Learning world with a alpine view
von Falk Jaeger | Apr 10, 2010

At one fell swoop, Lausanne in Switzerland has taken its place on the world architectural map. The EPFL has of late been opting for international avant-garde architecture for its campus. Ryue Nishizawa and Kazujo Sejima from Tokyo, who call their joint architectural office Sanaa, have realized a truly spectacular design for the EPFL's "Learning Center" - with strong support by Frankfurt-based engineers Bollinger und Grohmann, who are used to trials and tribulations from having to give the brainstorms of both Coop Himmelb(l)au and Zaha Hadid a life in concrete and steel.

The first impression is astonishment. Tow huge panes of concrete lie on top of each other in the middle of the EPFL campus, like a flat sandwich with a glass filling. Only close up can you see that the upper pane is not actually made of concrete, but is a light steel structure borne aloft by needle-thin tubular steel struts. The entire building consists of a spatial continuum, glazed on both sides, and with a total footprint of two hectares, interrupted here and there by courtyards, likewise glass-covered, round and oval patios that perforate the building like the holes in a slice of Emmental cheese.

Here and there the sandwich bulges slightly upwards such that you can enter the cavern. The reinforced-steel shell spans 85 meters and by dint of being so amazingly flat the structural engineers had to pore over the calculations and the builders bend a lot of reinforcing steel in order to tame the immense forces at work.

You walk beneath the marvelously smooth concrete vaults and in one of the courtyards come upon the main entrance. Inside, visitors are greeted by a vibrant hilly landscape. You find yourself walking first up, then down. The floor is horizontal wherever tables or book shelves stand, in the restaurant or in the library. And then starts to tilt downwards, so steeply that the less sporting Swiss may opt for the lesser incline of the switchback paths. A concave curving hill forms the main auditorium, another leisure seating area with a great view of the Alps.

Having cost 110 million Swiss francs to build, the Rolex Learning Center is named after its main sponsor, and there is no overlooking the fact. For the Rolex style clocks that adorn numerous walls hardly blend with the minimalist style of the completely white architecture.

The idea was to create an architectural paradigm for the "learning center of the future" - bright, open and flexible. Communication and networking are thus the order of the day, which is why the wraparound room is not segmented by walls. Closed-off WC cores and stairwell shafts stand like furniture in space, not connected to the ceiling. Only the auditorium can be closed off by a sliding wall.

The light gray carpeting that runs throughout the building functions as a blessed acoustic dampener, and the relatively low ceiling also absorbs echo. Nevertheless, the building is not tranquil and here and there strange acoustic phenomena arise owing the many round shapes. Won't people in the future not perhaps also want to be able to concentrate and work on their own in a closed room, undisturbed? At any rate, most of the 800 workstations are hardly contemplative in character and there are only a few class study cells where at least the outside noise is baffled.

La Table de Valotton", the elegant gourmet restaurant located in a completely open position in the southwest corner, enjoys a great view. Here, architectural tourists, and there will probably be many of them, will be able to dine and gaze round at the entire spatial continuum and out over Lake Geneva and, when the weather is good, up at the Alps. You will not regret making the trip, as the Rolex Learning Center offers an unforgettable architectural encounter.

Rolex Learning Center designed by Sanaa for the EPFL in Lausanne
Rolex Learning Center designed by Sanaa for the EPFL in Lausanne
Rolex Learning Center designed by Sanaa for the EPFL in Lausanne
Rolex Learning Center designed by Sanaa for the EPFL in Lausanne
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