Shigeru Ban constructs in a fun way Swatch's new headquarters in Biel

The Swatch brand is making a splash around the world, this time with architecture. For the construction of the new headquarters, Shigeru Ban, who finds a sophisticated solution to every task imaginable, was invited. How durable is this will become obvious

Sabine de Fischer

Reinventing things until the beams bend, then extend the wood over a huge open-plan office: Swatch did it, in defiance of all the conventions, and has builds its new headquarters. It could also be a tennis court or a metro station. But it's an open-plan office. Is the office redesigned here? If everything goes well. For it would be more crucial for architecture to be just a photo game for the many photographers in the international press who have all been happy to attend the big conference.

The architect Shigeru Ban in Biel in October 2019. (Image: Denis Balibouse / good-btp.com)

The architect Shigeru Ban in Biel in October 2019. (Image: Denis Balibouse / good-btp.com)

The descendants of the legendary Nicolas G. Hayek appealed to star architect Shigeru Ban to design the city's newest attraction. The Japanese have designed for them a house that Switzerland has never seen before, and which brings the architecture to an extreme level: with an endless honeycomb shell that dresses the office building as a stadium. soccer; with a support structure that uses nearly 2,000 cubic meters of native wood; and with an open office landscape for 400 people.

Not an animal, but a clock

Like a snake, a nudibranch or even a dragon, Swatch's long organic figure is what locals want to say. But the architect Shigeru Ban does not want to know these metaphors. Instead, the building only keeps track of the parcel's boundaries and the Swatch watches (among which there are 9154 different models) would have inspired: "The bow is derived from the Swatch games. Although the mechanism is always the same on the inside, the outside can change.

The Swatch Group site has been built on both sides of the historical watch campus for CHF 220 million in recent years: first a new Omega factory on the city side, and then the Cité du Temps in Paris. north and gazebo intended for the public, Swatch's largest draw seats in a hall construction 240 meters long. If different buildings are, they were all designed by Shigeru Ban. Imaginative as the links with the envelope of the hall of the seat, the whole is sensitive in the landscape.

If you follow the Schüss canal in Biel, you first follow the long rectilinear facades of the city's network, fashioned in the nineteenth century according to the rules of industry and hydroelectric power. But where the Schleusenweg leads out of the city behind the city park and the houses of the watch factories are replaced, the 21st century begins.

The huge chrome steel chimneys mounted on the facade of omega manufacturing already inaugurated in 2017 already suggest that something has happened. Here, the irritation is still subtle, the Japanese joke is one. The last stop north of the existing clock campus unequivocally explains the end of the industrial network: this organic form is not equivalent to Biel.

The cubic Cité du Temps and Swatch's organic headquarters border the banks of the Seine and the boundaries of the property. (Photo: PD)

The cubic Cité du Temps and Swatch's organic headquarters border the banks of the Seine and the boundaries of the property. (Photo: PD)

Glass inserts, semi-transparent air cushions and photovoltaic elements alternate in the honeycomb structure. (Image: Peter Klaunzer / Keystone)

Glass inserts, semi-transparent air cushions and photovoltaic elements alternate in the honeycomb structure. (Image: Peter Klaunzer / Keystone)

Both low and high tech

The pleasure of Ban's gadgets is already visible on the facade. In a free composition, the wooden honeycomb pattern is filled with different elements: windows, photovoltaic elements (PV) and air cushions ETFE (a derivative of Teflon known football stadiums) ). The semi-transparent cushions were used here for the first time by the Japanese architect, mainly because they are very light and reduce the load on the 4,600 glulam beams. No light penetrates through the PV units, so they are increasingly used over the warehouse in the most backward part.

If its architecture is now changed from low-tech to high-tech? He became famous with a small house with a giant curtain and museums, churches and refugee shelters made of cardboard rolls. In 2000, he achieved his breakthrough in Europe with the Japanese Pavilion at the Hannover World's Fair, a vault made of cardboard tubes and wood. In 2005, the Nomadic Museum marveled the United States with a honeycomb container wall stacked in the ports of New York and Santa Monica. The cardboard roll remained the trademark of Shigeru Ban.

"No no!" He replies. "High tech and low tech have always interested me right now! I've even recently designed a carbon fiber structure. I've always used everything that was available." His curiosity and his opening are contagious. My image of the modest Japanese, tinkering with paper and cardboard, gives way to that of a citizen of the world eager for world and experimental.

