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Rolex Learning Centre by SANAA, Lausanne, Switzerland

SANAA’s Rolex Learning Centre re-examines ideas of spatial order, with one giant room. Photography by Christian Richters

Since Gerrit Rietveld and Frank Lloyd Wright exploded the box, and Hans Scharoun and Le Corbusier orchestrated their architectural routes, there have been few major paradigm shifts in the spatial order of modern architecture. Some have come close. But as the image of buildings has become increasingly commodified, the virtuosity of spaces designed by architects such as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid is all too often smothered by disengaged forms that serve their own exuberant ends.

Japanese architectural duo SANAA, however, exercise greater restraint in pursuit of a new spatial order. Adopting a muted architectural language, they consistently focus on how to make people, places and programmes coalesce.

Whether achieved individually or jointly, schemes such as Toledo Art Museum’s glass pavilion in the US (AR November 2006), the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art at Kanazawa, Japan, and the Moriyama House in Tokyo (AR August 2007) demonstrate how Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa derive unique spatial arrangements, allowing fluency in plan to prevail over a more muted language of construction.

When straying from this discipline, they too fall foul of formalism, as was the case with the New Museum in New York (AR April 2008) that failed to exhibit anything like the level of spatial sophistication we have come to expect. Fortunately, that building was an isolated low point and in this new work, SANAA has created a mesmerising space for Swiss university École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).

The construction of this building does of course deserve detailed scrutiny, with its 20,000m² footprint defined by an incredible low-slung concrete shell, anchored to a single-storey basement by 70 pre-stressed cables, and poured as a single element in just two days. However, while few other architects would resist celebrating the project’s significant technical achievements, SANAA prefers to discuss the surface of the shell, providing as it does a clear uninterrupted terrain.

‘The concept of the building was to make one very big room, where people and programmes can meet together to have better communication,’ explains Nishizawa. ‘There are no walls to divide, so any programme can meet anywhere. It is more like a park.’

It was the boundless nature of this single volume space that won SANAA the commission, as president of EPFL Patrick Aebischer recalls: ‘This new campus hub exemplifies our vision of a university where traditional boundaries between faculties are broken down, and where the public are inspired and made welcome.

The SANAA scheme was something that we had never seen before: a building without doors.’

However, achieving this vision was a demanding process, as both client and local consultants paid close attention to the technical and financial challenges posed. ‘The price of the building did not include any hills,’ he continues, ‘so we sought sponsors to pay for the curvature, which cost about 50 million Swiss francs (£30.6 million) more.’ With this, the £65m Rolex Learning Centre was born, financed by ‘curvature’ contributions from Rolex, Logitech, Bouygues Construction, Credit Suisse, Nestlé, Novartis and SICPA.

Grounded at all four corners, the building conforms to the regularity of EPFL’s bland campus masterplan. With little spatial hierarchy and no communal space to speak of on site, the centre billows to create a new point of arrival for students and visitors. Beneath its shiny concrete underbelly, irregular patios conjoin to form a sheltered landscape, with routes across the site for passers-by and multiple points of entry for building users.

The principal entrance lies at the centre of the plan, leading directly into a café and food court that occupy the lowest contour of the internal terrain. From here, two ridges rise up to cut across the space; one to the west that shields a 600-seat auditorium (which has its own entrance patio when screened off and used in isolation) and one to the east that bifurcates to form two peaks, one for the library to the north, the other for a formal restaurant to the south that occupies the highest point on plan from where the spectacular aspect across Lake Geneva gives views of Mont Blanc on a clear day.

Disconcerting at first, but with time inducing a relaxed and informal attitude to occupation and circulation.

It is undeniable that for some people the contours may prove too steep - in places reaching a slip-inducing 30° pitch that cause most to shuffle down tentatively. This necessitated the provision of accessible ramps, steps and platform lifts that on the whole have been well integrated with terraces. These provide level places to study or meet.

Other measures, such as the tactile floor track required to help those with impaired vision navigate the interior, also pale into insignificance when actually walking through the space. As intended, the strongest sensation that persists is the mesmerising effect of constantly shifting views, animated as horizons rise and fall in resonance with the mountainous landscape beyond.

EPFL is an extremely serious and competitive scientific institution that would not be easily fooled by architectural showmanship or novelty. Pushing the boundaries of biological and technical research, it recognises the need to attract the very best scientists from around the world, and with the Rolex Learning Centre now complete, it is better equipped to attract potentially paradigm-shifting scientists into their own paradigm-shifting space.

SANAA is without doubt a paradigm-shifting practice, and with its architects’ contribution to this project extending their influence on contemporary architecture even further, Sejima and Nishizawa are extremely deserving and popular recipients of this year’s coveted Pritzker Prize.

Architect SANAA, Tokyo, Japan
Project team Kazuyo Sejima, Ryue Nishizawa, Yumiko Yamada, Rikiya Yamamoto, Osamu Kato, Naoto Noguchi, Mizuko Kaji, Takayuki Hasegawa, Louis-Antoine Grego, Tetsuo Kondo, Matthais Haertel, Catarina Canas
Structural Base Concept SAPS/Sasaki and Partners
Local Architect Architram SA

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