Building type

The XIX-to-XX century history of watchmaking in the Jura Valley, in the northeastern part of Switzerland,
has produced a unique kind of industrial urbanism – recognized in 2009 by UNESCO as of world heritage value – where urban design and building type have evolved almost together, to define spaces of production that were not only functional to their remit but also expandable within the city and across the land.

The result of this evolutionary process can be found in the classic workshop structure, and eventually factory plan, which emerged by-and-large at the turn of the XX century between Le Locle and Solothurn, where loft-like shopfloor plates join a service volume containing administrative and service facilities. The morphology of such production spaces is highly distinctive of the area: narrow elongated volumes supported by a simple or double structural skeleton; large south-facing windows to let daylight in whilst insulating; possibility for cross-ventilation; ceiling space for the positioning of mechanical machinery.

How well did this typological system perform – particularly in relation to the workforce it housed? Were there differences in environmental behaviour that depended on the design details of each building structure? Did this matter in terms of output quality and market trajectories? Could one detect a progressive amelioration and eventual ‘conventionalization’ of technological choices? These questions forebode important issues in the history of building design, product market competition, technological progress, environmental policy and technology transfer.

Aside from a richer ‘form follows function’ proposition, the analysis of the environmental design inclinations of the early watchmaking industrial infrastructure in Jura should allow one to determine whether a relationship can be inferred between product quality and variations in work environment quality. This could become an important point towards the argument that building quality aids industrial development and economic growth. In turn, did watchmakers’ production needs create specific building system innovation pathways for local entrepreneurs? Did they provide sustained opportunities for incremental R&D that would transfer to other building types or into market rents for system manufacturers?

FAR believes that, for all these probes, the socio-technical history of watchmaking buildings constitutes a fertile area of investigation, for which the Jura Valley, with its hundreds of extant testable facilities and wealth of industry archival materials provides an ideal laboratory.

On the basis of this conviction, in 2017 FAR started to work on a systematic technological review of approximately 200 factory buildings with specific typological traits across the valley, aiming at determining the degree of production-induced innovation in the building systems they used, both within the territory and as a theoretical step in the creation of industrial comparative advantage.

The objective of these empirical and simulative analyses is threefold: 1) gauge the levels of operational comfort historically achievable within the buildings examined; 2) determine eventual changes in levels of comfort over time, in line with evidence of technological progress in equipment and techniques; 3) establish possible environmental differences between establishments producing watches for different markets.

By surveying the technology employed over time to produce these buildings – window systems, structural systems, heating systems, wall systems, etcetera, the study will also provide an indication of whether their construction acted as a technology transfer trigger from other industries or regions, or whether it created a regional R&D engine that could be at the base of the current network of enterprises active in the region today.

Industrial ecology

The results of the study are likely to form the basis for a broader environmental/industrial analysis of the Jura district and the development paradigm it underlies. Given the longstanding history of market globalization carried out by Jura-based companies from the turn of the XX century, it will be possible to compare production facilities and urban patterns utilised by Swiss companies domestically and abroad, thus investigating the possible presence of a ‘Swiss territorial factor’ in the development of product quality and comparative advantage. If teased out convincingly, the relationship between building type, settlement fabric and infrastructural environment in the Jura district will provide an important lesson for all those economies in the midst of transitioning from rural to urban.

Bottom images: design and building tools, TOMBESI (2018)