Featured a few years ago in project form, the Rolex Learning Center by SANAA is now complete and opens on February 22 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Back then I discussed the design in terms of the trend of “Swiss cheese architecture,” probably unrelated to the building’s location but nevertheless found in a number of building designs by SANAA and other architects.
One aspect of the Rolex Learning Center which sets it apart from other horizontal buildings punctuated by round or elliptical courtyards (see Burr Elementary School by SOM) is the building section, the way the slice of cheese undulates along the ground’s flat plane. In a sense the building becomes the landscape; instead of cutting and filling the earth to provide access underneath, the building rises and falls to accomplish the same.
So to what end does the undulating cheese building accomplish? It allows movement across the site without entering the building. It creates a unique topography and experience inside for visitors. And it creates a distinctive appearance for the building, especially on end, where one can see the building’s elevation curve.
What most intrigues me are the in-between spaces underneath the building’s “bridges.” These highly compressed spaces, finished in raw concrete, have potential in terms of programming (performances, exhibitions, gatherings), though at the moment the outdoor spaces are envisioned as places of relaxation.
The program of the Learning Center currently includes a scientific library with study areas, the CRAFT Laboratory — a research center for EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) — and the Rolex Forum — an ampitheater with stage for 600 people — and dining spaces. With these aims and programming, it sounds like the only spaces open to the public are the exterior spaces under the building and within the courtyard. If this is the case, the undulations seem justified. Without them the student and research facility would be a walled-off, impenetrable mass.
Nevertheless this condition (no interior public space) is unfortunate, because the interior spaces appear quite striking, in their empty state at least. They seem like diagrams for flows of information, unimpeded by walls and right angles. Perhaps a metaphor for the sharing of data that is important with scientific research?
One design feature I question is why the roof parallels the floor. Maybe it was cheaper to reuse the formwork; after pouring the floor the forms could be raised for the roof. As well this makes the glass and its framing a consistent height, cheaper and easier to fabricate. Regardless, having the two slabs parallel means that the space is undulating but uniform. But if the roof plane did it’s own thing — maybe flat, or undulating in a different direction — then the spaces would have further tension and compression, even more variety and diversity. As is it’s still a remarkable building that transcends its Swiss-cheeseness.
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