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Rolex Learning Center

SANAA / Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa en tant que Architectes.

This is a learning center located at the EPFL / École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne campus which includes diverse programs such as a library, multipurpose hall, café, restaurant, etc.

We designed the building as a single space and put it almost in the center of the site for easy access from the surrounding facilities. All programs are installed in this big room. It is a 166.5m x 121.5m area, which is undulating gently, making it a kind of topographical environment. These waves create a large amount of openness under the building, inviting people to walk under and approach the entrance hall located at the center of the building.

This landscape with valleys, slopes and humps, as well as different-sized light gardens, generates spaces with diverse characteristics. The hill-like places have good views and are used as study spaces and for the restaurant. Clusters of small light wells generate a quiet atmosphere with human scale for offices. Each space is softly divided but remains continuous at the same time, connected to the campus outside. With these strategies, we endeavored to create an open structure for people.


Design-to-Production en tant que Consultants.

The large, doubly curved concrete slab of SANAA’s EPFL Learning Center in Lausanne required a specific formwork solution. A smoothly curved surface of 7,500 sqm was constructed in combination with standard scaffolding components, using nearly 1,500 individual wooden boxes.

Design-to-Production automated the planning process, starting with a 3D-model of the slab surface, and resulting in detailed plans for all of the 1,500 formwork tables and the machine data for the CNC-cutting of almost 10,000 individual cleats.


Rolex Learning Center en tant que Client.

The Rolex Learning Center, part of the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), is above all a library and learning space devoted to the cultivation of knowledge by an array of different methods. It has one of the largest collections of scientific literature in Europe, with over 500,000 volumes. In addition, an exciting range of new pedagogical technologies in the building, as well as the layout itself, are innovations to the public’s approach to texts and learning.

OPEN SPACE The most audacious aspect of the new library is its lack of physical boundaries. The large open space is defined by its artificial geography – an interior landscape. It groups silent and calm zones along its hills and slopes, rather than offering traditional cloistered study rooms. Recognizing the importance of social interaction to learning, the open space experience encourages solidarity between students in the struggle to obtain the best individual academic results, and an open flow of ideas to improve collaborative efforts.

ACCESS TO INFORMATION Book loans can be done en masse – with RFID students can check a pile of books out and return them by placing the pile on an electronic shelf along with their card. As the technology progresses, it should also be possible to locate a book on the shelves using a smart-phone app.

PRECIOUS BOOKS Since its move to the new campus in 1968, EPFL has purchased a number of important antique volumes of scientific literature. The collection comprises rare editions dating from the 16th century, which include works by Newton and Galileo, and will be housed in a special display case as a central feature of the new building.

A LEARNING LAB – THE CRAFT The CRAFT Laboratory is the Center for Research and Support of Training and its Technologies – an avant-garde approach that combines computer interfaces with real world interaction to improve learning techniques and spaces. Already developed learning technologies for the CRAFT lab include interactive furniture, paper/computer interfaces, and eye-tracking devices.

Future technologies for the new library are already on the drawing board. They are extensions of previously developed CRAFT technologies adapted to the new learning environment. Among the proposed future technologies is an interactive lamp fitted to existing tables. It would allow the public to project short messages onto the wall or ceiling of the building, indicating study themes, moods, or an appropriate level of noise for the area. Along the same theme, a real-time map of the building could indicate the noise levels of different areas in library, or show the texts the users have typed into the tables.


Designed by the Japanese architectural practice SANAA, led by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, the Rolex Learning Center is a radical and highly experimental building, designed for new ways of study and interaction in the 21st century.

A LIGHT AND ORGANIC SHAPE Located centrally on the EPFL campus – as its new hub – the building is essentially one con-tinuous structure spread over an area of 22,000m2: The building is rectangular in plan, but appears to be more organic in shape because of the way that its roof and floor undulate gen-tly, always in parallel. With few visible supports, the building touches the ground lightly, leav-ing an expanse of open space beneath which draws people from all sides towards a central entrance.

SLOPES INSTEAD OF WALLS Inside, the hills, valleys and plateaus formed by the undulation often make the edges of the building invisible, though there are no visual barriers between one area and the next. Instead of steps and staircases, there are gentle slopes and terraces. Clearly, but without dividing walls, one area of activity gives way to another. Visitors stroll up the gentle curves, or perhaps move around the space on one of the specially designed ‘horizontal lifts’, elegant glass box-es, whose engineering is adapted from everyday lift design.

As well as providing social areas and an impressive auditorium, the building lends itself to the establishment of quiet zones and silent zones, acoustically separated areas created through changes in height. The slopes, valleys and plateaus within the building, as well as the shapes made by the patios, all contribute to these barrier-free delineations of space. In addition, clus-ters of glazed or walled ‘bubbles’ make small enclosures for small groups to meet or work together in.

PATIOS – ENCLOSURE AND ENCLOSED The topography lends an extraordinary fluidity to the building’s flexible open plan – a flow that is emphasized by fourteen voids in the structure, of varying dimensions. These are glazed and create a series of softly rounded courtyards or external ‘patios’, as the architects describe them. The patios are social spaces and provide a visual link between the inside and the out-side. They are very much part of the building.

