Photo Swatch

Surrealism in the Suburbs

Biel, beating industrial heart of the Swiss watchmaking industry, is home to a clutch of Shigeru Ban timber buildings known as the Swatch Campus, including a surrealistic pillow of a free-form gridshell on the edge of the town.

To step off a train at Biel/Bienne station, descend from platform level and step out into the station forecourt, is to step into a town which ticks to its own time zone. For Bielis a gateway into the Jura, Switzerland’s world-renowned watch-making region, and a town of time itself.

The timelines running through the town are joined by linguistic boundaries – as it is known both as Bienne (French) - and Biel (German), the name used for the rest of this piece. Not exactly a Zurich or Davos in the international visibility stakes, in Switzerland Biel is described as an industrial town, even if a Swiss Industrial town is a rather different proposition to, for instance, a northern English, a north-eastern French or Belgian steel or coal mining town, let alone urban centres across Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany’s Lignite Triangle. Immediate impressions are of a prosperous and well-ordered town, tidy in the Swiss- burgherly way. Industrial none the less it is, with the town’s population hovering around 55,000 and its industries and associated businesses headed up by a raft of major international watch-making companies, including Rolex, Gycline, and the Swatch group.

A road runs through it – the front of the Swatch gridshell,
bridge a canopy cover linking to the Cite du Temps and office
building – Photo Swatch

Though the streets look well swept, and the gardens and windowsill flowers are lovingly tended, Biel’s economic situation has been vulnerable to larger trade winds. The Jura watch industry overall, and headline brands in particular, have been facing stiff global competition from Japan and Korea, and the arrival of iPhones and other smart mobiles with embedded time pieces. These far away developments have triggered corporate overhauls and relaunches through the last decade. Among the companies doing so, some have turned to a favourite of the rebrand playbook: a stararchitect signature new building rather than (or as well as) new time pieces. Last year, in 2020, Audemars Piguet, a famous name in Haute Horlogerie and nestled in the Vallée de Joux deep in the Jura proper, reopened its museum, after a no holds barred makeover by Danish super-starchitect Bjarke Ingels. It has been in Biel though that easily the largest scale-built fabric brand relaunch played out through the last decade was with Shigeru Ban, the Japanese architect, and the Swatch group, the international company attempting to reinvent themselves. Three major buildings, a first office and manufacturing building housing Swatch subsidiary Omega, was opened in 2017, followed two years later by a second office and on the ground floor, small museum, and a second linked building. This second structure, initially dubbed ‘the dragon’, and latterly known as ‘the worm’ is a long, squat, curved and curling gridshell structure, joined to the main Swatch building by a raised bridge, and above the bridge a swooping sheltering canopy, meeting the top floor over the ground level service road. Although the new suite of buildings was all about Swiss watch promotion, there was another ingredient to the relaunch, hinted at in the both the choice of architect and the building types: Swatch had decided that they wanted their wow moment in the sun to be a timber wow moment.

It's here, though, in northern Appenzell, the hilly canton sitting between Lake Konstanz and the beginning of the Alps proper, that Hermann Blumer, Switzerland’s most internationally influential timber engineer, was born, and where he’s lived for almost the last fifty years. If you visit Maggie’s Manchester Centre, know that it was Blumer who assisted Fosters with the timber. Likewise, if decades earlier, Blumer was on hand in 2004 to help Herzog de Meuron with their ultimately abortive timber sculpture for the Chinese Jinhua park. In recent years, dotted across Europe, North America, and Eastern Asia, a raft of timber buildings have appeared bearing his singular imprint. Though relatively small in number, the projects are testament to Blumer’s out-of-the ordinary influence on turn of the century timber building, and specifically, on the arrival of 21st century timber engineering. They span small bespoke projects such as Peter Zumthor’s St Benedict Chapel: the quirky and exotic, for example Rolf Disch’s revolving Heliotrope solar home in Freiburg, Southern Germany; or the large scale - Norman Foster’s Apple Buildings in Hong Kong, and Helen & Hard’s Finanzpark in Stavanger, Norway.

Bridge of time: the Omega Cite du Temps museum building and bridge – Photo Swatch

The timber dimension must have been clear the moment Ban’s name appeared in the public domain in the run up to the announcement that he’d been chosen, back in 2010. This was only a year after his Metz Pompidou Centre had opened, and Ban was already working on the Zurich Tamedia Headquarters, a not entirely dissimilar office block in an entirely different setting. It was also vindication for the various Swiss timber teams that had supported and helped Ban’s studio realize first Metz and then their parallel Korea project, the Haesley Golf Course. There was Herman Blumer and Blumer-Lehmann – see features on Blumer and Blumer Lehmann here - but also the Structural Engineers, SJB-Kempter-Fitze, the modelling and software company Design-to-Production, and a host of others.

