When Watchmakers Team Up With Pritzker Prize Winners

The commissioning of architects to design watches has been a thing at least since the 1950s. In more recent times, some brands have asked winners of architecture’s highest honor, the Pritzker Prize, to design a timepiece.

Thus far 10 of the 53 recipients of the award, given annually since 1979, have taken a horological detour at least once, the most recent being the Canada-born U.S. citizen Frank Gehry who won in 1989.

In the early 2000s, a Fossil collaboration used Mr. Gehry’s handwriting to create an LCD font for a digital watch. This past March he entered into high horology’s world of complicated timepieces by designing the dial of the $935,000 43.8-millimeter Louis Vuitton Tambour Moon Flying Tourbillon Poinçon De Genève Sapphire Frank Gehry.

Mr. Gehry, 95, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., is noted for his designs of the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain and the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. He wrote in an email that watchmaking and architecture “both help us synchronize with the world we live in and clarify the lives we live.”

It was the curved glass on the Louis Vuitton Maison Seoul that inspired his contribution to the complex Tambour model.

The shop has a facade reminiscent of weightless, floating glass sails and the watch case and dial are cut from a single 441-pound block of sapphire crystal; the paper-thin dial alone taking about 250 hours to craft, first using computer numerical control machines followed by delicate hand polishing, all done at Louis Vuitton’s La Fabrique du Temps specialist watchmaking center in Geneva.

“I love the challenge of working on such a small scale,” Mr. Gehry said. He called the design “very simple, but the way the light plays on the shapes makes the watch ever-changing.”

Much like his curvy buildings.

“No matter what you are designing, it starts with understanding the goals for your client and for the users,” Mr. Gehry wrote.

“But all along, you as the architect have to have the dream vision in mind,” he wrote. “You have to know where and how to compromise along the way to keep the integrity of the design in tact.”

Another Pritzker winner, Edouardo Souto de Moura, 71, of Portugal, who received the prize in 2011, says it was his love of watches, machines, and cars that made him say yes when Asier Mateo, an architect and founder of the Barcelona-based brand Lebond Watches, asked him to design the brand’s second watch.

Mr. Mateo said that all Lebond designs were made by architects who were given free rein on design and materials. They only need to include a movement they are given and both the Lebond brand name and the architect’s surname on the dial, he said at the factory in Bienne that makes the watches.

That led to the creation of the Lebond Souto Moura, 2,700 euros (about $2,900), which was released in March. It is a slim (7.6-millimeter) watch with a 38.5-millimeter microsanded titanium case housing a cream-colored, lacquered dial with black stick hands. The elongated minute hand is accompanied by a shorter, thicker hour hand.

“Watches and buildings are both machines that mold our lives,” Mr. de Moura wrote in an email. “The difference between a watch and a building is scale,” he continued, adding that the watch was inspired by his principle of “minimum material for maximum function.” (That idea can also be seen in his streamlined red concrete design for the Paula Rêgo Museum in Cascais, Portugal.)

Round was his obvious choice of shape for the watch, since, as he put it, “I am not interested in squaring the circle.” The shape is emphasized by its lack of lugs, an inspiration from so-called flying saucer watches where the strap is invisibly attached to the backside of the watch. To have a quick and easy read of the time, “whether writing, drawing or driving,” Mr. de Moura opted for tilting the whole watch clockwise 30 degrees so 11 is at the top.

Another winner from Portugal was Álvaro Siza in 1992. He is still active at 90 as an architect — and as a watch designer.

In 2022 he finished his first project in the United States, a high-rise tower in New York City, and in 2023 the Lebond Siza (€2,700) was released. The 41.5-millimeter watch features a square, microsanded titanium case tilted 45 degrees, with 12 placed in the top corner. Available with a white or black dial, the design was inspired by the square Leça swimming pool in Portugal that he designed in 1966.

Rafael Moneo of Spain won the Pritzker in 1996. But the designer, now 87, of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles and the Audrey Jones Beck Building, part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, was not a time-telling novice. He had designed clocks for the Logroño City Hall and the Atocha Station, both in Spain.

Both emphasize noon as being the summit of the day, surrounded by “the hours related to daily activity, distinguishing between morning and afternoon,” he explained by email.

To maintain a design conversation with these clocks, he opted for a 30-millimeter square stainless-steel case and Roman numerals for the Cauny Moneo (€195), part of the Cauny’s the Architects of Time Series.

The design process of the time-only watch took the better part of a year, he wrote, describing the work as surprising: “Working with millimeters and tenths of a millimeter when accustomed to thinking in terms of centimeters and meters, has been a disciplined exercise. However, it was no surprise to see, time and again, that the sense of proportion has always been present and makes one think that both the clock and the watch came from the same hand.”

Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, co-founders of the Japanese architecture studio Sanaa, jointly won the Pritzker in 2010 for their work with contrast, light and transparency in projects such as the New Museum in New York and the Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Ms. Sejima, 67, relished the challenge when Bulgari asked her to create a watch for its Octo Finissimo collection.

“It has been inspirational in how it is possible to apply concepts that are usually applied to architecture to such a small object,” Ms. Sejima wrote in an email. Her design, released in 2022, is a mix of the round and the octagonal.

The stainless steel watch has a small seconds subdial at seven o’clock, mirror-polished parts and a sapphire glass filled with mirrored dots.

“I wanted to make this relation between the circular and octagonal face more organic and softer through the choice of mirrored circular dots that create a constant and dynamic exchange between the watch itself and everything that surrounds it,” she wrote.

Other Pritzker laureates who have designed watches include Tadao Ando (Bulgari), Zaha Hadid (ACME Studio and Puls), Oscar Niemeyer (Hublot), Jean Nouvel (Maurice Lacroix), and Renzo Piano (Swatch). Pritzker laureates who designed buildings for the watch industry include David Chipperfield (Rolex), Toyo Ito (Hermès) and Shigeru Ban (Swatch Group).

To Ms. Sejima, watches and architecture have a lot in common. “Like in architecture,” she wrote, “in a watch all the elements are linked together, and each link is fundamental to achieve the overall balance and functioning of the system.”

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