we had to eliminate any columns. The curved glass walls have maximum impact with the minimum amount of material.” 

One of the work areas looking out over the Vallée de Joux
One of the work areas looking out over the Vallée de Joux
The spiral is linked to one of the original buildings, known as the historical house
The spiral is linked to one of the original buildings, known as the historical house | Image: Iwan Baan

It is this curvature that gives the pavilion its impressive buckling resistance. “It’s strong enough to withstand an earthquake and more than 80 tons of direct loading, about the weight of a locomotive,” he adds. The verdancy atop the spiral helps the building to integrate into its surroundings as a continuation of the land. “It is made up of a mix of natural grass species found in the Vallée de Joux’s meadows that changes with the seasons and is evolved for the unique local climate,” Ingels explains. “There is also a functionality to the roof in that it helps regulate temperature while absorbing water.”

To celebrate the opening of its Musée Atelier, Audemars Piguet has created a new take on one of its rare chronographs from 1943, named [Re]master01
To celebrate the opening of its Musée Atelier, Audemars Piguet has created a new take on one of its rare chronographs from 1943, named [Re]master01
The Universelle, originally produced in 1899, contains more than 20 complications and 1,168 components in its movement
The Universelle, originally produced in 1899, contains more than 20 complications and 1,168 components in its movement

Visitors will travel through the building as they might travel through the spring of a watch. The Grandes Complications Atelier (where watches are assembled by hand, some spending six to eight months in the hands of one watchmaker before leaving the workshop) is located within the spiral, along with the Métiers d’Art Atelier, where haute joaillerie creations are conceived and crafted. A third Restoration Atelier sits within the historic houses that flank the glass pavilion.

Haute joaillerie creations are crafted at the heart of the spiral in the Métiers d’Art Atelier
Haute joaillerie creations are crafted at the heart of the spiral in the Métiers d’Art Atelier
For the opening of its Musée Atelier, the pavilion will host an exhibition of commissioned artworks by Dan Holdsworth, Quayola and Alexandre Joly, whose work Subliminal Moving Shapes (2019) is shown here
For the opening of its Musée Atelier, the pavilion will host an exhibition of commissioned artworks by Dan Holdsworth, Quayola and Alexandre Joly, whose work Subliminal Moving Shapes (2019) is shown here

At the heart of the spiral is a showcase of Grandes Complications. “It includes some of the most complicated watches manufactured by Audemars Piguet,” says heritage and museum director Sébastian Vivas. “A fantastic piece on view is the Universelle, originally produced in 1899.” 

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For Ingels, the synergies between horology and architecture are obvious. “Both mediums focus on hard science, engineering and mathematics – and deeply consider the importance of aesthetics and design. They take from the arts and sciences in equal measure,” he says. 

The partnership on this project has already led to a new one – Ingels has designed a new hotel for Audemars Piguet, which is scheduled to open in Le Brassus in summer 2021. “It takes the form of a zigzag – so a building that boasts five stories appears only to have three, which is fantastic in a small town that really doesn’t want a high rise sticking out like a sore thumb,” he says.

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