In 2001, Vacheron Constantin, Switzerland’s oldest watchmakers, founded in 1955, held an international competition for its new headquarters at Plan-les-Ouates, near Geneva. The brief was to bring administrative, management, international customer services, design and manufacturing functions all under one roof in a blend of tradition and innovation. Bernard Tschumi was awarded the contract, and work was completed in 18 months. The inauguration in August 2004 coincided with the company’s restrained celebration of its 250th anniversary.
Tschumi’s architecture changes the surrounding landscape of roads and industrial plant. Even the first sketches show a single complex with a unifying envelope that nonetheless clearly separates managerial functions from design and production, placing them in two connecting units of very different height and volume. The unifying element is the fully glazed ground floor in both parts of the building, and the curvilinear wrap-around metal cladding. This envelopes the roof and sweeps down to anchor itself in the managerial block, creating a wide overhang above the glazed side walls. The multi-storey managerial building houses the entrance – for staff and visitors - to the whole complex.
The façade presents in two bands: a lower glazed “plinth” topped by slightly jutting, metal-clad walls broken by long horizontal window slits on each floor. Internally, the managerial block enjoys controlled daylighting: the north-facing glazed wall allows indirect, neutral lighting from outside while the south-facing wall is in special reflective, non-glare glass. Internal spaces also reflect the curtain wall cladding of the outside. Externally, the shiny metal sheet suggests precision and safety; the internal environment by contrast is in warm, welcoming wood.
American cherry is the only wood type throughout. It covers floors and walls, changing with the different spaces to provide solid wood finishings or floating parquet floors. In the distribution spaces at the end of the production block, the cherry wood even clads the ceiling, following the flowing curves of the structure. Inner and outer cladding – metal and wood – seem to mirror each other, underlining the visual and functional coherence of the whole building.
In contrast, the interior transit and circulation zones are conceived as a succession of open glazed spaces and routes. In the ample entrance atrium, the imposing, two-ramp staircase is made of glass, as are the lift shaft and distribution balconies leading off to the various areas on each floor. The new complex lies along an artificially created incline. At the lower end, production and design departments open out onto a wide, quiet inner court that provides the interior with a natural light source. There is also covered parking. The building’s structural frame is in reinforced concrete.