Half Dose #33: EPFL Learning Center

In late 2004 Japan's SANAA (Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa) won the competition for Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) Learning Center, "a place where virtual and physical components combine to provide facilitated access to knowledge." Construction was slated to begin in January of this year, according to EPFL's web page on the project.


SANAA beat out eleven other architects -- including Jean Nouvel, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Herzog & de Meuron, Mecanoo, and Zaha Hadid -- in the final phase of the competition. The winning scheme is an undulating surface that is punctured by ovoid courtyards, a la a slice of swiss cheese. Get it?!


If the Japanese duo's inspiration was or wasn't one of Switzerland's most popular exports, it's a design response that is starting to become trite now just over two years later, partly by SANAA themselves. Sejima's Onishi Hall takes a similar approach, undulating the perimeter to create spaces cradled by exterior walls. But SOM's executed Burr Elementary School has the greatest resemblance, down to the ovoid courtyards.


What sets this project apart from the other designs that carve space out of low buildings is the undulation of the interior spaces, a gesture that allows movement from courtyard to courtyard without having to enter the buildings; these spaces become continuous rather than isolated.


So why are so many projects (I only scratched the surface above) repeating this design parti, and will it continue? Responding to the latter first, I'd say no. The horizontal nature of this and other designs might not be the most appropriate way of dealing with land in a world that will be 10 billion in a few years; sitting gently on the land will be more and more important.

In response to the first question, I'd guess that the popularity of this "type" is a tension between, on the one hand, an unspoken need for security and the introversion or walling off that follows from that concern and, on the other hand, a desire for a sense of place or belonging, a connection to the world. These opposing concerns are not balanced easily, though I think the bringing of the outside to the inside in a manner that veers from the orthogonal is one attempt at that compromise.


:: EPFL Learning Center (lots and lots of information here)


  1. an interesting use of this undulating surface typology was the UrbanLab entry for the Ford Calumet competition. in this case the roof surface was used as a means to remediation. the documentation on there site is poor, but i am sure for images are out there. http://www.urbanlab.com/entry.php?id=9

  2. Everyone wants to be like Rem and his Jussieux Library competition entry. At least that's the earliest concept displaying this that I can think of. I agree these trends tire quickly. Another form I'm sick of is the protruding box where the floor wraps into the walls into the roof.

  3. Seems like the wave of the future,communial spaces and buildings that will withhold external environmental conditions,as well as possible future global warming conditions are intuitively generating this type of building and spaces. On CHOC.net's community,wonder if they are discussing these issues.

  4. There was a post about a new Snøhetta project posted at: http://www.pushpullbar.com/forums/showthread.php?t=5233 which falls into this category. In this case the voids become oases that keep out the harsh desert climate. Here the volume is also stretched up to create a hotel tower.


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