On the second floor, a wooden bridge connects the headquarters of the Nicolas G. Hayek auditorium to the Swatch museum of the Cité du Temps. (Photo: PD)

On the second floor, a wooden bridge connects the headquarters of the Nicolas G. Hayek auditorium to the Swatch museum of the Cité du Temps. (Photo: PD)

The environment is seen more clearly on the outside balcony than by the bee nest of the facade. (Image: Stefan Wermuth / Bloomberg)

The environment is seen more clearly on the outside balcony than by the bee nest of the facade. (Image: Stefan Wermuth / Bloomberg)

Innovation as a founding myth

At 1 rue Nicolas G. Hayek, newly appointed, Shigeru Ban must now place the city of Biel on the international map. We also wish that Nayla and Nick Hayek commemorate his father, who died in 2010. His first venture, Hayek Engineering, accompanied the execution of the new headquarters and can boast more than half a century. However, it has become world famous with its entry into the watch industry and the launch of the Swatch brand in 1983.

The spirit of the Father hovers over everything. The Nicolas G. Hayek Auditorium overlooks the street of the same name. It is located on the top floor of the City of Time, so to speak in the snake's head (if you want to try the metaphor of the animal against the will of the architect). In this room lined with noble ash, President and CEO Nick Hayek informs the press of his friendship with Shigeru Ban. He has already designed for him the center Nicolas G. Hayek in the district of Ginza in Tokyo.

Faced with several Swiss competitors, the Japanese architect won the competition for the flagship construction of Bieler. In addition to working with the Hayek, he was also able to maintain a second relationship with a Swiss company, particularly with Blumer-Lehmann, an innovator in wood construction, who had made possible the oversized construction of carpenters in the new building. Zurich Tamedia.

A round pavilion dedicated to the sale of "drive-through" watches, such as the Cité du Temps, is intended for the public. In the cube Cité, the traditional high-tech show of the Omega brand occupies a floor, with the colorful Swatch museum presenting 6234 different watches. There, a wooden bridge connects the cubic museum wing to the open-plan office.

Sustainable start

From the outside, the house with the honeycomb skin looks like a piece. But inside, there is a mix of colors and materials on the terraced office floors. The intention is to know if this wild mixture of colored plastics, cardboard tubes, glass cabins and tubular steel classics is envisaged. "Yes, it's my most mischievous project to date," Shigeru Ban replies, "it's Swatch's character expression: playful and colorful."

Prototypes of solar cars from previous years are in the lobby flooded with daylight. White Swiss crosses are spread all over the roof from inside to the nest of bee. Already in the design of the competition, they were there, Swatch's flashy homage to Swatch's Swiss character and above all a technical measure aimed at making the vaulted ceiling rigid. Inside, the white crosses are also perforated, so that they swallow some of the many sounds of the open-plan office.

The most surprising is the little visible wood in the office landscape. Finally, the case (made in 100% Swiss wood, which picks up according to the press materials in less than two hours) indicates that Swatch wants to be more sustainable in the future, as emphasized by Nayla Hayek to the press international.

The fact that the yellow bodies of USM Haller are scattered everywhere is certainly sustainable because they already existed in the old offices. Five olive trees grow on the four open floors, so that there is also nature in the interior. However, the feeling of nature is not quite there yet. Almost everywhere, hands touch plastic surfaces and the air is saturated with a smell similar to adhesives or new carpets.

There is mostly fresh air on the nine balconies, which protrude far from the honeycomb structure. It is also worth visiting them when you do not always know what time of day it is outside in Biel. The spectacular facade looks wonderfully playful and poetic from the outside, but inside, it captures the entire field of vision and creates an endless world – a Swatch world.

The office building follows the Schüss water course, in which there is a lot of greenery. (Image: Peter Klaunzer / Keystone)

The office building follows the Schüss water course, in which there is a lot of greenery. (Image: Peter Klaunzer / Keystone)

As colorful as the clocks: the interior of Swatch's open-plan office at the headquarters. (Image: Stefan Wermuth / Bloomberg)

As colorful as the clocks: the interior of Swatch's open-plan office at the headquarters. (Image: Stefan Wermuth / Bloomberg)

Transparency with smoking balconies

Nick Hayek jokes in front of the press that balconies may not be reserved for smokers, but for all employees who want to escape from their cigars. In any case, these smoking balconies are welcome to withdraw from the airy world inside.

The semi-transparent monster stands on the renatured waters of the Schüss River, beside embankments, greenery and a new subdivision that still awaits wild life. In the interspace, a small stream can be crossed by large chunks of rock, whose water also cools the large Swatch Hall, when the sun shines through the honeycomb shell.

Again, industrial production and water energy are the main roles in Biel, but they are now taking on new forms. More the grid, but the wave is their expression, and more a factory, but the big office of the seat is the sensation.

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