Swatch Group's new headquarters showcases architecture for a new era

Inside the Shigeru Ban-designed building, described as an "ambassador of emotionality" for the digital age.

By Bloomberg Pursuits, October 13 2019
Swatch Group's new headquarters showcases architecture for a new era

Swatch has opened the doors to its new headquarters in Biel, Switzerland, featuring the Swatch brand centre, an innovative, five-floor, 240m-long building, and the Cité du Temps, a 28m-high structure with approximately 1.5 million mosaic tiles on its facade.

The latter houses both Planet Swatch and Omega museums that detail their respective 36-year and 171-year histories. Some 6,234 Swatch watches, of the 9,154 produced since its inception in 1983, are displayed.

Biel/Bienne is a town that few know. It lies about 30 minutes train northwest of Bern. Chief Executive Officer Nick Hayek Jr. hopes the new building puts it on the map for international architecture and watch fans.

The Swatch building, designed by star Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, with its striking honeycomb design and forests of timber, “heralds in a new chapter in the history of the brand,” says Hayek, as it confronts a changing industry.

With ceiling panels that feature the Swiss cross, Swatch Group Chairman Nayla Hayek calls it “a memorial to Biel, to Swatch, and to the history of Swatch, which has the history, the fantasy, and the name of Switzerland … the DNA is in the building.”

At the unveiling, the CEO trumpeted that the headquarters – finished on time and within the US$221 million budget – is a strong contrast to the coldness of automation that other architects might use. “We need emotional architects,” the younger Hayek says, praising Ban for remaining humble, for listening, and for his ability to compromise during the project’s conception and execution.

“This is my lifetime project,” Ban says, adding that it took 8.5 years from concept initiation to completion. The shape of the structure was intended to blend into the natural elements surrounding it.  

The curved honeycomb structure of the new headquarters connects to the more traditional, rectangular structure of the Cité du Temps building, which houses the two museums and some conference rooms.

Nayla Hayek (left), Swatch Group chair  and Nick Hayek Jr., chief executive officer, cut a ribbon during the unveiling ceremony. Hayak's late father conceived the project in 2004, but plans didn't get well underway until 2011. Once construction started, it took five years to build.

Every element of the building is designed for optimal acoustics, including the circular, lily pad-like floor lamps and the Swiss crosses in the ceiling. Construction is primarily of sustainable timber. Swatch noted the building contains 1,997 cubic meters of it, an amount that can regrow in Swiss forests in less than two hours.

Swatch Group brands may be more than a century old, but the office feels as modern as any in tech. Beneath the honeycomb shell lie multitiered floors and lots of open space, including five black olive trees. All desks convert into standing desks. 

Ban calls the Swatch commission the "project of a lifetime." Here, he signs a welcoming message board in the new headquarters.

Swatch Group CEO Hayek says he and Ban wanted the new building to be high-tech, yet industrial. The architecture would be an "ambassador of emotionality," making employees proud to be working in Biel, at a Swiss company, creating watches to give customers "big emotions."

Individual padded booths allow workers to roam productively, while architect Ban also included outdoor smoking balconies because he noticed that CEO Hayek Jr. enjoyed stepping outside to smoke cigars.

Some 6,234 Swatch watches, about two-thirds of all models produced since the brand's inception 38 years ago, are on display at the Planet Swatch Museum.

A tour guide says Swatch will probably need to hire professional climbers to clean the building's exterior, given its curved facade.

Bloomberg Pursuits

Bloomberg Pursuits curates the best in cars, food, drinks, travel, watches and more for the modern globally-minded executive, and is republished under licence by Executive Traveller.

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