“You can increase density by building underground as well”

Dominique Perrault is one of the world’s leading visionary architects. One of his areas of specialisation is underground architecture, which he also teaches in his capacity as professor at EPFL Lausanne. He has worked together with Steiner AG on construction projects in Lausanne, Zurich and Fribourg.

Mr Perrault, which idea allowed you and Steiner AG to win the redevelopment competition for the EPFL campus in Lausanne in 2010?

The idea that people should take back the campus! The old campus was a typical product of the 1970s: the ground level was reserved for traffic, while students and professors moved around on artificial bridges and walkways one level up. We wanted to break up this separation – in favour of open space. So we introduced streets, green areas and visual axes. And we planted trees. We also added shops and cafes to the ground floor of the two buildings that we completely refurbished with Steiner. In short, we urbanised the campus.

A new element, the spectacular Teaching Bridge, is still missing from the master plan. Why?

Architecture is always a response to people’s need for space. These needs change, of course, and in the case of EPFL, very quickly, too. Faced with the rapid digitalisation of teaching, there is currently an understandable widespread feeling of uncertainty about future space requirements and whether the Teaching Bridge is still relevant in this regard. This is currently under evaluation.

Let’s turn our attention to Zurich, where you have plans with Steiner AG for a housing development with three 80-metre residential towers. Why are high-rise buildings needed in Zurich-Altstetten?

Whether or not high-rise buildings are needed always depends on the context. For the Women’s University of Seoul, for example, I didn’t build upwards – as everyone was expecting. I preferred to build downwards, underground. That kind of thing would be absurd in Altstetten. The residential towers are a response to the desire for increased development at a location with excellent transport links. High-rise buildings also demonstrate a new self-assurance on the part of Altstetten, once home to labourers but now a neighbourhood that, practically speaking, is closer to the city centre than it was in the past.

You mentioned your building for the Women’s University of Seoul. Which advantages does underground architecture have compared to building skywards?

To put it simply, you can increase architectural density not only by going upwards, but by going underground as well. When you build downwards, the architecture disappears and there is room for green areas and public spaces. Architecture can be put centre stage again by using valleys or clearings in the forest, as with the Women’s University of Seoul, which we completed in 2008. This way, daylight arrives underground. Underground construction also offers benefits in terms of energy. The ground keeps things cool in the summer and warm in winter. This means the Women’s University has reduced its energy costs by 60 per cent.

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