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A Tale of Two Buildings

Watch brand Rolex has a strong association with architectural design.

Images by Rolex

Just as great buildings are created by visionary architects, visionary watchmakers create watches that exceed the highest standards of precision and performance. Rolex has long acknowledged a profound synergy between the two disciplines– both of which spring from the twin forces of innovative thinking and powerfully creative ideas.

The founder of Rolex, Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of Rolex was a visionary. In 1926, he revolutionized watchmaking when he, launching his most famous timepiece, the Oyster. Now celebrating its 90th anniversary, the Oyster remains the perfect encapsulation of an idea that gave a new shape to the future. It was the first watch that the wearer could rely on everywhere – on land and in water, in extreme heat and in biting cold. Like a great work of architecture, it has stood the test of time.

In its own way, the miniature architecture of a watch is like a building. And Rolex’s support for the International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, for three editions from 2014–2018, emerges from its commitment to architecture of the highest quality.

Building the future

Two new Rolex buildings, in Dallas and Milan, reiterate the company’s commitment to outstanding architecture, a reflection of Rolex’s ethos of design and innovation of the highest quality.

In Milan, Studio Albini, one of Italy’s leading practices, has delivered a Rolex service and logistics centre that can genuinely be described as precision-made, in keeping with the company’s dedication to precision and performance. In Dallas, Texas, the great Japanese architect, Kengo Kuma, is producing a Rolex office building whose form and environmental qualities have set new benchmarks in the city.

A dynamic tower for Dallas

Kuma, who was chosen to design the centrepiece of the National Stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, has an international reputation based on his mastery of highly original connections between buildings, sites and nature. With the Dallas tower by Kuma, Rolex will be introducing a completely new kind of office architecture to the city.

The building is on a site in the Harwood District near Rolex’s original 1984 building, the first office block ever built in uptown Dallas. “The theme of the design is the integration of the land with the building,” Kuma explains. “Usually, office buildings are independent monuments, and the building is separate from the land around it. So I thought of starting with the landscape by connecting the building to the ground with a low Japanese castle wall, and twisted the building to show the continuous movement from terrain to building, from the bottom to the top – the dynamic form of the building.”

In the construction of its own buildings, as in its watchmaking, Rolex has always embraced innovative ideas and the Dallas tower is no exception. The adventurous and environmentally sophisticated design is typical of Kuma’s work. His first building, in 1988, was a small, irregularly formed bathhouse in Izu composed of metal, bamboo and concrete.

Since then, the way Kuma uses natural light, space and subtly modulated surfaces in his approach to buildings – “dissolution and disintegration”, as he puts it – continues to be unique.

His design approach produces highly diverse buildings, such as the Asakusa Culture Tourism Centre in Tokyo, which resembles a stack of eight different kinds of houses; the Daiwa Ubiquitous Computing Research Building, with its exquisitely meandering veils of cedar shingles; the Plastic House in Tokyo, whose walls are made of 4 mm-thick plastic, with added fibre, rice paper or bamboo; and the Suntory Museum of Art, whose vertical ceramic louvres recall historic musougoshi screens.

Historic Japanese architecture is the bedrock of the design of Rolex’s new Dallas office, which will be used as a sales and service centre. Its base is surrounded by a low rock rampart, a reference to the ishigaki walls around Japanese castles in the Edo period.

In the Dallas building, the rampart is seen more as a point of connection with the city than as a defence from it. The floors of the seven-storey building rise from its raised base at the

corner of Harry Hines Boulevard and Moody Street, and rotate like a slightly

twisted deck of cards.

The projecting edges of each floor-deck are covered with plants, and there are also gardens in the open, two-storey event space at the top of the building, and around its base – a “greening” provided by third-generation landscape designer Sadafumi Uchiyama. The event space is planted with trees, and the base around the building also has small pools and waterfalls.

Also typical of Kuma’s work are the design references to historic Japanese architecture. He is particularly interested in blurring the boundaries between interiors and exteriors: he always takes great care to create in-between spaces and verandas, known as engawa, in his buildings.

“Creating an in-between space is a very important tradition in Japanese homes, and its function is ambiguous. But it is also a good solution for the hot summer climate in Dallas,” he says.

Kuma’s dematerialisations of form and surfaces in the Rolex building are masterly. Each of the rising floorplates is screened externally by a set of three brise-soleil. “We wanted to give an impression of lightness, so there is thin aluminium for the brise-soleil, etched like wood grain on the underside. The edges are very precise – a sharp edge that’s as thin as possible, because edges are an important part of our design. Natural sunlight in Dallas is very strong, so we control that with 400 mm deep brise-soleil. The green balconies also control the reflection of sunlight into the building.”

Internally, there is a striking use of wood in what must be some of the most unusual

office building interiors in Dallas. The walls and ceiling of the boardroom, for example,

are lined with projecting wooden boards; the staff lounge ceiling has overlapping

boards; and the walls of the ground floor reception area – which contains artefacts

from Japanese warriors of the Edo period – are composed of gapped boards.

