PRINT March 2015


SANAA, Rolex Learning Center, 2010, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland. Photo: Iwan Baan.

IN 2010, Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, cofounders of SANAA, completed one of their most ambitious projects to date: the Rolex Learning Center on the Lausanne, Switzerland, campus of the École Polytechnique Fédérale. Housing a complex mix of experimental research and educational facilities, the center comprises a single undulating story of over two hundred thousand square feet, expanding effortlessly across the site and appearing less a building than an animated field declaring a new direction in architecture. That same year, Sejima and Nishizawa were recognized with their profession’s highest honor, the Pritzker Architecture Prize, and not surprisingly, the Lausanne project captured the world’s attention almost immediately. In recognition of its extraordinary spatial qualities, the critic Jay Merrick proclaimed in the Independent that the structure’s architects had become “the profession’s anointed artists of the floating world. Their new . . . building is a fluid exercise in glass and concrete.”1

Fluid may at first seem an odd term to associate with architecture, which has traditionally been defined as the opposite—a practice based in the construction of solid matter. Yet today, with flowing, nonrational geometries, uninterrupted expanses, and seamless connections between adjacent spaces increasingly in vogue, the notion of fluidity has become acutely relevant to the field. The Rolex Learning Center, after all, is only one particularly prominent example in a recent flood of major civic and institutional buildings that have embraced architectural fluidity. Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI National Museum of XXI Century Arts, which opened in Rome the same year that SANAA’s project was completed, gained widespread attention for its serpentine layout, which the architect herself described as an effort to “create major and minor streams” within the building. More recently, Danish rising star Bjarke Ingels’s 2014 design for Audemars Piguet’s company museum, La Maison des Fondateurs, in Le Brassus, Switzerland, has been hailed for its spiraling form and dynamic continuous spaces, while Chinese architect Shao Weiping’s 2014 Phoenix International Media Center in Beijing has captivated critics with its seamless, Möbius-strip-inspired shape. And one of the grandest corporate architecture projects currently under construction anywhere in the world, Norman Foster’s new Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California, is essentially a diagram of continuous flow—a building taking the form of a single, monumental ring. Emerging at every juncture, fluidity appears to be one of the defining characteristics of architecture in the early twenty-first century.

Yet under the smooth surfaces of “fluid” architecture, questions abound. The image of architectural fluidity is not particularly new, of course. Smooth, curvilinear geometries began to insinuate themselves into the field in the early 1990s, in the swirls and blobs created by pioneers of computational design. The recent craze for parametrics has accelerated this decades-old trend, yielding fluid forms at all scales, from furniture design to urban planning. More recent buildings such as the Rolex Learning Center, however, prompt the question: Is flow limited to form? Is fluidity to be found in architecture’s material or shape, or within its spaces? While the center epitomizes a fluid geometry, the architects’ achievement is not the production of an image of flow but the formation of flows within the building: Here, flow is a complex interaction between the building and its inhabitants, a function of the visitor’s experience of and movement through space conjoined with the architecture’s geometry. A consideration of architectural flow, then, requires a careful parsing of distinctions between the understanding of architecture as physical form or material presence and architecture as container of space and director of action. Indeed, fluidity may offer a new understanding of architecture, one that emerges from dynamic relations between spatial, social, material, and experiential registers.

Zaha Hadid Architects, MAXXI National Museum of XXI Century Arts, 2009, Rome. Photo: Iwan Baan.

ARCHITECTURE IS by no means the only contemporary field to have seized on the suggestive potential of flow: Disciplines such as economics and psychology have also developed specific usages of the term. In discussions of the workings of capitalism, for example, flow pertains to movements of information, money, or goods. Psychology invokes flow to characterize a positive, energized, and focused mental state.2 But the notion of flow originates in the physical sciences, where, broadly speaking, the construct of fluidity conveys properties associated with fluids and hence aids in distinguishing between various states of matter. Historically, fluids (liquids and gases) were defined as amorphous substances that yield easily to external pressure and assume the shape of their containers, while solids were understood as substances with fixed volume and shape. In other words, states of matter were distinguished based on the observable (and essentially physical or formal) properties of materials themselves. Recently, physics has moved toward the description of underlying forces as the primary means of differentiating states of matter. According to this approach, solid designates a state in which intermolecular attractions keep molecules in fixed spatial relationships, whereas fluid describes one in which intermolecular attractions place molecules in loose proximity. This understanding of matter suggests that flow is not an inherent property of matter but the variable result of a network of interacting forces.

