A passion for architecture

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When Rolex constructs or expands its headquarters and production facilities, it brings the same attention to aesthetics and detail as it gives to designing one of its prized chronometers.

By Michel Nemec

In 1961 Rolex launched an ambitious plan for a series of new buildings to house the brand’s administrative headquarters and watchmaking workshops in Geneva, Switzerland. The watch-manufacturing company has been at the forefront of innovation since it was founded, and architecture provided the ideal medium to display its passion for modernity.

With the architectural firm of Addor, Julliard & Bolliger, Rolex made its mark on Geneva by erecting twin towers on columns in the industrial area of Praille-Acacias. In a unique contemporary reinterpretation of the concept of a factory, a whole series of activities – ranging from the manufacture of watches and related products to marketing, after-sales service and distribution – were clustered in one place. Mingling offices and manufacturing workshops in the same spatial unit, the buildings formed a complete entity, which was both complex and autonomous. The two-tower, metal-and-glass structure was a tangible expression of concepts dear to the brand, such as precision in detail, care in assembly and technical excellence. Rolex’s new headquarters quickly became an icon of modern architecture in Geneva.

Monumental Scale

In the early 2000s, Rolex embarked on industrial redeployment on an unprecedented scale. After the construction of a new production unit in Geneva’s eastern region, the brand started two more building projects of monumental proportions, entrusting them to the Geneva firm of Brodbeck-Roulet, architects, in association with the civil engineering company Guscetti & Tournier SA (now known as Ingeni SA).

Rolex is the client that devotes most attention to what it builds.Gabriele Guscetti, Ingeni SA

The site of Rolex world headquarters in the Praille-Acacias area was transformed into an imposing administrative and industrial complex with a metropolitan downtown feel. The transformation combined the modern elegance of the original towers, now several storeys higher, with the monumental proportions of new watchmaking workshops. Glass façades in anthracite grey shaped the contours of the new Rolex headquarters, the twin towers emerging with a second façade in glass coloured green, the brand’s emblematic colour.

Rolex went on to build a second large-scale industrial complex in the south-west of Geneva. This compact, solid new development provided 130,000 square metres of usable area on 11 levels, five of them below ground. Its technical and architectural attributes remained identical to those of the Acacias site: spatial versatility, thanks to the optimized dimensions of the supporting structure; lighting conditions adjusted to suit particular needs through the automatic control of natural light; prefabricated structural elements and façades with extremely precise modular systems; glass panels for façades; and automatic, computerized internal logistics.

World Headquarters, 1995.

Constant Change

From mere buildings, Rolex’s industrial complexes in the city had now grown to the size of mega-blocks, keeping pace with the general trend towards concentration of contemporary urban society, of which outsize architecture is merely a reflection. In their density and compactness, they are reminiscent of major commercial, sports, cultural and mobility infrastructure. But their dimensions also meet the criterion of versatility, laid down as a condition by the client and often highlighted by the architects and engineers responsible for the project. This versatility is in keeping with the flexibility required to cope with the constant changes in economic and technological conditions, and which relies completely on the presence of high-performance technical infrastructure.

The Rolex buildings are a contemporary expression of architectural principles that prevailed throughout the 20th century in modern metropolises. Industrial processes and their rational nature were granted a decisive role in the development of architecture and the renewal of aesthetic codes.

Nowadays, however, the rigour of modern architecture seems to have lost something of its progress-heralding aura. It has given way to architectural feats made possible by the prowess of contemporary engineering and by materials capable of unheard-of applications. The “surprising” forms made possible by technological innovation are now widespread to the point of becoming commonplace. The beauty of truth in building is thus being replaced by the pleasure and prestige delivered by a “one-off” shape or exclusive packaging.

But this is not the attitude adopted by Rolex. In its buildings in Geneva the brand has opted for technological innovation deployed in the interests of functionality. So the legacy of modern architecture still seems relevant, while the technical and functional efficiency resulting from the use of innovative technology provides confidence and comfort. And if a high-precision product’s efficiency is a precondition for its quality, then, at Rolex, discretion about how that is achieved appears to be the rule.

Unique but Rational

Gabriele Guscetti of Ingeni SA, the project manager and engineer for Rolex’s new buildings in Geneva’s Acacias and Plan-les-Ouates areas, sums up Rolex’s architectural approach perfectly:

“Rolex is the client that devotes most attention to what it builds, to each of the techniques used for the benefit of the architecture. As in a watch, each element counts and deserves the fullest attention, right down to a small waterproofing seal. Each component of a building counts just as much as the sum of its parts, just as much as the whole construction… The brand’s buildings are unique projects, which generate new applications of often existing advanced techniques adapted to Rolex’s needs. These applications are original, but they are always based on an objective raison d’être: there’s never any dramatizing, no quest for extravagance. The architecture of Rolex buildings is, above all, rational, and the flexibility to deal with change is an absolute given. These buildings must be a high-performance tool for the people working in them, who must also feel good there.”

Technology harnessed in the interests of functionality, performance and ergonomics: the spirit with which Rolex imbues its architectural achievements is a clear reflection of the spirit that guides its approach to its watches.

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