Speed and ephemerality are at the core of contemporary culture. We buy clothes with a built-in expiration date, showing them off on an app where the photo deletes after 24 hours, sent using a phone that will soon be obsolete. Targeted adverts preach efficiency — not just aspiration — claiming good health, success, and even love can be achieved with a #lifehack. To do things any other way is regarded as old-fashioned, or even odd.
Lifestyles have become fluid, allowing us to rebound between jobs, apartments, and countries. Meanwhile on the news, crisis supercedes crisis, so much so that stability feels like a quaint ideal. Only a deadly pandemic affords us respite from the relentless immediacy of “right now.”
But there are others attuned to thinking outside the bubble, working in light-years and unafraid to contend with weighty subjects like permanence and forever. People like Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and the master craftsmen at Audemars Piguet.
The journalistic “starchitect” cliché has become a hot-button topic in and of itself in recent years — Frank Gehry claims to hate it and Rem Koolhaas said the word “implies you’re an asshole.” Yet in our celebrity-obsessed age, where players in even the most intellectual fields can be reduced to an Instagram #styleinspo gallery, it still feels applicable. Ingels — whose current projects include the new Google Campus and, well, colonizing Mars — is relatively new to the scene (at least in architect years), but the tag suits him. The B.I.G (Bjarke Ingels Group) chieftain is a superstar, gracing magazine covers, selling out lectures, and even making a cameo in Game of Thrones. But all that’s just frippery. Operating in a perpetual mode of galaxy brain, the “playing chess while the rest of us play checkers” line doesn’t quite nail Ingels’ level of ambition. See “Masterplanet,” his latest venture which aims to draw up a global environmental solution for when the world hits a population of 10 billion by 2050.
Watchmaking and architecture are disciplines governed by patience. Both are differentiated by the size of their works, but find common ground in the painstaking pursuit of excellence. It’s about building environments, macro or micro, that last. When time is the foe — the final boss who you’ll never beat — cutting corners isn’t an option. Maybe the battle is rigged, but you can give it a good shot anyway, creating something beautiful that will be around long after your own GAME OVER screen appears.
When the Swiss brand was looking to expand its historical premises with a museum, they turned to Ingels. Secluded in a high mountain valley of the Swiss Jura, the spiralling glass creation is a metaphorical extension of an Audemars Piguet timepiece. Inside, it’s said to feel like a giant spring hovering above your head. From the outside, it’s as if a spaceship landed and corkscrewed into the verdant hills. A feat of design and engineering, it’s the first building of its kind at such a high altitude.
Opening its doors on June 25, visitors to the Musée Atelier Audemars Piguet will experience the Audemars Piguet story by embarking on a route that flows clockwise throughout the space. The exhibition is broken into chapters, beginning with the rich watchmaking history of the region that enabled AP to develop and thrive at the end of the 19th century, right up to the current day. If you’re just in it for the watches, then good news, because there are over 300 of them. Timepieces range from the flagship Royal Oak collection, all the way back to a complicated pocket watch by Joseph Piguet, thought to be from around 1769.
Ingels joined Michael Friedman, head of complications, and Sébastian Vivas, heritage & museum Director, of Audemars Piguet to discuss his new creation. Below is a condensed and edited version of what they had to say.
Michael Friedman: Bjarke, when you're overseeing architectural projects — this museum included — are you thinking only in the immediacy of this generation or do you consider how your creations might be interpreted or experienced in the future as well?
Bjarke Ingels: Architecture is like a form of portraiture in that we never design a building for ourselves. It's always for and about someone else and something else. In portraiture, you're trying to express yourself as an artist by capturing not just the appearance, but the presence, character, personality, soul, or maybe even the potential of a subject. That's what you try to do when designing a building.
For Audemars Piguet, it was about the story of watchmaking. The first step is to capture the character — or an intrinsic logic — that is of the watchmaking world. Then you start discovering. A lot of the design process is actually uncovering potential after the point of departure. It acquires more specificity and character as you resolve it.
Michael Friedman: And legacy?
Bjarke Ingels: Once built, it's very hard to predict how long anything is going to last. You hand over the keys and hope for the best. Before ISIS emerged, I went to Kurdistan in the North of Iraq. Back then, Kurdistan thought it was going to gain independence as a country, so they were going to make a governmental city and they invited us along. We went into the mountains where there was a synagogue that was 2,575 years old and falling into ruin.
I noticed that there were some rusty candlelight holders coming out of the wall. I asked, "When did this stop functioning as a synagogue?" And he said, "Well, in the mid-1950s, Iraq became tricky for Jews because of the State of Israel." All Jews from that village moved to Israel. It had been there for 2,525 years in a perfect state. But after its inhabitants left for Israel, it began to ruin within 50 years.