A similar—if more profound—shift in the understanding of subatomic particles was finally confirmed in July 2012, when the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, announced that it had (with near certainty) detected a Higgs boson. In order to confirm the existence of this particle, CERN constructed the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to smash together beams of subatomic particles accelerated to velocities nearing the speed of light; Higgs bosons are among the elementary particles produced by the tremendous energy of these collisions.

The Higgs is a very particular particle, one directly implicated in one of the most fundamental questions of physics: Why does matter have mass? For decades, physicists have theorized that mass might not be an inherent property of matter particles, but rather the effect of their interaction with an almost undetectable quantum field permeating the universe: the Higgs field. A rough analogy would be to picture the field as a fluid, which bestows mass on matter particles by creating a drag on them—with different particles possessing different masses because they encounter more or less drag. This theory was substantiated by the discovery of the Higgs boson, the constituent particle of this field, at CERN. Mass itself, then, is not a quantity—or even an inherent quality—of matter, but the dynamic product of a set of fluid interactions.

The LHC is located on the outskirts of Geneva, a mere forty miles from the Rolex Learning Center, and as conceptually distinct as these two structures may initially seem, the experiments conducted at the former may have major implications for how we understand the significance of the latter. The Higgs boson’s critical role in explaining how forces form matter suggests a potent model of fluidity for architecture: It suggests that architectural fluidity is not a material property or formal condition of architecture but is formative of architecture. If contemporary physics offers a means of understanding the way forces mediate interactions between particles within quantum fields, we might think of architectural fluidity as a means of exploring the ways in which materials, spaces, functions, and behaviors conjoin smoothly in relation to a set of physical and spatial impulses.

Yet the forces at work in architecture are not only spatial; they are also social. And just as the development of quantum mechanics over the past century rendered particle flows crucial to our understanding of the physical behavior of the universe, the development of social thought over the same period has granted the movement of bodies through space acute political significance. By the early twentieth century, the accelerating and interconnected trends of industrialization and urbanization had created not only a new kind of public but new kinds of space to serve it, as well as a host of corresponding anxieties about the safe and controlled occupation of public space. In 1919, Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes issued a famous ruling that (implicitly) designated the limit of individual free speech at the point that it threatened the ordered inhabitation of public space, proclaiming that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing panic.”

Although he did not make this explicit, the relationship between flowing bodies and their architectural container is central to Holmes’s thinking. His underlying image is of a theater audience safely ensconced in rows of seating. On hearing the call Fire!, this audience does not flow smoothly out of their seats but instead erupts into chaos. The public is safest, in other words, when it exists as a solid mass—too much freedom of motion among individuals is a threat to the public. Within a few years of the Holmes ruling, images of the public as a rigid mass began to appear explicitly in intellectual discourse, including in Georg Lukács’s discussion of the mechanized worker in his 1923 History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics and in Siegfried Kracauer’s examination of patterns of social arrangement and formation in his 1927 essay “The Mass Ornament.” The most enduring image from Kracauer’s essay is his exegesis of popular performance spectacles, such as Busby Berkeley’s arrays of dancers, but Kracauer also extends his diagnosis to the assembled audience, pointing out that “the regularity of their patterns is acclaimed by the masses, who themselves are arranged in row upon ordered row.”3 Here and elsewhere, the masses are characterized as an undifferentiated social body that acts in unison to conform to the structures of a rationalized modernity. The masses, too, inhabit the gridded geometries of architectural spaces that have themselves been subject to the rigid discipline of industrial modernism, whether the theater or the factory.

