When we received a copy of EPFL’s Rolex Learning Center, we could not wait to flip through the sleek white book. Similar to SANAA’s building, the book’s crisp design and elegant composition is a beautiful compilation outlining the entire process of creating the Center, from the competition through construction.
The Learning Center is Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa’s most recently built project. A much needed programmatic space for the EPFL campus, SANAA planned for 10,000 students to be able to gather, study and learn within the structure. Upon viewing the campus plan, it is shocking to see the scale of the building. It covers so much of the ground plane, yet it does not ostentatiously dominate the site. Rather, the undulating curves instantly create a landscape and a texture contrasting the relatively flat campus. The beauty of the building lies in its simplicity and clarity – it is a space that truly creates an atmosphere.
Yet, the book also includes all the competition entries – such as proposals by Herzog and de Mueron, Mecanoo, Jean Nouvel and OMA – as a comparision to see what could have graced the site if SANAA had not ultimately been selected. Organized with images and a short description for each of the proposals, the juxtaposition of the proposals makes the uniqueness of SANAA’s vision even more evident. SANAA’s proposal achieves what all the others fall short of producing – SANNA’s building is not an object pressed upon the site but rather the project is a landscape. It seems of the site rather than resting upon it.
Perhaps one the most interesting sections of the book discusses the challenges of constructing perforate undulating monocoques to meet the seamlessness of the design. SANAA’s curved arches are supported with metal frameworks of 470 kilograms for each cubic meter of concrete – an astonishing 4 times the normal protocol. This chapter also discusses the difficulty of physically pouring the concrete and removing the casting. Although the design seems effortless and minimalistic, the book allows the reader to see the complexity of the building process and the obstacles that were overcome to produce the desired effect.
Fold-out photography from Hisao Suzuki, Walter Niedermayr and Alain Herzog, illustrates the building’s pristine form and open interiors. The photos provide a sense of what it would be like to occupy the floating space with a complete open plan, and nothing except views of the mountains and the nearby lake. But more importantly then showing the building as an empty object, the photographers are able to capture students truly occupying the space as SANAA intended. Clusters of students sit by the large windows, conversing and socializing, while others find their own spot gazing out of the landscape studying quietly.
Special thanks to the head of the EPFL, Nicolas Henchoz, for sharing the book with us. It truly provides an inside look at not only the building, but also the entire process of creating this great structure.