Saturday, December 24, 2011

Rolex Learning Center, and the future of architecture exhibitions

I visited an exhibition entitled "Architectural Environments for Tomorrow" held at the Museum of Modern Art Tokyo. Co-curators of the exhibition are the Prizker prize-winner Japanese architect duo SANAA.

The exhibition begins with a model of the Rolex Learning Center, designed by SANAA, and ends with a short, looping 3D movie entitled "If Buildings Could Talk" by Wim Wenders, which features the Rolex Learning Center. There are a few other interesting installations by other architects and artists (the boundary between architecture and art is increasingly blurred these days), but at the end of the day, the whole idea of this exhibition seems to be symbolized by this SANAA creation.

The Center, located in the campus of Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, is a future of the college building. Three things characterize the building, all of which enhance the academic and learning environment. First, it is a one-floor building with no wall separating rooms. You can easily spot where your buddies are. In an academic environment, the exchange of information and opinions out of casual meetings is often quite important a trigger for coming up with (and triaging) new ideas. If your friends, colleagues, and acquaintances hide in a room, upstairs, or downstairs, this won't happen. I myself experience a tall wall between different floors in an academic building, both in London and in Stockholm. It is really tall. Trust me.

The second feature of the building is light. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows separate the inside and the outside of the building throughout. There are several circular "courtyards" which allows the sunlight to flow in to the area far away from the outline of the building. The wavy building structure allows the light and the shade created by the sunlight to change over time in a day not in an obvious way.

Finally, the hills. The floor of the building is a rolling field. There are gradual, organic slopes up and down. It is like a park. And in a park, people often go up on the hill and sit down there to get relaxed with the vantage point view. The hill slope also helps people to lie down in a natural way. With the light flowing in and the distance view thanks to the open-plan one-floor structure, the inside of the building can play a role of a park with hills.

What's important in studying is taking a break from time to time. Hard-working is important, but breakthrough ideas often occur to people's mind when they feel relaxed after hard-working. Very few academic buildings can provide researchers and students with this relaxing atmosphere. The Rolex Learning Center just does that.

Now, everything I just wrote here is what I noticed by watching the Wim Wenders's 3D movie of the Center, by sitting close to the screen on the floor with low-height sofas to lie down against, so that I feel like I were actually inside the building. (The movie does show students lying down on low-height sofas placed on those slopes.) The Learning Center's model that I saw at the beginning of the exhibition didn't really help me understand SANAA's design concept this way. Here I saw the future of the exhibition on architecture. Understanding architecture (or space design in general) without actually visiting it is essentially impossible. Most exhibitions on architecture face this problem. With 3D movies, this eternal issue can be resolved as Wim Wenders successfully did.

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