Recently, however, our understanding of the public has undergone a massive shift away from static states and toward forces and flows. In their celebrated 2004 book, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, social theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri contrast the long-standing notion of the masses with an emerging social subject they call the multitude. Here, groups and individuals do not have fixed relations, but continually recombine to produce fluid matrices of resistance that defy the silence of the masses.4 Born of fluid processes, the multitude is continuously formative, capable of modulating between individual agency and absorption into a collective.

While Hardt and Negri did not theorize the space of the multitude any more than Holmes explicitly folded the unyielding spaces of modern architecture into his landmark free-speech decision, their dynamic body politic seems utterly foreign to the orthogonal spaces of modernism, and the flowing architectures that have become increasingly common in the decade following their book’s publication offer some suggestive alternatives. All architectural manifestations of fluidity, however, are not the same.

UNStudio, Mercedes-Benz Museum, 2006, Stuttgart, Germany. Photo: Brigida Gonzalez.

AS TYPICALLY CONCEIVED, the most flexible areas within any building are the circulation spaces through which its occupants move. Unsurprisingly, then, many of today’s fluid architectures focus on zones explicitly dedicated to movement, following a strategy that might be compared to channeling, wherein liquids are directed and controlled by being passed through predetermined networks of flow. Hadid’s MAXXI provides a paradigmatic example of this approach. Indeed, the entire museum is organized as a series of channels. Readily visible in aerial views, these are a series of broad, sinuous bands, running the length of the building, which the architect has dubbed the structures “major streams.” Within the museum’s interior, a second scale of channeling is equally evident, as Hadid’s “minor streams,” composed of connecting bridges and vertical circulation, unfold at various angles across the larger spaces. As these streams of space converge and diverge, the museum’s main functions blend seamlessly into one another, from entry to circulation to exhibition and back to circulation. While the slippages between circulation and display, movement and viewing, are suggestive of freedom, the visitor’s path along the museum’s streams is in many ways prescribed, raising questions about the limits of individual agency within the space. Channels always lead somewhere, after all, and MAXXI’s converging channels end suddenly at the museum’s uppermost level, where the volume of Hadid’s spatial stream is suddenly severed by an enormous plane of glass that abruptly transforms it from a means of passing through the building into a frame through which to view the surrounding city.

Where it is deployed primarily as a strategy of circulation, channeling risks becoming didactic, even teleological. In UNStudio’s Mercedes-Benz Museum (2006), in Stuttgart, Germany, one of the first buildings aspiring to total spatial continuity to actually be constructed, visitors begin their tour at the top and navigate through the building by spiraling downward along a series of interconnected helical ramps that intertwine movement with historical narrative. Though more complex than Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous spiral at the Guggenheim, the structure is no less programmed. The procession commences with the birth of the automobile and the Mercedes-Benz corporation and continues downward through successive advances in the automotive industry presented in the context of major German and world-historical developments, which renders fluidity inextricable from progress and history. Similar, if slightly less prescriptive, equations of circulation with narrative can be seen in many more recent fluid architectures: In Ingels’s La Maison des Fondateurs, a central, sloping spiral is deployed “as a storyline” to guide the visitor through a sequence of integrated spaces and events from the entrance through lounges, galleries, and workshops, while at Shao’s Phoenix International Media Center a “dedicated visitors’ pathway” winds past the broadcasting studios. Ultimately, such clearly articulated channels limit the full potential of fluidity by defining architecture as an envelope that directs flow and inhabitants as material that flows. In this way, channels emphasize a split between container and contained, reminiscent of the traditional approach to defining fluids as substances that take the shape of their container.

Bjarke Ingels Group, La Maison des Fondateurs, anticipated completion 2018, Le Brassus, Switzerland. Rendering.