Michael Friedman: We've spoken before about time and space being two sides of the same coin, not just in terms of Einstein's theories of relativity, but even as we move through space ourselves. I know you're conscious of how people spend the passage of time when inside an architectural space. Can you provide us a little bit of insight as to your process of how you work towards those creations?
Bjarke Ingels: Moving through space is a kind of nonverbal communication. As you arrive here, the slope starts propelling you down; there's a light that emits from the pavilion and you seamlessly begin the journey. Essentially, the exhibition pavilion is one continuous space, but the trajectory is so clear that people can intuitively navigate it without having their handheld. The intent of the design in a lot of our work is to find ways to lead people through the building mayhem.
We recently designed a museum — or an experience building — for LEGO, which we tried to make as inviting and engaging as Lego is as a toy. I see the roofs of the building as interconnected playgrounds — it's a series of spaces that overlap almost like the way you join Lego bricks, so you can walk from one space to the next. It opens up towards the ground so the entire square is below. You have elements of movement, gravity, and light that create an invitation and forward trajectory for the visitor.
Michael Friedman: It's been seven years since you guys cited the first meeting, and we've spoken a lot about how the team here has been transformed by your work. Is there anything about the world of Audemars Piguet and watchmaking that has since informed you?
Bjarke Ingels: I've started using a lot of sort of watch metaphors! I actually didn't wear a watch at that point — like many people I used my cell phone — but now I have this beautiful openwork dial on my wrist.
I think its purpose is interesting. When I'm chilling, I'm aware of this exposed escapement and how it's like a little mechanical life form. I started thinking about that and then I realized that maybe the idea of a mechanical life form is not just a metaphor, but exactly what it is. Living things harvest energy from their environment; this little mechanical life harvests energy from me. Every time I move, it swings around; it coils up my kinetic energy and delivers it in a measurable way.
We consist of trillions of cells and each living cell consists of billions of enzymes that are essentially proteins. There are proteins that respond to the environment according to the laws of physics and chemistry. But because of the complicated way in which they are intertwined, they become a living cell. So, in that sense, watchmaking is literally a human-made mechanical life that we walk around with, which is quite beautiful.
Sébastian, I'm curious about the same question.
Sébastian Vivas: The history of architecture and watchmaking is deeply linked. The time in which we live was invented by the watchmakers. The duration of the days is different every day, not because of sunset and sunrise, but because of the duration of the earth.
The astronomers and physicists built our civilization together, just like the architects did in the field of space by organizing and sheltering our lives. Both watchmakers and architects have this secret dream of creating fabulous objects that will last forever, that will survive our lives as long as people love them.
The watches have to be taken care of by the user and watchmakers. That's why we've integrated the craftsmen as part of the museum itself. As long as people take care of these technical marvels, they will work. We have watches that are 250 years old — not 2,500, because watchmaking obviously did not exist. Another parallel in the fields of watchmaking and architecture is how we've evolved with time.
We have evolved with modernity. Our people are specialists, but technology has become super important in our daily life. Without the beam, without the 3D renders and drawings, this building would have been absolutely impossible. This is modernity. This is what opens new horizons. It's the same for watchmaking — we still need craftsmen, but we also need computers and technology to create a self-winding perpetual calendar.
Michael Friedman: The tools evolve as we go.
Bjarke Ingels: Coming back to time, we had a child during the process who is now 14 months. You get this new kind of time measuring device in the form of your child, which is pretty brilliant. But you also realize it goes by incredibly fast.
A lot of today's conversations deal with time on a macro scale because of climate change: what will the forecast be in 2050? That's where things like the New York Dryline come in. But once, my friend who is an Icelandic writer, asked, "So, Bjarke when do you think there will no longer be anyone alive on earth who you have loved in your lifetime?"
That changed my perspective on time. You start doing the math. It's like, "I'm 45. If I start exercising and dieting, maybe I can make it to 90. If my son is a little quicker than I am, maybe I'll have a lovely granddaughter and maybe she's 10 when I die. And she has a slightly better lifestyle than me and also better healthcare and science of the time. So let's give her at least another 100 years, so she lives on until she's 110. That's 45 plus 110, That's 155 years into the future. So that's the year, 2,175. And if you think about it, the last Blade Runner movie took place in 2049. So this is 126 years later.
Michael Friedman: You're almost in Star Trek time.
Bjarke Ingels: It's so far into the future! Until then, in theory, there will be someone alive that I have loved dearly in my lifetime. So, the amazing discovery is that when we talk about global warming and climate change, it's not borne out of some kind of love for humanity in the abstract. Rather, it's a deep, intimate love for someone dear to you that is going to be affected about what we do or don't do 175 years from now. So that's pretty wild.