Shigeru Ban is what some might call a ‘starchitect’: an individual in the industry so accomplished and well-known that their name typically precedes their work. The Japanese architect has recently completed a project for Swatch Group designing their striking new headquarters. Like great architecture, a great watch is an inherently functional object which, through considered design, becomes an object of beauty. It makes perfect sense then for the home of Swatch Group to be an example of aesthetic excellence.
Ban was born in Tokyo in 1957, where he spent his youth drawing and playing rugby until he was admitted to the Tokyo University of the Arts. From Japan he moved to the US in 1977 to study at the newly founded SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture) and from which he went on to the esteemed Cooper Union in New York. In 1985 (the year after he graduated), Ban travelled back to Tokyo to open his own practice. Despite having no prior professional architectural experience, Ban found success in the early years of his practice designing gallery exhibitions – work which formed a foundation perhaps for his later projects in the art world like the Tokyo Design Museum (2003), the Centre Pompidou-Metz (2010) and the Aspen Art Museum (2014).
His career is celebrated particularly for his innovative use of paper materials, most notably his paper-tube temporary shelter designs for the UNHCR during the 1994 Rwandan Civil War. The Voluntary Architects’ Network (VAN) – an NGO which espouses the humanitarian ethos of Ban’s pioneering work for disaster victims – was launched off the back of these projects to provide temporary housing solutions for relief after devastating events like the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and the Christchurch earthquake in 2011. Ban is one of the most influential, inventive and altruistic architects of our time whose work earnt him the Pritzker Prize in 2014, the most prestigious award for modern architecture in the profession.
Ban in Biel
Bringing things back to watches, in 2011 Ban’s firm won the design competition to construct Swatch’s new headquarters, the new Omega manufacture and the Cité du Temps in Biel, Switzerland. Ban first collaborated with the watch world in 2007 with his design for the Nicholas G. Hayek Center in Tokyo (the headquarters of Swatch Group Japan).
New Swatch HQ
Fourteen stories high, the building is light-filled and layered with open atriums and glass shutters to house the seven watch boutiques which constitute the ‘watch street’ on the lower levels and the Swatch offices on the floors above. Similar aesthetic principles can be observed in Ban’s recently completed Swiss commission, except that the location of Biel offers the luxury of space which the high density squeeze of Ginza did not. As a result, Ban could incorporate structural flourishes like the remarkable vaulted timber shell that envelops the new headquarters in Switzerland.
Viewed from above, the headquarters is an immense winding structure 240 metres long and 35 metres wide – the size is understandable given that the group’s eighteen watch brands (including Omega, Breguet, Blancpain and Longines) all operate under the same roof. There is a certain coherence and comfort offered by the consistency of the light-toned colour palette, yet also a charming dynamism which flows from its organic forms and bright spaces. Dare I say, the vibrancy and subtle elegance of the design is a brilliant reflection of Swiss watchmaking today.
As can be observed across his architectural portfolio, wood is a material particularly favoured by Ban for its ecologically sustainable qualities. Constructed using fast growing timber from Swiss forests, the grid which forms the distinctive façade is no exception to this theme of low-impact sustainability. Stretching across Nicholas G. Hayek Street, the project defining structure also physically connects the office building to the Cité du Temps which hosts the exhibition spaces of both the Omega Museum and Planet Swatch. This is important because the project was not merely undertaken to improve administrative functions, as it also provides a view for the public into a horological world which is so often a closed-door affair.
Just as Shigeru Ban is one of the most important names in architecture today, so too is Swatch Group one of the most influential names in watchmaking. If watch companies are celebrated for their attention to detail, engineering prowess and capacity to produce objects of aesthetic functionality, then it is only natural for these same companies to be making strategic decisions and assembling movements inside a space which itself embodies these design traits.
What the projects in Biel ultimately embody is a value for the intersection between beauty and practicality which is shared in both Ban and Swatch’s respective industries; just as architecture is about more than merely providing shelter, a watch is about much more than simply telling the time.