At a time when information technologies are transforming the intellectual landscape by eliminating physical boundaries between men and between disciplines, our duty, as a cutting-edge academic institution, is to offer students an appropriate learning platform that adapts to this unprecedented technological evolution. We had to imagine a place where students benefit from the best access to current systems of knowledge as well as its possible forms in the future, but also a place that stimulates the most vigorous and passionate whirlwinds of ideas, without which neither science nor art would exist in this world. We were thus not afraid to imagine a paradoxical space where the ever fascinating serenity of a library and the colorful noise of a central square cohabite – a tension lending itself to the propagation of knowledge. In dreaming about content, we also dreamt about identity. The rolex Learning center would only take on its full meaning if it were to become both the new heart of EPFL – a veritable center that has always been missing – and a unifying element for the city and the nearby university. How can any of us, whether researchers, students, or citizens, live without the cross-fertilization of influences, ideas, information, and cultures that allow for, since the beginning of time, the most fertile debates and the most beautiful discoveries?
Today, the dream has taken form and has a signature; a form that seems to undulate under the wind’s forces and a signature direct from the rising Sun. Is it only by chance that the jury unanimously chose Kazuyo Sejima’s project after three days of animated discussion? Of course it is not. It is because the union of sleekness and the avant-garde is inevitably irresistible.
Prominent figures of contemporary architecture, Kazuyo Sejima and her partner Ryue Nischizawa proposed much more than the act of pouring material into a form; they conceived their project based on a philosophy – conversant with our dream – by leveling the boundaries between the inside and the outside, between students and visitors, between the time for reflection and the time for pleasure. They preferred doors of invitation to doors of separation, and privileged ramps down which visitors slide imperceptibly towards possible encounters, unexpected exchanges, and unforeseen events. The Japanese architects did not propose a Temple of Knowledge, but a living space with a high emotional factor. They conceived of an architecture of knowledge that takes its inspiration from the progress of knowledge itself – a culmination of multiple paths and a result of the miracles of serendipity. Sejima and Nishizawa have thus invented a space where it is easy to know where one is but incites one to constantly loose oneself and linger on; to go beyond the simple reason to be somewhere at a certain moment. This architectural project does not look to impress but to provoke impressions, to incite encounters, and to inspire meditations. a vibrating sail during the day and a magic lantern at night, the rolex Learning center, as imagined by the Japanese architects, possesses these singular qualities that, with sobriety and subtlety, transcend the need for functionality in order to touch the mind and soul – binding a community together with the art of living collectively.
Patrick Aebischer, President EPFL
A space unequalled
Since the turn of the new millennium, the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne has been in search of a nexus – a place where students, teachers, and researchers convene – both a library and a public venue. This search for a “public space” is the key to the identity of an institution that has grown into its own small city. Several factors have driven this search. When the Ecole Spéciale de Lausanne, the ancestor of EPFL, was founded in 1853, it had eleven students. Today the campus is home to over 7,000. Meanwhile, EPFL has been trying to dispel a persistent prejudice that the world of technical sciences is cloistered and esoteric. This new nexus must be a place where science meets everyday life while welcoming the growing student body. Is this attempting the impossible? In any case, the Japanese architects SANAA proposed a solution that is an extraordinary architectural and technical challenge. They imagined a space unlike any other – architectural icon, landscape, auditorium, and library in one building. For some time now, scientists and anthropologists have developed the notion of a “technically enhanced man,” who has prosthetic limbs or electronic implants allowing him to surpass his natural physical and cognitive capabilities. What if the Rolex Learning Center was the first “technically enhanced building” of the 21st century? Both a building and a landscape; to be both a venue and a study space, sponsored by both public and private funds, and a library with both books and electronic learning material.
Building as landscape
Let us begin with the question of the enclosure and the enclosed. Generally, a building is incorporated into the landscape and thus reveals it. A Palladian villa poised on a green knoll imparts the surrounding hillocks. Were the villa not there, our eye would pass over the hills without notice. A bridge spanning two steep mountains affirms the precipice below in much the same manner – it is the presence of the bridge that makes our head spin. Yet sometimes it is the building itself that transforms the landscape. How is this possible? How can a drawer swallow the chest that contains it? This can only happen when an architect imagines a project that, by its location and geographical scale, becomes landscape.
The Goetheanum is a striking example. It incarnates the spiritual philosophy of anthroposophy that proposed a new vision of the world after the cataclysm of the First World War. At 37 meters high and 91 meters long, this reinforced concrete mountain was constructed near Basel in 1928. It draws the public in with magnetic force, and its concert hall with 1,000 seats is host to the entirety of Goethe’s opus. The Goethenanum was built according to the architectural axioms of Rudolf Steiner – no right angels and as few symmetrical elements as possible.
Near Bern, Renzo Piano imagined three steel-and-glass hills to house the Paul Klee Centre. And in 2005, the vales and knolls of Bern’s surroundings became part of the suburban architectural landscape of the Swiss capital. Finally, another example takes us back in time. Saint Peter’s Basilica, completed in 1626, has a dome that floats 130 meters in the sky and was baptized the “eighth hill of Rome.”
Let us return to the Rolex Learning Center. At first sight, the EPFL campus appears as flat as a piece of paper – no hill marks it landscape, nor crevice, nor cliff. How then can the 160 meter undulating building designed by SANAA converse with its environment? If the answer does not immediately present itself, we are perhaps looking too closely. Gaze upwards to quickly realize that the region is a series of waves. The highest is the crest of the Jura mountain chain with a summit of 1,285 meters, and then come the lower foot-hills in soft succession down to the lakeside. In fact, if we look carefully, the campus has a slope of several meters from North to South. The Rolex Learning Center takes this specific geographical context into consideration. By undulating the form, SANAA has made the building the last mineral wave before the liquid crests of Lake Geneva.
Since we are now at the pebble beach, let us take a boat out on the water. From here, looking north, we can see the three hills on which Lausanne sits. To the right, the vineyard terraces of the Lavaux region cascade down to the lake. Whilst on the left, the horizon is closed in by the Jura mountain chain. Letting our eyes rest on the EPFL campus, we discover that the undulations of the Rolex Learning Center are inscribed into a landscape that has been fashioned not only by the glaciers of the last iceage but by the hand of man throughout the last eight centuries. And therein lies the paradox; if we stand next to the Rolex Learning Center it resembles an organic sculpture that has been placed in a field by the likes of Henry Moore, yet if we step back, the giant’s form, its daring, and its mystery find meaning. It becomes landscape.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. In order to understand the significance of this 160 meterlong wave, we need to go back to the beginning…