“These gaps are to increase the sense of lightness,” says Kuma. “And that was

very important because we wanted to avoid a feeling that was too solid.” And so,

the delicate layered design of the Rolex building’s exterior has been repeated, in a

different way, inside the building. Every part of it embodies Kuma’s uniquely sensual

articulations of space, form, surface and nature.

Precision-made in Milan

In Milan, the design commission for Rolex’s new repair and logistics centre was originally meant to transform an existing 1950s building in the Porta Romana area

into something strikingly different from Rolex’s 19th-century offices in the city centre.

Rolex appointed Studio Albini Associates because the practice’s excellent track

record is based on projects involving the meticulously detailed modernisation or

adaptation of existing, often historic, buildings.

These have ranged from the Consob headquarters in Milan, in a skilfully modified 19th-century building; the painstaking renovation of the historic clay-and-mud-brick Masmak Fortress in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and, more recently, the innovative restoration and extension of the St Maria Assunta Benedictine Monastery in Lombardy, Italy.

Francesco Albini, 45, immediately realised that the existing Rolex building on its V-shaped site at the junction of the Viale Angelo Filippetti and the Via Cassolo could not be adapted. Studio Albini found a radically different solution, producing a building with a dynamically moving, super-precise metal façade. This ability to meet challenges innovatively is central to the theme of the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, directed by Alejandro Aravena, and mirrors Rolex’s own long-held dedication to the spirit of enterprise.

Studio Albini, renowned for its sensitive reinvention of old buildings, created a design

for an entirely new building: an ultra-modern structure featuring highly refined

steel and technical systems, and maximised green areas. The stainless-steel look

created a design reference to the steel used in Rolex watches.

The building provides servicing workspaces on the ground and first floors, and

a multi-function conference room on the top floor – the latter with wood-lined

internal louvres. The service specialists have direct access to roof gardens – one

on the wing that stretches along the Via Cassolo; another in the quiet courtyard

on the north side of the building and a third on an extension of the ground floor.

The courtyard contains a watch-servicing training school. The logistics and storage

segment of the building is in the two-level basement.

The building is neatly “split open” at the angle where the two streets meet, creating

a light-filled, three-storey entrance atrium. The structural design, with supporting

columns passing down between the two-layered glass facades, ensures that the

floors on the servicing and conference levels are column-free, making it easy to

reconfigure the workspaces if necessary.

This degree of internal clarity and functional flexibility required a great deal of fine tuning,

a process that has been part of Studio Albini’s ethos since it was founded by

Franco Albini in 1930. A highly versatile architect who has produced museums,

subway stations and a stream of iconic furniture, such as the Canapo rocking chair

and the brilliantly minimalist glass, steel and wood Veliero bookshelf.

Renzo Piano, one of the 21st century’s greatest living architects, once worked as an intern in

his practice. Today, Studio Albini is headed by Albini’s son, Marco, and his

own son, Francesco, who, rather fittingly, was once an intern at Piano’s atelier.

Albini described his designs as ‘artigianato razionalizzato’ or rationalised craft. And that’s exactly what was involved in the design and fabrication of the Rolex building’s louvres and screens, which are the key features on its facades. The vertical metal louvres are motorised and automatically change angle as the sun passes across the street-facing elevations.

There are 1,000 stainless steel perforated screens, 1 mm thick, positioned between the two layers of glazing on the facade. “The building has perfect control of the light, and privacy so that people working inside can see out, but can’t be seen from the street,” says Albini.

Studio Albini’s tests on full-scale mock-ups of offices and the complex facade

elements took a year. “This meant we could really study the detail and solve any

problems,” says Albini. “We didn’t know exactly how the steel would behave in the

sun, or when the outside temperature was high.”

The perforated steel was rolled and cut to obtain perfect smoothness. Even the

way the sheets were moved from the rollers to the polishing machine had to be

tested – the smallest dent caused by imprecise handling would have been highly

visible on the facades.

The Rolex building’s artigianato razionalizzato is also evident in its computer-controlled

technical and environmental systems. Heating and cooling are mediated by a ground-source heat pump connected to three 60 m deep boreholes under the building; every room has a light sensor; there is a mixture of natural and mechanical ventilation; and a big array of photovoltaic energy panels on the roof of the conference hall.

For the Milanese, the new Rolex building has become a literally shining example

of refined modern architecture and a new kind of visual presence befitting the

brand. “We wanted the architecture to show the metal material and the light

reflecting from it, and the changes in the quality of the light through the day,”

says Albini.

Both architecture and watchmaking have creativity at its centre; both have to create a work of design that has to weather the test of time, be functional and do all of this while pushing the envelope of aesthetics. It is no wonder then that Rolex appreciates good architecture and

continues to explore this field.

Architects of the future

Rolex inspires the next generation of brilliant young architects through its philanthropic programme, the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, which brings some of the world’s greatest artists in seven disciplines together with highly promising young talents in a one-to-one mentoring relationship. British architect Sir David Chipperfield is the architecture mentor in the Rolex Arts Initiative in 2016–2017. Sir David is motivated to be a mentor because “Without such encouragement, perhaps I would not have challenged myself, or had the confidence to imagine or dream.”

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