“It is basically a curved slab with a lot of compression forces”, structural engineer Manfred Grohmann said about the Rolex Learning Center that is been designed by SANAA in Lausanne. His talk last week was filled with understatements. He later on admitted that the design was almost impossible to realize. “It was a never done before.”
Manfred Grohmann lectured at the ‘Night of Concrete’. Among the speakers were Alan Dampsey, one of the designers of the [C]space pavilion in London, and Joop Paul, the director of the Dutch branch of Arup. Manfred Grohmann himself is one of the directors of Bollinger + Grohmann Ingenieure. His company has offices in Germany, Austria and France and is specialized in projects with a complex geometry. That expertise nicely aligned with the theme of the evening: freeform architecture in concrete.
By the presentation of Manfred Grohmann it seemed like pretty much all architects working with complex geometries in Europe hire his office for advice. They collaborated with Zaha Hadid on her cable car stations in Innsbruck, with Frank Gehry on his museum in Herford, with Peter Cook on his art center in Graz and with Coop Himmelb(l)au on their BMW Welt in München. Before working with SANAA on their new project in Lausanne, Bollinger + Grohmann worked with them on their cubic business school in Essen. In fact, the idea there to keep the concrete exterior wall solid and slender, by leaving out insulation and instead run warm wastewater through it, was imagined by them. Also never done before.
The new building in Lausanne is part of the university campus. It is called ‘Rolex Learning Center’ as on third of the building cost is covered by the watch manufacturer. The 90 million Swiss Frank that the building costs is all paid for by private parties. The government doesn’t contribute anything. Manfred Grohmann: “Lausanne isn’t a bad place to be.”
In the Rolex Learning Center the advantages of the large floor – free movement and transparency – are put to extreme. The building is one, large, curly floor that is left completely open. Perfectly round courtyards provide light and focus the continuous space, which is further only minimally differentiated.
According to Manfred Grohmann one of the ideas behind the design is that the technical landscape, formed by the building, in the architectural experience overlaps with the natural landscape, the mountains of the Alps. Looking out through one of the courtyards, on a high point on the learning center’s landscape, on the foreground one looks at the curved roof of the building, while at the background one looks at the mountains.
Compared to the literal mimicking of the ‘architecture’ of the Alps by Herzog & de Meuron in their design for the concert hall in the Jura (Switzerland), SANAA’s strategy is far more restrained. The gentle curves and vivid white color of the Rolex Learning Center ‘resists’ a literal reading and instead searches for an almost provocative dialogue. The landscape is echoed in the architecture, but the learning center never becomes the landscape. The architecture retains its autonomy.
The challenge in the construction of the building was the huge spans of the concrete floors. The span itself wouldn’t be such a problem, if the Japanese architects didn’t have the wish that the load-bearing construction would remain invisible. In the words of Manfred Grohmann: “They wanted zero detail.” An enormous truss therefore was no option. What to do then?
The floors had to be constructed like big domes: low, broad domes. In the analysis of the construction two issues arose. First the dome should be stopped from spreading. Like done in some churches, a steel string at the base of the dome provided a solution. Secondly: “We had a buckling problem”, Manfred Grohmann said. The slenderness of the floor in relation to its long span made it unstable. After considering and researching various options, the problem was eventually solved with massive steel reinforcements in the top- and bottom-layer of the floors. The reinforcement consists of steel bars with a diameter of 50 mm (!). At the base of the dome they had to be welded to a steel plate to prevent the bars from crumbling the concrete floor.
In the middle of the main arch the concrete is 80 centimeter thick. An additional 20 centimeters is used for the installations. To create an exact mold to pour the concrete on, 1458 different wooden ‘boxes’ were prefabricated and aligned on site.
Three weeks ago construction commenced on the construction of the roof. Whereas the floor is constructed from concrete, the roof is made from steel members. Steel columns in a grid of nine by nine meters keep the roof up. The Rolex Learning Center will be finished in the autumn of 2009.
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