AD Classics: National Library of France / Dominique Perrault Architecture

  • 30 Apr 2015
  • by
  • Cultural
© Yuri Palmin

On the banks of the river Seine, just east of the Île de la Cite and downtown Paris, stand the four glittering towers of the National Library of . Bent around the outskirts of a public esplanade, these towers are Dominique Perrault’s modern take on the age-old Parisian tradition of monumental public architecture. The project is both volume and void, enclosure and exposure, a juxtaposition of contrasting ideas that is as reverent of its place in a thousand-year-old legacy as it is deliberately self-critical.

The library began as the most ambitious in a long line of architectural undertakings – the Grands Projets – spearheaded by President François Mitterand in the 1980s and early 90s. Alongside the Arab World Institute, the Parc de la Villette, the famously controversial Pyramide at the Louvre, and others, these projects aimed to create a new set of modern monuments for a city long defined by its architecture. [1] In 1989, Mitterand launched a major competition to design the new national library, drawing entries from 244 architects around the world. [2] It was to the great astonishment of most when the young Frenchman, Perrault, won the contest at only thirty-six years of age.

© Yuri Palmin

Perrault’s design is a provocative play on the traditional role of great public architecture in . It carries a sense of monumentality and visual iconicity that is, of course, familiar to Parisians, but the library is distinctly modern in affect and progressive in ethos. Frivolity and indulgence are spurned in favor of a language of minimalism. Classical arcades, stone carvings, and ornamental expressions of wealth and power are replaced by glass, steel, and weathered wood, the understated and economical palette of the urban masses and a throwback to midcentury ideals. In the interiors, red carpeting, natural woods, and elegant fixtures are stately but tastefully restrained.

© Dominique Perrault Architecture

For visitors and residents of the 13th Arrondissement, the library is accessible and inclusive, using its massive footprint not to appropriate but to create liberated public space. From the riverside, a dramatic block-long staircase leads visitors from the sidewalk to the public esplanade and elevated walkways that connect the four towers. Between its open design and its educational functions, the library is a programmatic and symbolic monument to socialist ideals, a quality surely not lost on the leftist President who enthusiastically sold the design to the French people. [3]

© Yuri Palmin

At the core of the elevated esplanade is a vast central courtyard. It is hollowed out and filled in by trees, as if the urban environment had itself rotted out and been filled with life. Two hundred and fifty oaks, wild pines, and birches are planted within it, an oasis emerging from the ashes of a derelict industrial site. [4] The message of the design is clear: at the core of the project – and perhaps at the center of human knowledge – is nature, not man and his urbanism. In contrast with other models of Parisian monumental architecture, the building does not work to glorify itself, but rather to play with the drama of emptiness and void.

© Dominique Perrault Architecture

The surrounding enclosures, along with the towers themselves, contain a seemingly endless sequence of library facilities. Nearly 3,600 study spaces fill the reading rooms, adjacent to acres of offices, galleries, and conference rooms. With four hundred kilometers of shelves, the library’s collection is capable of housing an astounding twenty million volumes, making it the largest book repository in France and among the largest in the world.

© Dominique Perrault Architecture

Although they are physically and symbolically displaced from the center of the project, the four corner towers were far from peripheral concerns for the architect. Built using an elaborate double facade, they are visually complex and layered, refracting a prismatic display of natural and artificial light that is both artistic expression and purposeful signage. Perrault describes his inspiration: “A diaphanous light will rise up through the interiors of the glass towers, culminating in four topmost points, which will shimmer like four lighthouse beacons. This liquid light will spread over the square, while the towers will be reflected in the Seine.” [5]

© Yuri Palmin

Upon its completion in 1995, the library received a bevy of prestigious international awards, including the European Union’s Mies van der Rohe Award in 1996. But its critical reception was decidedly mixed, especially for those who had fought to steer architecture away from the decontextualized languages of post-war modernism that the library seemed to reincarnate. Anthony Vidler in particular cautioned against the urban consequences of Perrault’s visions of “asphalt wilderness,” arguing that the library “returns us to a contempt for the urban street not voiced with such ferocity since Le Corbusier’s fulminations in L’Intransigeant in 1929.” [6] Nevertheless, for the young Perrault, Mitterand’s ambitious competition was nothing short of the commission of a lifetime, singlehandedly launching Perrault’s since-prolific international career.

© Yuri Palmin

Note: Last November, in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the library’s completion, DPA launched a new website documenting the history of the project (available here).

© Yuri Palmin

[1] Goldberger, Paul. “In Paris, A Face Lift in Grand Style.” The New York Times. Published 17 May 1987. Accessed 21 April 2015 at http://www.nytimes.com/1987/05/17/arts/in-paris-a-face-lift-in-grand-style.html?src=pm.

[2] Rockwell, John. “French Culture Under Socialism: Egotism or a Sense of History?” Published 24 March 1993. Accessed 24 April 2015 at http://www.nytimes.com/1993/03/24/arts/french-culture-under-socialism-egotism-or-a-sense-of-history.html.

[3, 4, 5] “French National Library.” Dominique Perrault Architecture. Accessed 21 April 2015 at http://www.perraultarchitecte.com/en/projects/2465-french_national_library.html.

[6] Vidler, Anthony. “Books in Space: Tradition and Transparency in the Bibliotheque de France.” Representations, No. 42, Special Issue: Future Libraries (Spring, 1993), p. 116.