From the higher areas, visitors may enjoy views not only of the campus but, spectacularly, of Lake Geneva and the Alps.

AN INTIMATE PUBLIC SPACE With all its unity and variety, the Rolex Learning Center is, as described by Kazuyo Sejima on the announcement that SANAA had won the architectural competition, an ‘intimate public space’.

DESIGNED FOR SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH The Rolex Learning Center embodies the aims and philosophy of the EPFL, setting the scene for different kinds of collaborative, cross-disciplinary research, regarded as essential to ad-vances in science and technology. It offers flexibility to use the building in many different ways, now and in the future, to absorb new technology and working methods, as they come on stream, many of them developed within EPFL itself. The building emphasises sociability, getting together for coffee, for lunch, for study, for seminars, to stimulate informal encounters between people of all the key disciplines. It is designed to be a landmark, a place people will want to visit, allowing EPFL to reach out to the surrounding community and internationally.

Engineering and Construction

The engineering and construction of the Rolex Learning Center is highly experimental and innovative.

DESIGN OF THE CONCRETE SHELLS For the 3-dimensional curved concrete shells, SANAA worked with structural engineer, SAPS, to find the shapes with the least bending stresses by making computer simulations during the first phase. Bollinger + Grohmann, from Frankfurt a. M. and Walther Mory Maier, from Basel were responsible for the structural engineering for the whole design process and the execution.

CONSTRUCTION: PRECISION AND INNOVATION For the construction, SANAA worked closely with the total service contractor, Losinger Construction, on the final calculations and physical implementation of such large and gentle slopes. The concrete execution had to be precise because of the complex façade system that needed to absorb both the concrete shell deflection movement and the construction tolerances. One example of precise execution was the use of laser-cut 2.5m x 2.5m wooden formwork, which was positioned using GPS technology on site. For the ventilation and heating, the undulating one-room volume was also studied via computer simulation to determine the periods when natural ventilation was possible and when floor heating would be necessary. This helped to achieve a low energy consumption target.

SHELLS Essentially, the building is made up of two ‘shells’. Inside the two shells are 11 understressed arches. The smaller shell sits on four arches, 30-40 meters long, while the larger shell rests on seven arches, 55-90 meters long. The arches are held by 70 underground prestressed cables.

MATERIALS The main structural materials are steel and wood, with concrete poured into formwork so precise that the underside of the building looks polished. The floor is a concrete structure, the roof steel and wood; the floor and roof run parallel to each other. To follow the geometry of the shells required 1400 different moulds for concrete. The concrete pouring involved delivering concrete continuously over a period of two days, to achieve the complex task of creating one continuous flowing floor-space.

MOVEMENT As the building is made up of a single structure, all the elements, including the roof, have to be flexible, to accommodate minute changes in dimension caused by natural and structural movements. The internal ceilings are jointed to accommodate these shifts. The curved glass façades, including those that wrap around the patios, with a total area of 4800 m2, also have to take the movement of the concrete: each piece of glass is cut separately, and each piece moves independently on jointed frames.

ENERGY EFFICIENCY The Rolex Learning Center is a highly energy-efficient building which, for its low energy consumption, has received the coveted Minergie label – the standard used in Switzerland for measuring environmental excellence in buildings. The building is largely daylit with carefully controlled natural ventilation systems, except for the restaurant and multimedia library, which have cold ceilings. It achieves a 38.5 kWh/m2 (139 MJ/m2) energy consumption thanks to high quality double-glazed windows, 20cm of insulation in the roof and up to 35 cm in the ground, exterior blinds, natural lighting and ventilation, and because it takes advantage of the 25-year-old installation of thermal pumps that use lake water for cooling the whole campus. This degree of energy efficiency was achieved by the pioneering engineering firm Sorane SA, based near to the campus and comprised of engineers from Lausanne and Zurich. Using digital modelling for airflow, lighting, and thermal measurements, the firm increased the energy efficiency of the new building to a technical maximum while at the same time ensuring the safety of its users in case of a fire. Obtaining the Minergie label is an even more outstanding achievement given the energy challenges of an open plan building.


Rolex en tant que Client.

More recently, Rolex played a major part in the creation of the acclaimed Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne. Designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Rye Nishizawa of the celebrated Japanese practice SANAA, it was completed in 2010. The pair was awarded the Pritzker Prize in the same year.

Rolex’s involvement in the project emerged from its long-standing relationship with the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), through research into material sciences and microtechnology for watch design, and from its tradition of philanthropy in science, culture and the arts.

SANAA’s undulating library and learning space house both books and revolutionary new pedagogical technologies. The Rolex Learning Center is, essentially, one single space that is gently divided by dips and rises in the contours of its parallel roof and floor.

A building whose sheer originality creates a force field of its own, and so light and airy that it seems almost to float, this architectural masterpiece is, in itself, an inspiration for thought and invention. For Rolex, it stands as an expression of the creativity and innovation for which the company continually strives.

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