What is absent - which, as it gradually became clear, surprised me - was that despite their super-close proximity there was absolutely no link in with Biel’s other long-term centre of timber, the University of Bern’s internationally respected department of Architecture, Wood and Civil Engineering, also located on the same side of Biel, all of 2.5km further along the valley, and five minutes’ motorised journey away. All this timber experience being baked into these new buildings, yet absolutely zero professional knowledge exchange traffic: how odd! ETH Zurich’s Andrea Frangi sounds amused as he responds to my collaborative question, “they didn’t need us.”

Branding Biel – from the Biel/Bienne town website

The project is a strange beast, in other ways, it has to be said. I visited both the Omega factory in early 2018, and the Swatch Museum and offices in September 2019, though regarding the latter, the gridshell offices were all off-limits as I was a month ahead of the official opening and press viewing. About a ten-minute bus journey out of town, these days the jumble of production facilities, offices, transport and loading bays, car parks and other buildings has become, echoing so many self-respecting branding refits, the Swatch Campus. Both the factory and the office building extend the timber frame system developed by Ban and Blumer for Tamedia, and as with the latter the Biel project was run on the ground by the large Swiss studio, Itten + Brechbühl AG out of their Bern offices. The six-storey Omega production building is the most workmanlike of the three structures, sitting parallel and between the principal road artery to the town centre, and on its far, eastern side, a tributary water channel, covering a footprint of 72m long by 34m wide, and standing 28m high. According to Blumer, “Shigeru said he wanted to build a seven-storey building, but that he didn’t know how to do it. He sent a sketch, which I looked at….” A comparable timber frame system to Tamedia, with the timber expressed and visible through the glass facades, though here the structure also required pristine lab conditions needed for watchmaking. A mote of dust on Omega’s miniature wrist time-pieces would be calamitous, and the design soon gained a high-tech protective glass shutter inner sanctum known technically as an ‘air clean room,’ on the three floors where watch production takes place. Within this fortified central working zone, a fully automated watch-part storage system, servicing the three production floors, and again clinically clean, was also required to be integrated. Acoustics and floor vibration were a principal challenge, Blumer recalled, when I spoke with him, unsurprising when you consider the exacting circumstances required for hi-tech watch making. Floors, and other parts of the production zone, needed to have absolutely no vibration, nor to be influenced by external vibration.

Like Tamedia, the Swatch buildings were to feature all-wood connections, a striking step, and for those concerned, an illustration of a particular East-West fusion of Japanese joinery and European construction techniques. The connections were a challenge, though. Machine drilling holes for the multi-sized dowels and pegs would mess with the carefully calibrated vibrations. Just as with the previous Ban projects, Blumer and Blumer-Lehmann prepared a mock-up to test the machine-less drilled solution they’d arrived at, crucial, noted Blumer, for ensuring the system worked.

The Omega watch-making and office building – Photos Swatch

The six-storey timber frame is out of Blumer’s workbook. Open plan corridors run the edges of the building, separating the glass-lined external skin and the interior glulam post and beams, which carry the six floors and much of the building’s forces. In-between CLT floor units are integrated into the structural system. In a presentation at the annual big timber Holzbau Forum conference in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Blumer noted that the level of delicacy of dealing with the vibrations issue required a concrete core to weight what, if it had been all timber, would have been too light a structure. Otherwise, the template had been carried over from Tamedia, and is replicated again in the Swatch Cité du Temps building, and most recently, Helen & Hard’s Stavanger Finanzpark. In other words, each building applies the template, though with individual differences. The Biel buildings feature a two-dowel system, the Stavanger project a four dowel.

The Cité du Temps Swatch building is a stone’s throw and open courtyard distance away. Sitting perpendicular to the Omega production facilities are two older red brick buildings and an open courtyard between the two new arrivals. In comparison the Cité du Temps is also considerably more jazzed up. With only a third of the footprint, and though again 28m high, at five storeys there is one fewer floor, making for a smaller, narrower, if longer building, providing greater ceiling height and the kind of generosity which comes with public spaces needing to be that much larger, taller and lighter. At its ground floor level, with the entrance to the museum and Planet Swatch, the building is supported by fourteen funnel-like concrete columns, 5m equidistant points obliquely reminiscent of Ban’s timber trees. The columns provide an open undercroft prior to entering. Like the Omega facility the Cité du Temps sits on a concrete slab, though from first floor up the all-timber structural system takes over.

