SANAA creates a blank canvas for Swiss university learning centre
Visiting the new SANAA-designed Rolex Learning Centre at Swiss university École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) a week before it opened was a curiously hollow experience. Almost entirely unoccupied, this vast boundless interior did have an awe-inspiring serenity. Without the hordes of students it was designed to attract, however, as an expression of its function, the space was rendered almost meaningless. The hollowness here had no echo, as the learning centre occupies a territory between undulating planes of carpet and sound-absorbing plasterboard. As such, we were guided through the white-on-white interiors wearing headsets to hear the tour’s narration. Why, some of us thought, had we been invited here before the students had taken over? Presumably we could return with headsets a week later to experience both building and narrative as part of a much larger crowd? As it was, the journalists obediently followed client and design team up hill and down valley while listening to Japanese practice SANAA’s hushed tones.
’Conceived as a fully integrated learning environment, providing a seamless network of services, libraries, information gathering, social spaces, places to study, restaurants, cafés and outdoor areas, as described en-route by architect Ryue Nishizawa, ‘the concept of the building is to make one very big room, where people and programmes can meet together’
Unfortunately, despite its sculptural beauty (mildly disturbed by health and safety paraphernalia), none of this was apparent in its empty state. Sensing mild bewilderment, Nishizawa’s partner Kazuyo Sejima was quick to state that ‘from next Monday, students will use the building and I hope that in this process students will find a good place for themselves. Maybe this will complete the building, [producing] a more final condition.’
Until now the EPFL campus had has no real heart, and as the university’s president Patrick Aebischer stated, with over 10,000 students, ‘we needed to create a place where they could live, and that was the original idea behind this building.’ Hopefully, with the imminent return of students, the building will emphatically rise to that challenge. As seen here, however, it lay silent and stoic, awaiting the arrival of its lifeblood.