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BCO Conference Special: a walk around the Rolex Learning Centre

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Two views of the Sanaa-designed Rolex Learning Centre by visiting BCO delegates Paul Sandilands and David Lawrence

Paul Sandilands of Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

Enthused and excited by Chris Luebkeman’s provoking, amusing, insightful address and with his claim that the future has arrived in the form of the ‘clickizen’ – we sped along the autoroute to visit the Rolex Learning Centre, a fabulous, iconic building by Pritzker Prize-winning architects Sanaa, anticipating a vision of the future.

I watched as the swarm of grey suits ahead of me flowed beneath the dramatic rolling form towards its main entrance. Inside, beyond a coffee shop and reception desk, the floor rose steeply: a glass platform sat atop what looked like a funicular railway. All around, white, pale grey, continuous glass and no noticeable structure. We began a journey of ascending inclines and twists, interspersed by plateaux with neat lines of white shelving, or with ranked white desks.
As we traversed hill and dale, we gradually lost those without flat shoes and those with any physical impairment. Finally, we emerged into bright sunlight and a sea of resin-bound gravel.

Yes, beautiful, challenging, imaginative, avant-garde architecture… but as to anticipating the future? Most of what I saw was familiar: students who looked and sounded much the same as we did in our day. Across the campus, they already appeared to be appropriating all informal spaces for a miscellany of purposes, as students – and indeed others – inevitably will. I wondered whether the CHF 100 million (£70 million) construction cost might not have been better spent on transforming the spaces between the existing buildings to provide
a template for a campus city.

David Lawrence of BFLS

Sanaa has embraced a ‘don’t hold back’ brief and have conjured up a scheme for the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne that perfectly balances a fresh innovative eye with an inherently rigorous approach. The centre encompasses a single storey above ground that stretches across almost the entire site. With a deft touch, the building rises and falls, creating ground-level access points and an internal undulating topography that provides a sequence of top-lit zones – an imaginative mix of informal, organic break-out spaces, transparent and solid pods, internal ‘patios’, study and reading areas, restaurants, an auditorium, libraries and office space. The architects’ exploratory architectural language (the complex curving roof required completely new methods of construction) delivers an environment that cleverly mimics the college’s culture of research. There are no visual barriers between one area and another, you find yourself strolling up a gentle slope that links one zone with the next. Like a vast internal ‘park’, it elegantly subverts preconceptions about what a place of study or work should be, the fluid form of the envelope informing sinuous internal spaces, with glass curtain walls providing spectacular views out over the surrounding landscape, as well as inviting people to participate in the range of internal activities.

Is this a relevant building? Of course it is. The building already attracts a million visitors a year and has a fully booked-up conference facility. Sanaa’s bold fusion of art and architecture provides the perfect foil for research and experimentation, subtly hinting at the way in which our kids will all work in the future.

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