The Swatch gridshell entance foyer – Photo Swatch

The fourth and fifth floors are given over to offices and a top floor conference room and both are umbilically linked to the squat, fat worm Swatch HQ shell building opposite. The combination of the two buildings, joined by the bridge including the HQ's entrance, foyer and frontage into the gridshell and opposite the museum entrance, comprises the dramatic heart of the campus, separated by the service road running between the two buildings. It's here that the project adds another layer of interest, one looking up at the meeting space between the two distinct and different architectural languages, the tightly orthogonal and the organic free-form shell structure. For some in the architectural world, though, it isn't a happy marriage. First, the long thin open corridor footbridge sitting on a chunky timber slab runs issues out of the HQ's third top floor over the gleaming clinically white Swatch HQ foyer, before crossing the road. It is the shell structure - looming over the bridge, the airily spacious foyer, and beyond, the three floors of open plan, hot desking office spaces - which draws and dominates the eye. Outside, the free-form shell jumps the road, creating a protective canopy before landing on the Swatch building's top floor to form part of the conference centres roof.

The bridge and conference room – Photos Swatch

It's an odd sight, a piece of free-form fabric settled upon the two buildings, the shell’s giant lozenge diamonds peppered with Swiss flag crosses. For a passer-by chancing upon the structure, it must feel like a piece of momentary weirdness. There again, it expands the vocabulary of realised timber free-form, and of gridshell structures. God’s eye drone photos make the serpent references clear, with its long snaking tail and, seemingly, looking like the Omega building is prey caught in its jaws. It is also an elaborate and complex piece of timber engineering and design, which consumed nearly five years of work.

Serpent devouring prey – Photos Swatch
The Swatch gridshell buildings back entrance
– Photo Oliver Lowenstein

The entrance is merely the dramatic front end of the shell structure; the full shell structure is nearly a quarter of a kilometre (240m) long, 35m wide and at its highest point at 27 metres, only a metre shorter than the other two buildings. Inside, the 25,000m2 open plan office space is essentially an entirely separate concrete structure, though at several points the two structures meet, and provides enough workspace for Swatch's 300-person administration team. At the foyer entrance there are four floors rising to 22m; closer to the tail's end the timber lattice shell is considerably lower and smaller, curling leftwards a full 180 degrees to meet the street, and providing a services entrance at its back. Experiencing the dynamism of the shell sitting dramatically above the open plan working spaces only happens inside; externally, the timber lattice isn't particularly visible given its role supporting the semi-transparent ETFE skin.

Stored ETFE sections – Image Design-to-Production
The ETFE façade integrated with the shell structure giant
diamond lozenges. For a sense of scale see man cleaning on
left of the lefthand photo – Photos Oliver Lowenstein

Technically, however, the curving facade was elaborate and involved, consisting of a multicoloured honeycomb mix of primarily opaque though also translucent diamond lozenges. In all there are 2800 elements, in 11 different designs. Running through and integrated into the shell’s curving glulams are wiring routes for cooling and heating the elements, sprinkler lines and electrical installations, all needing preparation prior to the first glulam being milled. Though most of the elements are opaque, a minority are transparent and translucent.  Built into these opaque ETFE element combs are a weather resistant and sun-protective outer film. Some elements also integrate the building’s 448 photovoltaic cell modules. Ensuring a normal office climate was another challenge, particularly around transparent surfaces, which can quickly lead to overheating. As part of the insulation strategy, the translucent ETFE include translucent polycarbonate sheets, while the transparent elements integrate four glass panes and white roller blinds, again for thermal insulation. Both element types avoid condensation and are kept continuously ventilated. A further challenge were the external rest and relaxation spaces. Cut into the glulam lattices facade are nine large circular balconied glass windows, between 10m2 and 20m2. Not only did these glass viewing points need their own ventilation strategies but the viewing balconies provided further involved timber work for Blumer-Lehmann. In all the gridshell is made up of 4481 separate glulam pieces. Servicing this complexity required the design of the entire glulam assemblage to integrate every aspect of these light, heat and ventilation systems in the earliest stages, a further layer of micro-millimetred accuracy as part of the glulam milling and manufacture.

