The Musée International d’horlogerie (International Watchmaking Museum) in La-Chaux-de-Fonds could well be the first European experiment in contemporary troglodyte architecture as it was defined by Pierre Zoelly and Georges-Jacques Haefeli. It’s a buried building with remarkable spatial qualities supported by an efficient structure, constructed under a park in 1974.
An uncommon vision of built Architecture
Pierre Zoelly (1923-2003) was a Swiss architect, a post-war modernist, whose most recognized buildings were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s. They are the witnesses of his vision of architecture: the envelope is of little interest to him, the structure, the construction, the skeleton is its center of interest and its theoretical and practical basis. He notably applied this way of thinking in the house he built for the sculptor Peter Hächler in Lenzburg.
“The engineering of a building is the basis of all my inspiration. The raw skeleton inspires me, the finished box bores me. I finish it anyway so that people can use it. In short, I practice the cult of ruin.”
Design the Architecture from below
In 1968 Pierre Zoelly joined forces with an architect from La-Chaux-de-Fonds, Georges-Jacques Haefeli. Together they won the competition to build the new Musée International d’horlogerie (International Watchmaking Museum) in the same town. The program called for exhibition and reception areas covering more than 2000m², dedicated to a collection of watches, chronometers and instruments of all kinds. The site chosen for the competition was the park of the History Museum, close to the Fine Arts Museum.
The bias taken by the architects is clear, the park is of great importance in the city and must be preserved and not disfigured. Moreover, the constant artificial climate required inside the museum seems to be unsuitable for the changing weather in this region of the Jura. For this reason, instead of building a modern building to present the exhibitions in different volumes, the architects buried the museum under the park.
Dig the Architecture, reveal the structure
They had a volume of more than 35,000 cubic meters dug into the side of the park, allowing them to build several successive levels corresponding to the 3 main areas of the museum. The room reserved for temporary exhibitions and assemblies, the room dedicated to works from the ancient period, and the room devoted to manufacturing and decoration techniques as well as 20th century pieces.
A load-bearing system was thus developed that was flexible and strong enough to support the mass of the park, as well as the different superimposed levels of the museum. Prefabricated concrete porticos, about twenty meters long in T-shape, support a ribbed floor over a span of 5m.
This technical feat made it possible to create successive levels that are cut out to open naturally on top of each other. Moreover, the only large opening on the outside is a curved emergence marking the entrance to the north slope. It is visible from the park along with the roof of the astronomical sector and the zenithal entrance for the workshops. This contrast between the exterior above and the interior below makes it possible to generously supply light to all levels of the building. This contribution is also accompanied by a technical science concerning ventilation and lighting, new and adapted to the conditions of an underground building.
The construction of the building was completed after two years of work in 1974. It has been rewarded several times, and highlighted as an architectural, technical and innovative achievement, particularly by its structural use of concrete in the case of an underground structure. This continuous underground space will be defined by the architects as “first European experiment in contemporary troglodyte architecture”.
Speaking of the Musée International d’horlogerie for the 1977 European Museum of the Year Award, Kenneth Hudson said, “The ingenious lighting, the choice of levels and the division of the exhibition space into independent yet always visible spaces reach the limits of the impossible in the world of museums – the visitor is constantly stimulated without ever being exhausted”.
Pierre Zoelly has once again succeeded in freeing himself from the constraints of the envelope, building a skeleton in the ground while giving it remarkable architectural qualities.