Architects: Dominique Perrault Architecture
Location: Quai Francois Mauriac, 75014
Area: 365173.0 sqm
Year: 1995
Photographs: Yuri Palmin, Dominique Perrault Architecture

Cite: Langdon, David. "AD Classics: National Library of France / Dominique Perrault Architecture" 30 Apr 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed 30 May 2015. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=103592>
  • fokt

    Why is there nothing about the gigantic sunken garden in the middle? It’s viewable from the reading rooms and meant to be something for people to generate focus, contemplation and to give the reader the impression that they are far removed from the busy city. You can’t actually access it, so the connection is purely for the eyes and wandering mind.

    There is also next to nothing about how it sits along the Seine and is part of a newer development of contemporary architecture within the Périphérique. Keep in mind that La Défense is outside of Paris. The library is also part of a long line of public works/monuments meant to be the legacies of former leaders of France.

    The library is more than wood and metal mesh. The description is really lacking and doesn’t address the real reasons of why this project is meaningful.

  • F.

    No light control, I think a glass building as a library isn’t the good solution…

    • onsaj

      Indeed.. the very symbolic choice of the architect was to have the four towers being like four giant open books ~sortof. They wanted to celebrate the rare books and so they put them in these perfect towers for all the world to see. That was the plan, but sure enough it was eventually pointed out that this exposure would destroy any rare books, and would not be good in general. So they developed beautiful wooden shutters at extra expen$e to create controlled floor to ceiling shade and insulation for the books. So all that is viisble in the end are empty corridors upstairs in the towers. The books are kept behind these. This also reduced the storage footprint available. All the human activity is below unseen, part public and some private by appointment only spaces for officially approved scholars and researchers. There is an interior courtyard with glass walls all around but unless things have changed, the upper visible floors [with a nice view of Paris] are not really for people. In other words, the building’s functional space is upside down to ordinary expectations.

      There is an ancillary library outside of Paris which is necessary for both simple storage reasons, and special safety backup double-copy logistics. They have to truck books back and forth between the two libraries. The other one is not so glamorous ;-)

      At least that is what I was told when I visited c.1995

      I think this story is somewhat parallel to what happened in London with the confused saga of the development of the British Library when it moved from the British Museum to its new fuggly Euston Road premises. They ‘ran out of space’ or simply did not anticipate well enough.

      While restricting public acess in Paris to many of the books, part of the budget and idea was to expand the innovative French Mediateque instincts. So they set out in 1990s [14,400 bps modems remember?] to scan everything and aimed someday to put it all on CDs dvds, online..

      I’m not sure they did everything.
      But they did a lot and some of it is gorgeous.
      see http://www.bnf.fr/fr/acc/x.accueil.html

  • Fernando

    Good point, fokt.

    And, how we can discuss architecture without plans an sections?

  • Daniel

    In fact, there is lack of information, but from what we can see in the pictures, that´s definitely not a warm or inviting atmosfere… the scale of the building and it´s spaces (interior and exterior) seems to emphasize the heaviness of the institution, creating imponent and sever spaces.

    • Second Rate

      Daniel,
      The descent to the reading rooms, and the reading rooms themselves are both surreal as well as “warm” and inviting. My personal belief is that the massive plinth and “heaviness” you suggested only emphasizes this. Having been there in person, I found it to be completely memorable in my education as an architect. The move to invert the stacks and reading room and its connection to the French national forest are radical moves. Go there. Don’t take my word for it…and don’t make presumptions from images.

      p.s. the automated book retrieval system is amazing!…all back of house unfortunately.

      • Daniel

        To criticize a building without being in it always leads to the risk of being frivolous (if that´s the right word, sorry for my english!). I´ve been to Paris once, but having to chose among so many masterpieces, didn´t visit the library. Passed through it a couple of times by train and felt what I said. From outside, i think it´s so sumptuous and imposing that it ends up repelling other than inviting people to go in.
        But that´s my belief. I believe contemporary institutions like this must be open and inviting to people, and that´s something that involves scale. Those vast, empty open spaces do not seduce me at all!
        But you are right, the interior atmospheres and the little details are really important for the quality of an architectonic work and one cannot judge some aspects of a building without being in it.

    • c

      I agree with Second Rate. In person, the sunken courtyard is central to the entire space and very lush and serene. You feel like you’ve left Paris completely, with only the greenery, books, and exquisite detailing.

  • andrew

    this thing is HUGE…and full of books? really? hmm…

  • onsaj

    I visited the library on a special Sunday morning architectural preview tour c.1995(?) The building was finished, but not yet full of books or people. Kind of like most all architectural softporn – pristine but devoid of life.

    What these photos unfortunately do not capture is the beauty and care of the materials design detailing *close up*. The woods and satin finish, the deep carpet, the lighting thoughout, the metal wire meshes hanging like silken-chain-mail curtains [often subtly backlit to reveail ducting, ficings, and more], the very intimate QUIET, exclusive scholars private study rooms, the staggering quality of the massive teak steps outside [had to be strong enough to support firetrucks!!].. and last but not leaet the hidden skin which conatined the service corridors and robotic miniature train carrying books horizontally and vertically ;-) to readers

    See the site void of humans, other than us archi-tourists, the striking feeling after was that building at a distance in photos is cold and ****-ed up, but close-up, inside full many surprising warm and delicate deaitsl, often t4eh coldest of which, became the armets and most delightful in contra-balance to other elemnts, and in my memory. It was a very surprising visit. I’d love to hear from people who have worked there.

    • onsaj

      typpologies…

      ..But close-up inside, full of many surprising warm and delicate details, often the potentially coldest of which, became the warmest and most delightful – a contra-balance to other elements, and in my memory.