New Swiss Library Will Run Like Clockwork

A Bird’s Eye View Of The Rolex Learning Center.
(All Images Courtesy Of SANAA.)

Viewed from above it looks like a flat, wavy rectangle full of randomly placed holes– and it’s Swiss. A cheesy description, perhaps, but one that fits a glorious modernist library which opened on February 22, 2010 in the city of Lausanne. The Japanese architectural firm known as SANAA has created a single-story, slice-like structure so sublimely constructed it seems to float above the ground.

Lausanne’s Floating Library.

The Rolex Learning Center for the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) is a single fluid space that undulates like free-flowing waves over 20,000 square meters (just over 215,000 square feet) of inner city real estate. But the deliberately park-like structure makes a densely populated metropolitan area feel like the rolling hills and fertile valleys in the foothills of the nearby Alps. Almost entirely free of interior walls, long sweeping vistas seem to erase the distinction between indoors and outdoors. There is simply never ending space.

A Library Without Walls.

Light is brought in through the Swiss-cheese holes in the roof, and the pristine whiteness of the concrete surfaces creates a snowy plane, airy, bright, and infinite. The result is a communal space without fixed function. A softly curvy, feminine expanse without hierarchies or straight lines. A series of calm and silent connected spaces created to nurture collaboration, communication, and cooperation over competition. Library, offices, restaurants, and auditoriums are harmoniously linked between a cloud-like canopy above, and a floor that gently rises and falls like a living organism as it inhales and exhales. “Human movements are not linear like in a train, but curve in a more organic way,” said architect Ryue Nishizawa, one-half of team SANAA, explaining his vision. “With straight lines we only create crossroads, but with curves we can create more diverse interactions.”

Feminine Curves, No Straight Lines.

Not surprisingly, given the organic flavor of this delectable architectural dish, the other cook in SANAA’s creative kitchen is Kayuyo Sejima, Japan’s premiere female architect. She explains how the duo found the recipe to create a product both nourishing of creativity and pleasing to the eye: “We asked ourselves: what kind of space can a lot of people, doing different activities at the same time, enjoy being in? After we had the final shape, we used stairs and ramps from Lausanne and the Swiss landscape as precedents to learn how the gentle slopes can be used and enjoyed. We imagined that this type of open space might increase the possibility for new meetings or trigger new activities. In comparison to traditional study spaces, where corridors and classrooms are clearly separated, we hope that there will be many different ways to use the new space and that there will be more active interaction, which in turn will trigger new activities.”

A Wavy Structure, Full of Holes.

The Rolex Learning Center is as innovative technologically as it is architecturally, befitting its function as an engineering and computer science library for one of the world’s leading scientific universities. Highly energy efficient, the center uses almost entirely natural light, with carefully controlled fresh-air ventilation systems. High-quality double-glazed windows and ceiling and floor insulation help save energy. Engineers initially said the huge wavy structure, with 14 open “holes” in the ceiling to let in light, was unbuildable, as the height and load ratios suggested it could not hold its own weight.

Engineering Innovations Concealed By Surpassing Beauty.

The engineer’s audacious solution to the support problem was to build the entire structure atop invisible, underground bridges. The unseen groundwork holding up this wood, steel, and glass landscape is the most ingenious part of the building. Laser-cut concrete forms positioned using GPS technology create two concrete shells held aloft by fifteen arches, which are anchored to 70 underground cables. Architecture that appears seamless is actually bolstered by “the flattest concrete arches ever built.” A tailor-made, cleverly concealed, and incredibly flattering foundation garment is the unseen element without which this building’s haute couture perfection would collapse.

An Organic Structure, As Natural As The Landscape.

The Rolex Learning Center can accommodate 860 students, and has office space for over 100 EPFL employees. A multimedia section gives access to 10,000 online journals and 17,000 e-books, while 10 teaching area “bubbles” may be used for seminars, group work, and meetings. The Rolex Forum, an amphitheater with a 310 square-meter stage, may be used for larger events. Restaurants, cafes and outdoor patios complete the RLC, as it is known on campus. The building is open from 7 am to midnight every day. “It’s very audacious, but that was the aim. We needed to invent new spaces,” explained EPFL President Patrick Aebischer. “We want to become one of the best institutes of technology in the world, so we needed this kind of flagship building.” On opening day, one onlooker remarked that students might be intimidated by the structure’s sheer beauty: “The risk is that they feel it’s like a cathedral. It’s so magical it will take time to get used to it.”

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