The BEM (mutualised education building) in the École Polytechnique district of the Paris-Saclay campus was inaugurated in December 2023, almost ten years after the competition won by architects Sou Fujimoto, Nicolas Laisné, Manal Rachdi (OXO architectes) and Dimitri Roussel (DREAM). The new learning centre is a 9,000-sq.m and 4-storeys volume, and a 1,000-sq.m fully glazed atrium that relocates the entrance to the École Polytechnique, of which the BEM is an extension, to the future entrance to the campus, to be inaugurated with the opening of the future metro station, scheduled for 2026.
This project is not just an urban piece in a campus struggling to find its balance. Above all, it was an opportunity for its architects to embody their thoughts on teaching. “In a traditional classroom, teaching is unidirectional. We respected the competition guidelines, but it was important for us to go beyond the program and propose places where multidirectional teaching is possible”, emphasises Sou Fujimoto. In the atrium, nestled between the floating circulations, four flights of wooden bleachers: “spontaneous amphitheatres”, words of the architects, wide open, for exchanging and working together without being compartmentalised, either by curricula or by the walls of a classroom. To ensure that the space is not just used for passing through, and to encourage students and researchers to stop by, the architects have turned it into a “mild climate space”, combining eight trees planted in the open ground with an automatic louvers system connected to a probe measuring humidity and temperature.
If the introversion is successful, the choice to turn towards an unglamorous exterior has been taken on board by the architects of the BEM. According to Dimitri Roussel, “we need to give Saclay more time to develop a link between all the different buildings. And that means time to develop its public space.” Sou Fujimoto adds: “A building is such a small thing in this changing district. However, by creating an opening to the campus, we hope to make this learning centre one of the good examples of what can be built.” The same can undoubtedly be said of Rem Koolhaas’s École CentraleSupelec or Renzo Piano’s École normale supérieure de Cachan in the Moulon district, at the east of the campus; or Emmanuelle and Laurent Beaudouin’s Lumen Learning Center building, undoubtedly one of the most successful. But at Saclay, the architects’ good intentions don’t seem to be enough to create a “neighbourhood”. To be continued.