Dominique Perrault looks at the mechanics of education

Nick Myall
Friday 13 May 2016

A new Mechanics Hall for the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne has been created by Dominique Perrault Architecte / Steiner

The original ME building at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, dedicated to the mechanical engineering department, was built by the Zweifel + Stricker + Associates team in the early 70s, during the first phase of development of the campus. Its spatial organization bears testament to the tenets of the original master plan: the separation of cars and pedestrians into two different flows, as per Modern Movement in architecture principles, means that access to the building happens on multiple levels. The building has a three-dimensional grid (23’-7” length by 12’-9” height) which divides its space in a controlled way, regardless of type or purpose. The original master plan was revised several times over the ensuing decades, to question some of the initial projections, and to adjust it to inevitable evolutions such as a growing number of visitors and new usages. 

Since the early 2000s, in an effort to promote its top-level teaching, research and innovation activities, and to attract more international students, the EPFL itself undertook several redevelopment operations. The campus and the buildings were refurbished, including the ME building which had gradually become cramped and was rapidly deteriorating.

The project of the Dominique Perrault Architecte / Steiner team, which won a 2011 international competition, is to preserve the connecting axes that bridge the campus, while demolishing the aging halls. A new rectangular hall is wedged to the “bridge” buildings, which are left as is, save for a refurbishment of their two lower levels. The new building, covering a total surface area of over 223,000 sq. ft., is spread over four superstructure levels and one infrastructure level. It houses the administrative offices of the department of Engineering (Sciences et Techniques de l’Ingénieur, or STI), consisting of offices and research laboratories, as well as some office spaces for the department of Biology (Sciences de la Vie, or SV).

The building, which serves as a large-scale experimental playground and laboratory for research scientists, consists of two wings connected by a large central atrium. In functional terms, the wings can be considered as two separate buildings, with their own technical and circulation networks. The partition of the space respects the original grid while playing with subdivisions and double heights. The materials used – raw concrete and metal walls, cement and PVC floors – favour a simple black-and-white palette in matt and glossy finishes. The opaque walls and glass screens create a set of perspectives into the depths of the building, turning any walk along the corridors into an original experience. 

The atrium, a reception and social area serving the office spaces, is the beating heart of the building. Straight stairways and flared corridors flow diago¬nally from one level to the next and from one side to another, filling the central void with a blur of lines. Handrails and tubular wall-mounted lamps, accented in black, designed by Gaëlle Lauriot-Prévost, add to an overall graphic effect, inspired by Piranese’s Capricci. 

The façades combine two distinct architectural styles in one common material, giving the building a contemporary allure while paying tribute the legacy of the 1970s. The metallic mesh, on the one hand, evokes the scope of mechanical engineering, while the northern façade is a direct reference to the mol¬ding envelopes of the neighbouring buildings. 

The mechanical façade stands to the East, South and West of the building. The shape and dimensions of its modules, which were prebuilt in a factory before assembly, were determined by the EPFL’s historic master plan. Each module is made up of two supe-rimposed layers: an inner skin offering thermal insu¬lation and soundproofing, and an outer solar pro¬tection, consisting of a frame holding the signature metallic mesh used by DPA since the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The modules are divided into three vertical panels, two of which are sliding and one static. 

The metallic mesh panels of grey shades are tilted away from the façade by a 5° angle, with different slants; this juxtaposition of oblique planes looks like a woven pattern, or a hinge seen on a macro level. The raw material used to build these automated com¬ponents denotes the building’s purpose as a space for scientific experiment. At night, the indoor lighting system amplifies these contrasts by showing the ge¬neral layout, turning the hall into a lighthouse for the campus.

Science is the essence of the new ME building. With this architectural project using industrial components and data processing technologies while preserving the circulation network and the structural grid esta¬blished by the original master plan, the mechanics hall is a new milestone in the history of the EPFL campus. In addition to this brand new building, the 2011 redevelopment competition won by the Do¬minique Perrault Architecte / Steiner team included challenges across the school’s campus, namely re¬furbishing the old library to turn it into headquar¬ters for the EPFL (building delivered in 2013), and developing a strategy for a potential Teaching Lab. This last project is an opportunity to reconsider the operation of the campus and the use of its central circulation axis, giving it a broader urban scope.

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Nick Myall

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