AD Classics: National Library of France / Dominique Perrault

©Yuri Palmin

As an edition to the developing urban project in eastern Paris, the French National Library was built in hopes to be the most modern library in the world. The competition of 1989 that included projects from 244 internationally renowned architects was won by , who was only 36 years old. This project would be the defining design of Perrault‘s career.

Read more about the history of the National Library of after the break.

©Yuri Palmin

Specifically designed for it’s location in the Siene Rive Gauche district, the basic concept is composed of four tall towers that define the boundaries of an esplanade, which is hollowed out of the ground to create a vast forest-garden. The four beacon-like markers with an area measuring up to 350,000 m2 were constructed on a stretch of industrial wasteland, each one comprised of wood, metal, concrete and glass.

©Yuri Palmin

They were designed to resemble four open books all open towards one another, to imply a volume and symbolic space. The establishment of the open square gives the notion of accessibility and availability, inviting the public to enjoy the square. It’s semi-industrial approach is obvious at every scale, particularly with the use of stainless steel. Different meshes of the steel are woven into panels to be used as coverings for walls and ceilings, as well as partitions and outdoor plantrooms. The monumental towers are draped in stainless steel, by the application of five meter high panels that are tiled to create the surfaces.

©Perrault Architecture

This use of mesh is present on all levels of the building; in the research rooms, the technical ducts are hidden under a ceiling of mesh, which also serves to control the acoustics. In the reading rooms, a similar technique is used more decoratively, creating a wave-like effect across the ceiling. The conference room uses the meshes as stage curtains, the stainless steel falling in folds from the ceiling.

©Perrault Architecture

An interesting but less obvious aspect of the design is the lack of complete visibility from one side of a large open space to the other. Perrault thoughtfully places shutters, visual screens, grills and meshes, which add intimacy and privacy to different reading spaces. The grid is prevalent in the design, found in the lighting masts of the reading rooms, ceiling-mounted lights, and sheathed in braided stainless steel.

©Yuri Palmin

The wire mesh and incorporation of stainless steel mark the extent of the decoration; the project was to give importance to the urban environment and materials. Books fill all the shelves, with more than ten million volumes.

Architect: Dominique Perrault
Location: Paris, France
Project Year: 1989-1995
References: Jean Favier, Dominique Perrault, Michael Brawne
Photography: Yuri Palmin, Perrault Architecture

Cite: Sveiven, Megan. "AD Classics: National Library of France / Dominique Perrault" 12 Jan 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 29 Mar 2015. <>
  • 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.

  • 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

      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


      ..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.