March 01, 2010

EPFL Rolex Learning Center by SANAA

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Please find images of the building's outside and inside on my flickr page.

Last week I visited the Rolex Learning Center at the EPFL in Lausanne in Switzerland. The building designed by SANAA, the firm lead by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, was just opened February 22nd 2010.
The EPFL, the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne is a second campus of the ETH, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, which first campus is in Zurich.The ETH and EPF are associated as both are a federal school (Institution of the country Switzerland), the aditional letter signifies the particular city (ETH-Z for Zurich and EPF-L for Lausanne), but the two campuses still function as separate universities.
The lausanne campus, founded in the 1950's, was vastly growing the last decades, where the Rolex Learning Center marks the latest addition. The building is located on the southern edge of the campus, with the Lake Geneva and the french alps as a beautiful backdrop, and is entirely open to public from early in the morning to late at night. The building's title refferes to the collaboration and sponsoring of Rolex, which goes back many years, hence the previous learning center was inside an existing building on the campus. The increasing demands of flexible and representative working spaces, ever evolving technology and adequate infrastructure lead to the competition for a new building, which SANAA has won.

I was very eager to go visit and see this particular building. By the rather overwhelming outcome of that competition, not only referring to SANAA's scheme but also for instance H&deM's, it is fair to say that one was anticipating a finished building not short of being spectacular. But I suppose such a notion wouldn't do justice to SANAA's minimalistic and to a degree humble designs, therefore considering my anticipation I was underwhelmed. Nevertheless, I think that is a good thing and perhaps illustrates why frankly I think the building will be a huge success. "The continuos slab", as a Japanese friend has put it, has again a very modest appearance of an one story high office. Once you pass by the arching slab, which gives way to the ground floor vaulted outside spaces, leading to the single holes (cut-out's) of the building, that previous mentioned modesty gives way to a overwhelming feeling below soaring arches of some of the most beautiful concrete work one can buy.
Whilst being generally a somber space, with the occasional hole shedding light, the somewhat fine concrete reflects large amounts of light, creating somewhat of a serene beauty. Still these spaces are directly contrasted by the white in white and some grey of continuous space inside the slab. While it is perhaps difficult to imagine to orientate in such an environment, it is on the contrary rather simple and after a few minutes the visitor gets a general sense of what to find where, which is mainly the restaurant, the library, the auditorium and administrational offices. The connecting spaces are all laid out with chairs, tables and on sloping areas with cushions offering a broad variety of working spaces for the students.
The buildings design of this continuous strata offers no Loos'ian qualification of marking spatial importance by varying heights, however the sloping surface offers literal highlights, such as the library, a served restaurant and an auditorium. These spaces slope up to some 3.5-4 meter height, offering the possibility to pass underneath in the outside. Public buildings in Switzerland have to be accessible by all and hence access for disabled had to be included to master some of those slopes. Two elevators sliding along the slope are installed, as well as three meandering paths to maintain a 6% slope. Additionally one vertical elevator pierces through the building and connects all levels, even the parking garage beneath. Additionally a pathway system for blind has been installed, similar can be found in Switzerland for instance on train stations.
While the fixed areas of the building only amount to a small meterage, a large amount is circulation area, that is flexibly programmable, some areas however defy any programmatic logic and therefore only can be used as remote and therefore calm areas where students can meet and gather on those comfy cushions. Structurally however, such a remainder of the square shaped building's form is important to enclose a hole and support the arches, also including an emergency exit.

I spent probably three hours walking inside and outside the building. The former is fully functional and was used a lot on a friday morning by students and some visitors exploring like myself. The students where happy to fully occupy the building and it's learning landscape, distributing themselves into and onto the various areas and configurations of work spaces. The library and restaurant where also fully inhabited and the building seemed to be running smoothly. The outside however is not yet fully open, red carpet on some wooden planks lead to the entrances until the landscaping has been finished.
The Rolex Learning Center is like aforementioned, a large library with space for the students to work and learn. trying to categorize and compare this building to other, i think it does offer a particular amount of flexibility needed to be a modern building, while maintaining a formal language that emphasizes it's inimitability, as a modest signature of sorts. In a historical context, this building should be regarded as a mat-building, but that is for a later post to discuss in detail.

Concluding I would say, that the underwhelming exterior perhaps help to hide the experience within and it does therefore fit neatly in the line of work of SANAA and their minimalistic modernism, but more importantly it's exterior modesty helps to acquaint the context with the building - meaning the reception of the Swiss and the local user. The overwhelming interior is therefore less antagonizing, beside being beautifully executed. I am very satisfied with my experience and I congratulate SANAA and their construction partner's (Losinger et al.) design intelligence to this wonderful piece of work. Last I think it's commendable how the building's interior has been assembled, because like always there have been certainly design compromises in order to make it work, but I think a viable and successful solution has been put forward, especially in such a context of a difficult building.

Further images and information below.

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Further Information:
The EPFL's website on the Learning Center and the
Rolex Learning Center's own website featuring a movie and explanatory information about the building and the architects.

Designboom had a feature in February with detailed information on the building's construction method and other technical details, I very recommend browsing by.

The Learning Center even has opened a youtube channel, featuring a movie with interview experpts of the university's dean and SANAA. See the movie below:

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