The balconies from inside and out – Photos SWATCH

The balconies under construction
– Photos - Blumer Lehmann

The gridshell connector system – Image - Blumer Lehmann

Blumer-Lehmann worked with engineers SJB-Kempter-Fitze and the programming specialists, Design-to-Production to develop parametric programming for the many double curvature and individually-dimensioned timber elements needed, which was able to turn two dimensional plans into 3D modelling. Already by 2014, Blumer-Lehmann had already built a 10m x 10m and 11m high mock-up in their Erlenhof workshops, with full two storey cut-out, to test the cross joints and geometry, as well as other aspects of its feasibility. A wavy extra curved beam piece was designed, so that each curved element, when craned into place, created a curve of the circular windows. The remaining the glulam elements while not as complex, still involved pieces comprising specific joints and detailing. Generally following the grain so that diagonal cuts weren't needed, considerable gluing was a key factor to the project's timber. While confident that their production systems were up to the project, Blumer-Lehmann freely admitted this was their most complex and challenging piece of free-form timber engineering they've attempted to date. With tolerances of a single millimetre, one error in the geometry early on could result in the mistake ballooning into a multi-million Swiss Franc cost. Although the timber manufacturer believed that the oversight measures, including milling quality, serial checks, and the elaborate 3D model in place would ensure the project would work, (former) Managing Director Richard Jussell acknowledges just how relieved the team were when they heard the first key pieces fitted exactly into place. After all, the assembly involved 13-stages: production began in September 2016 and assembly two months later, in November continuing through to August 2017 and through these months some 130 lorry loads travelled down through Switzerland to Biel.

Walk along the recently newly-landscaped pedestrian and bike path that adjoins the side of the ETFE skin and very little of this sweat, tears and blood are evident  - rather, it’s the singularity of the wavy organic landscraper in its surroundings – new housing blocks immediately further to the north, older housing, warehouses, offices, and other work buildings the other side of the small River Schüss, these days a man-made channel that marks the border of Swatch’s land, its waters running towards the town centre and Lake Biel.

The Swatch Campus press
launch – Photo Swatch

Perhaps it’s the sheer everyday-ness of the context which makes the assemblage come across as singular, latter-day surrealism in the suburbs. We’re primed for spectacle in the art and tourist quarters of big cities, but along a quiet side road at the edge of a mid-sized Swiss town?

Certainly, Swatch didn’t bring on an outpouring of celebratory reviews in the architecture media. More like a resigned shrug that here was yet another company, in yet another town in search of the whole ‘iconic’ package. One of the team at Blumer-Lehmann expressed this sentiment when they noted that Swatch wanted a show-off building and the kind of attention that comes from a Frank Gehry construction, only in timber. That was obvious enough, even if it did provide provocative food for thought regarding how free-form organicism intersects with orthogonal geometries. Apparently, Ban had declared it, at the project’s outset, as the culmination of his life’s work. So, the Japanese architect was somewhat personally invested.

Looking east to the housing development immediately beyond the rear of the gridshell and Pedestrian pathway between river and the Swatch gridshell– Photos Oliver Lowenstein
Omega factory – Photo Swatch

I wondered what Blumer, himself a bionics structures fan, privately made of it, recalling how he’d described Frei Otto’s Mannheim gridshell as ‘a disaster’. It wasn’t the first time either. Ban had been here before: the reception to the free-form geometries of the Metz Pompidou had already brought puzzled architectural comment from his supporters and less complimentary words from others. Metz was hardly a Bilbao Guggenheim.

If it is unlikely to have brought on a rush of free-form designs by Swiss architects, the timber element has provided a research exercise and experience into ambitious Swiss timber structures. 4600m3 of certified Swiss timber, mainly spruce, was used across all three buildings, 2000m3 for the gridshell, around 6500 needing felling for the latter building, all contributing to one of the ambitious homegrown illustrations of what is doable in timber. The technical complexity involved in realising the systems supporting the ETFE elements quilting the roof may provide pathways for further shell structure research. The Swatch gridshell is also a next step along the way of realising the form’s landscraper, horizontal potential, while in the same breath gridshells materials’ ‘lean, but time and design hungry’ conditions continue to be seriously constraining. For Blumer and Blumer-Lehmann the shell structure is significant experience in free-form, adding another example to the quiver, while the two office-type buildings further advance Blumer’s at-scale timber frame template. Ban’s Swiss partners Itten + Brechbühl have developed their timber expertise, completing the Vortex large-scale timber student accommodation in Lausanne. What will be telling is if Ban explores gridshell type structures further. So far, he hasn’t.