François-Mitterrand French National Library


Design by architect Dominique Perrault the French National Library is considered the first example of minimalist modern architecture on a large scale. Noteworthy is the use of materials: concrete structures and technological systems are left exposed to liven up the squared forms that characterize the whole building. 

perrault okThe French National Library (Site François-Mitterrand, Tolbiac) opened to the public in 1996. The futuristic design by Dominique Perrault is a quartet of 24-story towers evoking the look of open books. Each tower has a name: Tour des temps (Tower of Time), Tour des lois (Tower of the Laws), Tour des nombres (Tower of Numbers), Tour des letters (Tower of Letters).

The site boasts the same grandiose scale as the Cité de la Musique and houses the archives of history and literature of the whole nation; considered to be a “repository of the French soul”, the outdated archives of rue des Archives. The library can host up to 1,600 users, who can enjoy magnificent views of the two-level garden courtyard away from Paris’ urban congestion.

The library spaces are distributed around a large horizontal platform, with four angular towers including seven floors of offices and eleven floors entirely devoted to the archive and the immense collection. The remaining part of the collection is located on the ground floor, close to the reading rooms. An innovative eight-kilometer rail system using 330 suspended trolleys allows books and documents to be transported from library stack areas to the reading rooms. Access to the platform is through a series of covered ramps in Brazil wood, overlooking the Seine.

“An initiatory place and not some monster of a building, part temple and part supermarket.A place of reference for the East End of Paris. A place that is part and parcel of the continuity of the sequence of large empty spaces along the Seine, like the place de Ia Concorde, theChamp de Mars, and the Invalides.

In this way the site beside the Seine becomes one of major importance with the activation of this place; the hill in the 13th arrondissement gives on to the Seine, and turns its back on the disgrace of the sari Porte de Choisy and Porte d’lvry high rise towerblocks.

With this combination of a free and open space, built to the scale of the capital, and horizontality, the Bibliothèque de France unfurls its breadth and volume by way of its four “beacon”- like markers, akin to tension-rode or braces for the flat area between them. Offering a verticality that defines a virtual volume, which, in turn, crystallizes all the magic, presence and poetry of the complex. With its four corner towers resembling four open books all facing one another and delimiting a symbolic place, the Bibliothèque de France – a mythical place – imposes its presence and identity on the scale of the city by the adjustment of its four corners.

These urban landmarks develop and enhance the idea of the “book”, with a random system of occultation of the towers, the occupation of which is like an accumulation of learning, of knowledge that is never complete, and of a slow but on-going process of sedimentation. Other complementary metaphors spring to mind, be it book-towers, or silos, or vast racks with countless shelves, or vertical labyrinths, and all these unambiguous images converge on a powerful identity of these architectural objects.

The installation of a square underpins the notion of availability, as applied to treasure. It is the towers which have helped to situate and identify this treasure as cultural. The public place will offer a direct and natural physical contact between the sacred institution and the man in the street. The inclusion of an “inlaid”, sunken garden rounds off the symbolic siting of the project, offering a quiet spot away from the fuss and bother of the city. Like a cloister, this tranquil, unruffled space will invite contemplation and a flow of intellectual endeavour.

This great project raised the question of form: it pushed us to our outer aesthetic limits, nearer to the essential and fundamental concept of antiform. One might even call this idea a mutation of architecture-design in the direction of architecture landscaping. Such a thing is out of step with all the rules and principles we have been taught. Concerns such as the style of a facade, a building’s inside, outside, upper parts, lower parts, entry porch, perimeter wall, articulation of forms and continuity of spaces… all these things are archaic notions, or rather they are broadly insufficient to reflect the complexity of the world we live in. Architecture must get down off its pedestal; when it does, it will find freedom.

Archilecture is not avant-garde art; it is arrière-garde art. It has always been about twenty years behind the great avant-garde movements, always fearful that it will be too quickly contaminated by them. Artists have proclaimed the death of art; it is time that architects made manifest the death, dissolution and obliteration of architecture, and replaced it with an approach that blends our cities with the world ot nature. Such an approach would introduce a landscape innocent of exclusions, made of everything, for everyone. That would be an entirely positive thing.”

Dominique Perrault

TECHNICAL SHEETThe National Library of France
 Site François-Mitterrand (Tolbiac)
Client: French Ministry for Culture
 Quai François Mauriac, 75013 Paris, France
Architect: Dominique Perrault Architecture, Paris
Site characteristics: A landmark of the East side of Paris. A place that integrates in the array of large empty spaces along the Seine, like Place de Ia Concorde, Champ de Mars, and Les Invalides. In this way, the location on the banks of the Seine becomes of major importance: the hill in the 13th arrondissement overlooks the river and turns the back to the poor urban landscape of Porte de Choisy and Porte d’lvry
Program: Public spaces (public reading rooms, 1, 556 places, research reading rooms, 2,034 places, for a total of 3,590 readers and 59,070 sq.m.
Reception and public services area (23,000 sq.m); Conference rooms (3,000 sq.m); stock rooms (71,000 sq.m, ca. 400 km of shelves and 20 million volumes)
Site area: 65,300 sq.m
Built area: 365, 178 sq.m  
Built volume: 1,500,000 sq.m,
Green areas: 10,782 sq.m, 250 trees (oak trees, wild pine trees, birches).
Seaside promenade: 58 811 sq.m
  Construction system: Designed to rest on the Rive Gauche of the Seine, the library is composed by four 25-story glass towers defining the borders of a large excavated esplanade to create a large forest-garden.
Materials: Walls and ceilings are wrapped with metal knitting originally developed for the aerospace industry and filters production. Perrault intentionally exploited the expressive force of this material that affects the chromatic shades of the different areas of the building. The materials used for the construction of the Library (exposed concrete, stainless steel and doussié wood) are the heart of the design concept of the building.
Job assignment:  1989 competition including 244 projects by internationally renowned architects.
Start of works: 1992
End of works: 1995
Opening: 1996


Dominique Perrault



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