Audemars Piguet Lashes Out

LE BRASSUS, Switzerland — The new Musée Atelier Audemars Piguet, a glass and steel pavilion scheduled to open to the public on June 26, stands on a grassy knoll between the company’s two 19th-century buildings here — something like a bridge between its past and future.

“We did have a small museum here but we had in mind to build an extension to present the richness of our watchmaking culture,” Jasmine Audemars, chairwoman of the family-owned company’s board of directors, said during a media preview of the museum in February. “We wanted a structure that would be integrated into the landscape with unobstructed views of the valley so that visitors could experience our heritage.”

Bjarke Ingels, the Danish architect who designed the new building, had his own view: “We had to tread carefully because this was like bringing an annoying newcomer between two friends.”

But then Mr. Ingels — whose disruptive thinking on architecture was the subject of a 2017 episode of “Abstract: The Art of Design,” a Netflix documentary series — has yet to design a typical structure.

His proposed design for the watch museum, submitted to the brand’s competition in 2013, initially had little chance of success. For one thing, its circular, nearly flat roof violated regional building codes.

“Swiss building rules, to say the least, are very strict,” Mr. Ingels said at the preview. “I was told a building here must resemble other buildings, meaning that it must have a double-sided angled roof.”

Still, Mr. Ingels managed to win over not just Audemars Piguet, but also the local council, and construction began in March 2017. (“Bjarke’s project was not just out of the ordinary for the vallée, it was out of the ordinary for all of Switzerland,” Ms. Audemars said, referring to the Vallée de Joux in western Switzerland, where Le Brassus is located.)

“We weren’t trying to be provocative,” Mr. Ingels said, “we were just tapping into the heritage of the valley without creating a replica of what was already there.”

“We aligned ourselves around the concept of an ‘oxymoron,’ a word I had to look up,” he added. “That means combining two things that could seem mutually exclusive at first and creating a new hybrid form. Once the tension settles, something new comes into the world.”

The pavilion’s interior, which totals 2,500 square meters (26,910 square feet), was designed as a coil — deliberately meant to resemble a watch spring. “The spiral felt like an incredibly simple layout where form and content were linked together,” Mr. Ingels said.

One part houses a workroom, called the Grandes Complications Atelier, where visitors will be able to look through glass partitions to observe watchmakers at work. The other showcases the brand’s heritage display: 300 timepieces ranging from chiming and astronomical complications to jeweled pocket watches, all mounted inside clear protective domes. And at the center of the spiral: The 1899 Universelle pocket watch — with 21 functions and 13 hands, the most complicated timepiece ever produced by Audemars Piguet.

Few people outside the Swiss watch world know that most of Audemars Piguet’s vintage pieces are one of a kind because, until 1951, it sold complications to distributors and retailers rather than making its own watches.

Initially, “the company was too small, and focused on hand-finishing movements and creating complications,” Michael Friedman, the brand’s head of complications, said at the preview. “It was the powerful retailer’s name that went on the dial.”

In addition to the Universelle, a particularly noteworthy exhibit is a rare 1943 chronograph that Audemars Piguet acquired in 2015 at a Phillips auction for 305,000 Swiss francs (now $315,480). In March it reissued the elegant wristwatch, which has a champagne-colored dial, in a 500-piece limited edition with the name [Re]Master 01.

And visitors — who will be able to reserve tours online — also will see a large display dedicated to the Royal Oak, a highly popular, signature model designed in 1971 by Gerald Genta. It spawned the Offshore in 1993 and the Concept in 2002.

The pavilion’s structural glass walls were curved to support the steel roof, made of two circular plates totaling 470 tons, which rises from the hillside slope. In February, the roof was covered with snow. In spring, it has a carpet of regional grasses, planted to help control the building’s temperature and to absorb rainfall. A brass mesh runs along the edge of the outer glass walls to regulate light and heat.

“What we have designed here is more like land art than architecture,” Mr. Ingels said. “It looks like the Spiral Jetty of Switzerland.” The reference was to the sculptor Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” a massive earthwork in Utah.

While the description sounds — and the roof looks — unusual, the building actually does blend well into the surrounding landscape (a bit like I.M. Pei’s Pyramid at the Louvre).

Le Brassus is less than 40 miles north of Geneva, but it is an area of farmlands and vineyards, set against the pine tree-speckled peaks of the Jura mountains. Historically, the area’s long, harsh winters kept farmers indoors for months, and by the 1700s they were occupying their inventive minds and nimble fingers with horological invention.

In 1875, two of the village’s enterprising residents, Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet, founded a watch company specializing in high complications. It was Ms. Audemars’s forebears, like those of the LeCoultres and the Meylans and others, who made this valley an epicenter of Swiss watchmaking.

The valley itself also helped. “In the 15th century, iron was found here,” said Sebastian Vivas, historian and museum director at Audemars Piguet, “which was used to make steel, and allowed farmers to make watchmaking tools.”

Watch companies from Patek Philippe to Omega have heightened a focus on their archives in recent years, displaying them in headquarters space, social media posts or pop-up exhibitions in a blend of brand awareness, sales enhancement and community building.

At Audemars Piguet, however, the museum also is expected to have a significant impact on its hometown, a village of just 1,360 residents where it traditionally has played an outsized role.

For years the village has had just two hotels — one of them, a 50-room inn called Hôtel des Horlogers, owned by Audemars Piguet since 2005 and just a short distance from the company complex along the Route de France, the village’s lone main road. But its basic utilities as well as the pine walls and brown leather furniture had become seriously dated over the years, so the building was razed and work began on a new hotel in mid-2018.

The company will not disclose the cost of building the museum and the hotel, or of some refurbishment that has been done to the 19th century buildings.

The new glass and steel version of the hotel, scheduled to open in 2021, will still be called Hôtel des Horlogers and still have 50 rooms. But there the resemblance ends. Also designed by Mr. Ingels’s firm, an architect’s rendering shows the building zigzagging its way along the site, the Audemars Piguet structures in the background.

There is little doubt that Mr. Ingels’s architecture will change Le Brassus forever. But has watchmaking changed Mr. Ingels?

“I did not wear a watch when I started this project,” Mr. Ingels said. “Now I have this beautiful openwork thing ticking on my wrist.”

“Also, I find myself using a lot of watchmaking metaphors.”