Text by Ian Volner
The name “La Maison du Savoir”—the House of Knowledge—has a nice sort of 18th-century ring to it, like one of those communal buildings from the utopian imagination of French Revolutionary–era architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux. But where Ledoux might have made his into a temple of pure rationality, shaped as a sphere or pyramid, the Swiss office of Austrian firm Baumschlager Eberle has made an emblem of a very different age: a slab tower rising from a long vertical base, pierced by a ground-floor opening, and wrapped in a deep, double-gridded cladding.
It is, in other words, a concentrated image of modernity, with box-like façade patterning that evokes midcentury classics like I.M. Pei, FAIA’s Kips Bay Towers and a Soviet Bloc–like shaft-and-base approach to form-making. Where those buildings are best known for their use of raw concrete, however, the Maison du Savoir is decked out entirely in steel, a nod to the former mill facility that occupied the site of what is now the University of Luxembourg. As firm principal Dietmar Eberle, Hon. FAIA, puts it, “I always believe a building should relate to the site where it is placed.”
Billed as one of Europe’s newest, the university was founded in 2003 to help stem the mass emigration of young Luxembourgers who typically leave the tiny country to finish their studies. With a comprehensive curriculum, the school has been operating from satellite facilities, and is now in the process of partially consolidating its operations onto a single campus in the town of Esch-sur-Alzette south of the capital.
The Maison du Savoir is a key component in that scheme, drawing together a sequence of educational activities into a single integrated structure spread over some 576,000 square feet of floor space. With its powerful planar thrust in both the vertical and horizontal dimensions, the building’s geometry suggests a fusing of the school’s disparate parts—a “bridge,” as its creators have called it—supporting a new educational infrastructure. The waffle-like sheath underscores its rational, scientific mission while providing shading “as determined by the movement of sun,” explains Eberle, to reduce mechanical load.
The fact that the building communicates so powerfully in a modern and decidedly urban idiom seems an unusual choice for a campus building. But Luxembourg’s master plan for Esch-sur-Alzette, converting it to a “cité des sciences,” suggests that urban scale and density are precisely what the clients were after. Seen from that perspective, the designers’ bold choice of envelope is an appropriate updating of a model academic community, one centered less around the platonic ideal than the technological structures of contemporary life. —Ian Volner