The EPFL Rolex Learning Center attracts with its unique design and construction complexity. It is an unforgettable experience to see from inside the charming style of this building.
Created by the Japanese Company SANAA, this advanced architectural creature provides in a very natural way space for studying and for having relaxing breaks. It’s modern and multifunctional.
Even being out of the standard engineering, it gives the impression to have been built offering comfort and enough space for individual and group use. It is cozy, fluid and sensual.
The corridors do not have limits as in the standard constructions. They are a kind of end-less passages, but at the same time, their curves form “bubbles” used for studying. The space between them is left as a convenient direct connection between the different points.
The Rolex Learning Center is a pilot project in every sense as it is unique in its kind. It is not just a library but a multifunctional building created for social and knowledge experimentation. Its unique design and spaces dynamise the platform of what can be designated the library of the future, while creating at the same time an architectural icon.
The Swiss Federal Institute wanted to have something unique able to stand out to the academic and architectural society. By doing so, EPFL expected to compete with the highest international worldwide standards similar to those of MIT or Cambridge campus.
Excellence is intended not only with laboratory or academic production and recognition but also by its infrastructure facilities. By providing top class architectural and engineering facilities the institute expects to attract also world top class staff and alumni.
With these goals in the horizon and with its first built achievement open to the public since may 2010, EPFL and this building entered very quickly in the “mouth” of the worldwide medias.
Through an International competition made in 2005, SANAA won the commission of the Rolex Learning Center. The project will take 4 years to fully develop and the construction approximately 2 years. It represents a hard work not only because of its engineering complexity, but also because of the clash of two very strong cultures – the Japanese and the Swiss ones.
A Japanese compromise in combination with a feminine and sensual woman’s approach, as one of the leading architects of SANAA is a woman, is put in collaboration with the “Swiss made”. The result is a building comparable to no other.
The Japanese project is the most futuristic one. In its original plan, at the time of the competition, the shells slabs were considered as a mix of natural highly compressed glued fibers to provide a strong and yet light structure, something so unusual that had to be reconsidered to something more realistic to the Swiss highly demanding norms and standards. Architram, the Swiss local architect firm provided the Swiss know how and helped SANAA redesign the whole project changing the core material of the slabs to a special kind of gel-concrete.
The work for the project development is very complex and intense, leaving few times for the architectural team to sleep. The enormous difficulty in building the curved slabs and the logistics involved lead also to a documentary that testifies the whole challenge from the start until its end.
The shells by themselves - the gel-concrete slab arches, with up to 70 meters spans, are not responding to the engineering principals of the stand-alone arch. And the multi 3D directional geometry is so complex that thousands and thousands of hours of parametric 3D design software are needed to masterise these curved slabs only.
During the construction of the biggest shell, a non-stop process that lasted 3 nights and days, a concrete truck arrives on average every 15-20 minutes to deliver the special concrete-gel. To make it more challenging, as if the task is already not complex enough, the weather offer nothing better than heavy rain and the chilly Bise.
Hundreds of workers are involved in continuous shifts. And the volume of pure manual work is very high. The formwork that shapes the future slab is made of unique boxes that were cut out from plywood using laser cut processes and placed on site by machinery equipped with GPS. The precision is extremely high with tolerances of up to 1 cm. In a building of approximately 165 long per 135 meters wide.
Considering its size and slopes and the fact that it consists of a unique continuous surface, the building is often submitted to very significant deformations. The solution to these is to provide moveable welding pieces in its most parts, particularly the windows and courtyards. These are not fix as in most common buildings, but moveable like on a bridge.
Due to its complexity, the cost of this project is above standard public building cost and its construction was only possible thanks to the sponsorship of institutions like Rolex, Sicpa, Nestle, Logitech, Credit Suisse, among others.
The building can take up to 860 student working places and its main floor surface covers approximately 19'000 m2. The library counts approximately 500'000 publications and its open to the public.
Cited as being the only library that can be seen from the space, due to its size, it is conceived to supply the contemporary academic demand of information, not only in its printed form but also electronically. When it was concluded, the Japanese firm was awarded the Pritzker prize 2010, the Nobel of architecture.
The Rolex Learning Center visit finished with a cocktail enjoying the elegant atmosphere of the south west side bathed with a beautiful sunset light.
Authors: Nasya Dimitrova & Hugo Duarte