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  • Subject area(s): Engineering
  • Price: Free download
  • Published on: 7th September 2019
  • File format: Text
  • Number of pages: 2

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The Rolex Learning Center was built on the campus of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and it serves as a laboratory for learning, a library and an international cultural hub for EPFL, open to both students and the general public. Inside this one fluid space we can find several services such as social spaces, spaces to study, libraries, information gathering, restaurants, cafes and outdoor spaces.


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The Rolex Learning Center was designed by the Japanese architectural studio SANAA, led by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa.

This 22000sqm continuous structure is rectangular in plan but it is much more organic in shape due to its roof and floor undulating gently in parallel, lightly touching the ground with few visible supports, leaving an open space area beneath drawing people from every side towards a central entrance.

In this organic and open planned building there are fourteen voids, of different sizes, in the structure which create rounded courtyards or external patios that provide a visual connection between the inside and the outside. From the higher areas there are views to the campus, Lake Geneva and the Alps.

Inside this building there are no visual barriers between the spaces inside, there are, instead, the hills, valleys and plateaus formed by the undulation of its shape. Even though it provides social areas and quiet zones the change of heights provides the acoustic separation, and there are only small walled “bubbles” for small groups to meet or work together.



The engineering and construction of the Rolex Learning Center is highly experimental and innovative. The realization phase of the project was of around 6 years from the competition win to the opening and faced some challenging technical and financial difficulties, delaying the initial plans by 2 years and turning the 40M CHF of the competition into a final cost of 110M CHF – 40M CHF in the beginning of the competition became 90M CHF with SANAA’s preliminary project design and finally to 110M CHF – of which 50-52M were funded by diverse private companies, one of them being Rolex, who bought the name.

Not a surprising cost though, once the client asked for very high comfort and energy standards and the building’s very own form doesn’t go by the traditional laws of physics and economics.


The construction was closely worked on with Losinger Construction owned by Buyges in France, and subcontracting was provided by local firms. As for the solving of the structures of the 3-dimensional curved concrete shells SANAA worked with the structural engineers SAPS, in order to find the shapes with the least bending stresses, recurring to computer simulations for this. This shell was one of the main misunderstandings between the architects and the engineers because the shape had to be determined by spatial, visual and functional aspects, making it impossible to find this structurally ideal form. The Engineering Firms Bollinger Grohman Frankfurt and Walther Mory Maier Basle were the ones responsible to translate the idea formulated by SANAA of light and slender shell-like slabs into an executable solution. This undulating concrete slab was a challenge not only for this but also due to its need for thick insulation on the cold underside.

The undulating concrete slab was a particular challenge in its structural design, adding to it its need for thick insulation on the cold underside.

Another handicap was the fact that the floors (usable surfaces in buildings= allow much less deformations than surfaces on roofs or on bridges. What the architects had proposed as an airy white plastic sheet over the building was now a massive concrete ceiling. The slab is 40-80cm thick with up to 470kg of reinforcement steel per cubic meter of concrete.


The solution proposed took a whole year of pure structural design study not counting the extra demands for steel layout and formwork design. This building proposal is a hybrid system of 11 arches hidden inside the 2 shells, 4 in the smaller and 9 in the larger hill. These arches lay on top of a parking garage and a curved wall that needed to be passed under by cars on many levels. To fix the landings, all of the massive concrete landing zones are connected with horizontal cables at ground level in the roof of the underground parking garage. These connections also criss-cross between arches in a kind of a zig zag system.

Several modifications had to be made to the shape in a kind of negotiation process between architects and engineers. In this process, the architects insisted on certain heights and emphasized visual relations especially from the elevated inner spaces - they wanted views across the roof which should remain parallel to the floor. They also rejected resolving the lower level structure with columns, forcing impressive free spans comparable to larger sports halls.

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