15 April 2010

Manfred Grohmenn's Calculated Eccentricity

"Style is just the outside of content"
Jean-Luc Godard

Last month I was driving through the Canton of Vaud, where Godard has lived for years in relative isolation, returning from a visit to the Rolex Center in Lausanne. This is the latest building by SANAA to be completed this year, part of the expansive university campus of EPFL that fronts Lac Geneva. All said, it's a great building. Style is the main theme, however, and it is worth pretty much every penny of it. The content, as Godard referred to, is not in the architecture per se, but in the users, the mobile devices and the relaxed way the EFPL students have appropriated the building, working in groups, lounging on the sloped floors or alone at a white-on-white Eamesesque round table with an Artemide lamp.

I did write lamp. One of the key beauty moments of the project other then the steep undulating floor plane that will soon be on the cover of most design mags once the project is fully complete, is the lack of any light fixture in the ceiling. All lighting is either from single desk lamps placed randomly on tables or rare up-light fixtures - huge "light cans" in fact - on the slender steel columns that are equally randomly placed throughout the building. The ceiling can then appear as a calm, uncluttered surface that follows in parallel with the slopping floors.

In terms of style, then, it is found in the project's overall fluid and randomness of form (this does not go unappreciated to most visitors: the project has become a place to visit on weekends by young families, retirees on an outing and some star-struck architects literally frozen in place as they contemplate what they never thought would be possible to build - an image of an idealized future - that every paragraph in the Swiss building code would rule-out); randomness found equally in terms of the structural design of the large spanning undulating concrete slab touching the ground at odd locations, as well as with the steel columns that support the roof above.

This overall freeform appearance - the stylistic randomness - clearly was less difficult to conceive formally, as to build. This is the work of Manfred Grohmenn, the structural engineer, who is largely quoted on the design theory of the project in the local Lausanne press. He would probably cringe at the concept of randomness in a colloquial sense, but in fact this is the greatest per formative challenge (or fun, at the expense of the project) offered to structural engineers today: optimizing slenderness, stress and strain (all measures of structural performance-based loading calculations, their alignments or lack of, or their susceptibility to buckling) in asymmetrical architectural designs.

Manfred's response to this challenge is what makes the supporting form seem effortless. There are few lateral braces in the project, huge in fact, that catches one’s eye every so often, and clearly says that this eccentric design, was a difficult exercise in eccentricity of structural loading. It appears that no vertical weight, is positioned to pass vertically to the ground, but has to be taken up off-center by the "floating" concrete floor of the building. This introduces a rotation that would normally pull the roof over to one side - an eccentricity (a structural engineering term) that is quite literal in this project - as all of the walls in the project are in glass offering no bracing and there are few if any cores to stabilize the building as would be the case in a typical building type.

The apparent effortlessness of the project, the ease with which it appears to float and land simply on various curved edges of the elliptical openings that define the interior spaces (and roofscape, if ever seen from above), is the hard work of German engineers Bollinger + Grohmenn, working in tandem with the local contractors. They have given style to the outside of SANAA's Rolex Center - in the best sense of the term - leaving the content and the choreography of uses to the students within. Let's hope that the soon to read blogs and articles on the project give equal weight to both qualities of this striking project by our friends in Tokyo.