Built on the campus of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) — one of the best universities in the world for science, engineering and computer science — The Rolex Learning Center functions as a laboratory for learning, a library and an international cultural hub for students and the public alike.
The building was realized by renowned Japanese architectural practice SAANA, led by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. The project marries aesthetic simplicity with great skill and technical sophistication. Though perfectly rectangular in plan, the floor and roof mimic the arc of a wave in parallel, rising and reconnecting to the ground level. The interior space is open and encompasses 20,200 square meters, interrupted only by a large curved window with a view of the surrounding patios.
The Rolex Learning Center’s function is multi-faceted, including not only resources for students, such as the main library containing over 500,000 printed works, but also public amenities including a restaurant overlooking Lake Geneva and the Alps and the Rolex Forum, a venue built to house conferences, lectures and other large scale events.
The coexistence of such different environments in a single space is made possible by the morphology of the building, which generates the undulating hills and valleys separating the different areas of activity, both visually and acoustically. This dichotomy of openness and privacy is unique to the structure, creating what architect Kazuyo Sejima calls an “intimate public space.”
These design choices — in addition to producing an ideal continuation of the soft alpine landscape that surrounds the campus — arise from the specific aim of encouraging interaction, exchange and circulation of ideas among students, breaking down the boundaries between disciplines. It is a kind of architecture that, in addition to facilitating new intellectual paths, raises exciting new experiences of space.
Sejima and Nishizawa explain: “The Rolex Learning Center has both architectural and topographical characteristics. The experiences within it are so very different. Contrary to the traditional space of a closed room, new relationships are formed here, and we hope that this creates a new type of architectural experience.”
To complement this ambitious new forum, SANAA has integrated Catifa chairs and custom-built tables throughout the Rolex Learning Center’s interior. The table has been adapted to the space by the architects with a lamp inserted in the center of the table to illuminate the surfaces of the plane. Catifa fit into the rarefied spaces of the Rolex Learning Center with great ease, perhaps because of the common conceptual aims of SANAA’s architectural practice and Arper’s underlying philosophy for each product: architecture, as with design, must be natural, simple, accessible and experiential.