SANAA’s Rolex Learning Center is scarcely orthogonal, cellular or conventionally institutional looking anywhere on its 88,000 m2 site.
Charged with housing a complex programme for nearly 900 students of 120 nationalities providing facilities for study, teaching, research, socialising, entertainment and administration that are now open from 7am to midnight, SANAA has set up a potent dialogue in built form between environment and learning, object and subject. Technically rigorous, informally fluid, it is an androgynous building that reflects today’s multidisciplinary, digitally enabled behaviour patterns - and does so without it feeling forced or artful.
The Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (ECAL), a top ranked engineering, technology and computer sciences campus renowned for the Blue Brain Project (reproducing a biologically accurate digital model of a mammal’s brain), is also one of the world’s fastest growing. It needed a new flagship at the heart of the campus, explained President Patrick Aebischer. A place where mathematicians, engineers, neuroscientists and microtechnicians mingle to envision new technologies, ECAL was committed to realise a unique building with slopes and terraces rather than steps and staircases. The design requires extra physical effort - although there are also pleasant glazed horizontal lifts - while it frees up one’s sense of transcending boundaries. Sufficiently rigorous and quiet to fulfil that aim without being tame or banal, it has an aura of calm and intimacy conducive to learning but without the usual institutional formality in spatial relations.
Laid out across the rectangular site, the building appears to be continuous structure with an extraordinarily flexible open plan accommodating an auditorium, study areas, two libraries, café and restaurant spaces and a bank. The surrounding topography of mountains and lake can be viewed from numerous vantage points on what SANAA call their ‘park landscape’ building, and The Center’s radical landscape echoes this topography but also Lausanne’s hilly terrain with its ingenious use of ramps and terraces. With an undulating roof and floor, it dips down lightly to the ground, leaving expanses of fourteen glazed voids which create five large rounded external patios. Furniture and greenery installed by early summer will equip these spaces for al fresco social interaction.
The building is made up of two curved concrete shells with eleven arches (made after numerous computer simulations found shapes with the least bending stresses) held by 70 underground pre-stressed cables, The smaller shell sits on four arches, 30-40 metres long, while the larger shell rests on seven arches, 55-90 metres long. The concrete floor and steel and wood roof run parallel with each other, and the sense of seamlessness is further accentuated by the concrete production, poured into formwork in such a way that the underside of the building looking polished. With one single structure like this, SANAA had to make all the elements flexible, to allow for movement: the ceilings are jointed, the curved glass facades were separately cut, with each piece moving independently on jointed frames.
Such an aesthetic, underpinned by a low energy consumption system favouring daylight and controlled ventilation systems, strives for an environmental unity and holism based on fluidity and absence of hierarchy. This has come to be seen as SANAA’s leitmotif, and the Center is a consummate exemplar of how it might impact upon modes of learning, also undergoing profound evolution and in need of new architectural forms.