Tokyo, Japan

Like an expertly crafted Swiss watch, the Nicolas G. Hayek Center is an assemblage of movable pieces that work together with machinelike precision. The product of Japan’s globe-trotting architect Shigeru Ban, the 61,300-square-foot building houses the Swatch Group’s Tokyo headquarters: a combination of corporate offices and individual boutiques for seven of the watchmaker’s leading brands. Though the center’s wavy steel roof is fixed, the facade moves. For years, Ban has been experimenting with operable shutter walls in houses and other modestly scaled projects, but the Hayek Center is his latest and largest installation to date. In addition, eight separate elevators animate its ground-floor public plaza. Even its innovative structural system, fittingly inspired by a grandfather clock, is designed to move.

The project began with a search for rental space in Ginza, Tokyo’s high-end shopping area. When this did not yield satisfactory results, the client decided to purchase and replace an existing, 1960s-era building facing one of the district’s grand boulevards. An invited, international design competition followed. Rewriting the project brief is not usually the way to win a competition, yet that didn’t stop Ban. “It was very risky, but the program specified two boutiques per floor, and I wanted all brands to have an equal opportunity for public exposure,” explains the architect.

Creating street frontage for seven full-fledged shops within the narrow, 56-foot-wide site was clearly impossible. Instead, Ban organized the building into a stack of three- and four-story volumes, each with its own set of retractable shutters on the main front, and turned the lowest volume into a public thoroughfare contiguous with the sidewalk. Within this four-story, indoor-outdoor passage, he placed tiny, satellite showrooms, one per brand. Doubling as an elevator, each showroom/cab connects only to the brand’s main shop, either above or below grade. Various designers, including Ban, created the boutiques and their matching showrooms/elevators. For the luxury line Jaquet Droz, Ban used a monotone vocabulary of slatted screens, creamy limestone floors, and his own L-unit furnishings made of dark wood. “When some people see the price of a watch, they are afraid to go up,” chuckles Ban. “So they go down to Swatch instead.”

A second set of conventional elevators hugging the south wall feeds the entire 14-story building. The boutiques fill the first four levels (plus part of the basement), followed by three floors for customer service and six floors of offices topped by a dramatic event hall overlooking the city in three directions. Yet another elevator pops up from the plaza to escort cars down to an 18-bay underground garage. But when not in use, the boxy conveyance becomes flush with the stone pavers, magically disappearing from view.