IN CONTRAST, the Rolex Learning Center aspires to a near-total fluidity that might be thought of as the architectural equivalent of superfluidity, the physical state in which substances flow without internal friction, at zero viscosity. With a total area of some 215,000 square feet, the center takes the form of a large, gently warped rectangle intermittently punctuated by a series of oval voids. From the air, the center’s rectangular exterior clearly delineates it from the urban fabric of the surrounding campus, but the visitor’s experience diffuses this contrast, as the main entries to the building are not on its perimeter. Instead, occupants slide under raised sections of the building’s edge, slipping into a liminal realm below the undulating concrete floor slab. Here, the fourteen voids perforating the structure’s main volume act as entry points to its interior, while also creating a series of daylit outdoor spaces and serving to loosely define the center’s spatial organization. The center’s very substance takes shape around these ovals as one continuous extrusion. Modulating between the ground plane and the building’s main floor, the building’s wavelike motion places it in a continuous state of formation, held in check by a consistent eleven-foot ceiling height within the interior.5

As the building’s ground plane soars and dips, users necessarily navigate a realm that is neither fully horizontal nor fully vertical. Movement through the center, then, is always doubly inflected, the product of two sets of forces: the warping floor that redefines vertical movement and the voids that direct that movement in sinuous paths circumnavigating the building. Together, these forces fashion spatial zones without use of physical barriers. As the architects note, “Clearly, but without dividing walls, one area gives way to another.” Where they become necessary, separations replicate the ordering logic of the voids on a more local scale; for example, the cluster of circular white enclosures that provide administrative spaces, or the glass-enclosed group-study areas that the architects suggestively refer to as “bubbles,” as if they were particles suspended in the continuous stream of the building’s space.

While the center’s fluidity is visible in the continuous rise and fall of its internal landscape, its defining characteristic is a combined programmatic and spatial openness sparked by the circuitous and unscripted movement of its inhabitants. The center houses a library, student work spaces, offices, restaurants, and a café6 but owes its definitive character to the extensive areas of unprogrammed space specifically conceived for open-ended interaction and use, designed to host everything from impromptu study groups to longer-term research collaborations.7 The building is conceived as an experimental place of learning, and in this sense its use is less predetermined than it is enacted. Long-standing architectural binaries—between floor and wall, container and contained, one level and another—are here transformed into dynamic interactions that continuously reverse any hierarchy of spatial or programmatic order.

Unlike MAXXI or the Phoenix Center, with their explicit channels, the Rolex Learning Center presents a world neither predetermined by narrative nor ruled by rigid spatial boundaries, one in which a dynamic system of conjoining and shifting alignments manifests new modes of inhabitation and interaction, and perhaps even a microcosm of a newly fluid body politic. Indeed, the very potential of the center’s model of fluidity lies in its engendering of new archetypes of social formations and subjectivity. Yet for this to come to fruition, it is crucial for architecture to remain active, rather than settling into a mere form or image of flow, divested of its combined material and social function. The ultimate promise of architectural fluidity lies in a continuum that brings multifarious forces, actors, and spaces into an ongoing state of formation, one that replaces entrenched dichotomies with a model of a fluid interchange between a multiplicity of agents. Architectural fluidity emerges fully at a moment when the dialectical constructs (of space, of politics, of historical progress) that ushered in modernity (and lingered under postmodernism) reach their unimagined dissolution in an ever-changing flow.

Nana Last is an associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Architecture.


1. Jay Merrick, “Learning Curve: SANAA’s Spectacular Floating Lausanne Library Rockets Them into Architecture’s Premier League,” Independent, February 18, 2010.

2. This understanding of flow was proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.

3. Siegfried Kracauer, “The Mass Ornament,” trans. Barbara Correll and Jack Zipes, New German Critique, no. 5 (Spring 1975): 67.

4. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).

5. The exception is the six-hundred-seat multipurpose room, the Rolex Forum, with its sixteen-foot ceiling.

6. A hidden basement level contains parking and additional stacks.

7. To support such purposes, SANAA developed beanbag seats that are scattered around the floor.