New Terrain

Lausanne, Switzerland, an otherwise typical medium-size European city with a cathedral, a town hall, and museums, has a bewildering topography. Originally perched on three hilltops, the medieval town was cut by deep, serpentine riverbeds that are now dry and, for the most part, built over, making the modern city difficult to decipher. The towering Gothic cathedral, for instance, remains largely invisible, even though it sits atop one of Lausanne’s highest hills. To navigate the city, then, one must rely on sight, yes, but also other senses, crowd movement, and intuition.

With the Rolex Learning Center, in the western outskirts of Lausanne, the Japanese architecture firm SANAA produces a similar experience. A 398,000-square-foot rectangle with rolling, artificial terrain that is punctuated by elliptical courtyards, the building demands discovery. Designed for the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, one of Europe’s leading technological universities, the $104 million library and student center challenges notions of spatial order. EPFL hopes students will spend much of their time in the new facility, which opened in February and is intended to be the anchor of the recently consolidated campus.

Previously, EPFL did not have a live-study environment. Students lived off campus, spread around Lausanne. The library, too, was parceled out among several buildings, making it difficult for students to engage in the sort of multidisciplinary work that the school aspires to. Since becoming president of EPFL in 2000, Patrick Aebischer has sought to transform its campus according to the centralized American model. “In Europe, students have traditionally come to school from the cities,” he says. “But we wanted EPFL to be a place where students reside and learn.” So in 2004, the university held a design competition for the Learning Center, and SANAA ultimately beat out 11 other firms (including Zaha Hadid, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Herzog & de Meuron) with its spatial—and social—experiment.

Over the last hundred years or so, one of the prevailing criticisms of architecture has been that buildings reinforce traditional patterns of hierarchy, though designs like Le Corbusier’s free plan and, more overtly, Cedric Price’s Fun Palace have attempted to move away from this constraint. Architecture, the reasoning goes, has always demanded certain behaviors—to pass through thresholds, to walk down corridors, to look at views framed through windows. If the Rolex Learning Center proves successful, then SANAA, this year’s Pritzker laureate, stands to undo those staid expectations. “We hope that people will create their own space within our architecture,” says Ryue Nishizawa, who founded and runs SANAA with Kazuyo Sejima.

The architects conceived the building, which consists of a wafer-thin concrete roof and floor with few visible supports, as a single, fluid space that lifts off the ground in gentle undulations. This shape generates the interior topography and opens up usable space on the ground below. Inside, SANAA dispensed with partitions, instead setting off discrete zones with changes in the floor’s elevation, marked by subtle ambient cues such as different types of furniture. They capitalized on a slope in the southwest corner to create stadium seating for a 600-person auditorium, and put the restaurant at the highest point, giving it a view of the lake and the Alps. Otherwise, Nishizawa and Sejima kept the winding space as free as possible, sending the 500,000-volume library stacks underground. “Human movements curve in an organic way—not like a train or an airplane travels,” Nishizawa says. “These movements create architectural space, but architecture also influences human movement. Here we hope to create a dynamic interaction between the two.”

Lacking overt landmarks—linear corridors or numbered rooms, for example—the building initially disorients the visitor. But SANAA is betting that occupants will learn to exploit the glass curtain wall and use outside landmarks, including Lake Geneva, and, on a clear day, Mont Blanc, as visual markers. “Even though this is a big building, its horizontal transparency means students can catch the existing context and that they can know the form,” Nishizawa says. Additionally, profuse natural light (there is not a single ceiling light in the building) and changing conditions throughout the day animate the space and provide a sense of direction.

That spirit of experimentation extends to the academic program. One of the school’s research initiatives is developing applications for pedagogical technology. “We don’t believe in e-learning,” says Pierre Dillenbourg, the director of EPFL’s Center for Research and Support of Training and Its Technologies, now housed in the new building. “We prefer to develop technologies that are integrated into physical objects—lamps, desks, books.” Accordingly, it has linked books to online reference materials, creating a seamless connection between the printed word and a world of related information. What’s more, students are now exploring technologies, embedded at study tables, that would allow them to project messages onto the walls and ceilings of the building itself. They are also developing real-time maps that would document conditions like noise and activity levels throughout the building.

The structure succeeds as a campus anchor, even while avoiding the sort of exuberant flourishes that other so-called iconic buildings have relied on. “The Learning Center is the principal building on campus now,” Aebischer says. But it remains to be seen how students will use the space. “The building is now complete, but this is a long process,” Sejima says. “The students will have to find its final condition.”

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