New Mechanics Hall – ME Building
By Kirsten Kiser
Science is the essence of the ME building. Using industrial components and data processing technologies, while preserving the circulation network and the structural grid established by the original master plan, the mechanics hall is a new milestone in the history of the EPFL (the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) campus.
The ME building, 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. The new 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 facades combine two distinct architectural styles in one common material, giving the building a contemporary allure while paying tribute the legacy 4 of the 1970s. The metallic mesh, on the one hand, evokes the scope of mechanical engineering, while the northern facade is a direct reference to the molding envelopes of the neighboring buildings.
The atrium, a reception and social area serving the office spaces, is the beating heart of the building. Straight stairways and flared corridors flow diagonally 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, add to an overall graphic effect, inspired by Piranesi’s Capricci.
The superimposed planes and criss-crossing lines create a dynamic tridimensional picture, which is deconstructed and reconstructed by each visitor passing through it.
This plan turns the atrium into a fantastic spatial experience, while reinforcing its social function, by favoring chance encounters without impeding circulation.
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 materials used – raw concrete and metal walls, cement and PVC floors – favor a simple black-and-white palette in matte 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 technical networks, left apparent on the walls and ceilings, are a nod to the scientific purpose of the building.
With its wide open plan and high ceilings, the atrium goes above and beyond its primary purpose as a reception area, turning into a space for experimentation. Placed at a crossroads position on the campus, between different disciplinary fields and as an entrance point for hyper specialized technical laboratories, the atrium is conceived as an accessible door to knowledge and an empirical, experiential space.
The mechanical facade 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. The modules are divided into three vertical panels, two of which are sliding and one static. The sliding modules can be deployed in front of the glass panes or superimposed on the third one.
For thermal optimization purposes, the mobile panels are generally operated through building automation system, but they can also be maneuvered manually. The third module remains in a fixed position on top of the opaque facade panel.
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.
Moreover, the remarkable design of the Rolex Learning Center – which sits in the vicinity of the mechanics hall – leaves room for multiple architectural styles, allowing for the identity of the school to be renewed and for the campus itself to become a whole new district in the greater Lausanne metropolis.