Logo - Cal State Fullerton POLLAK LIBRARY  < CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, FULLERTON Publications of the Patrons

A Monumental New Library in Paris

May 1999

     Two great new libraries--the British Library and the Bibliotheque Nationale de France--have opened in London and Paris during the last year. Each enshrines its nations literary culture as well as the essence of world civilization in print. Each was conceived as a landmark in library design and a paragon of electronic technology. And each has been a storm-center of controversy.

     The new British Library, featured in the Patrons' Newsletter for January, completely replaced the grand Victorian library in the British Museum; but the new National Library of France has not entirely supplanted the ornate old Bibliotheque Nationale in Rue Richelieu. A sufficiently large new space for it was found outside central Paris in the desolate and poverty-stricken 13th arrondissement near the former marshalling yards of the Gare d'Austerlitz on the left bank of the Seine near the Tolbiac bridge. The natural slope of the riverbank site was reconstructed and a level concrete platform a quarter mile long was created on which the entire 17-acre library complex rests. Three tiers of red granite steps some 1,000 feet long parallel the embankment road, rising some 25 feet from the street to the new library ground level; and the two shorter ends of the rectangular site have similar ramparts. Totally bare, without handrails, benches, or lights, these steps, reminiscent of Aztec pyramids or Assyrian ziggurats, challenge rather than invite the passerby to ascend, and it can be imagined how forbidding they are in rain, wind, and especially snow and ice. On the platform at the ends of the site are row upon row of small boxed ornamental trees geometrically arranged, each tree enclosed in a tubular aluminum cage--to prevent theft, or to prevent escape?

     When the need for a new library became apparent in the late 1980s, President Francois Mitterand viewed it as a personal project involving the nation's pride and image. La Gloire is something France has always cherished, and the Socialist Mitterand was another de Gaulle in this respect: Paris must have the greatest modern library in the world, befitting France's cultural traditions. It would become the last and largest of his "Grands Travaux," in Paris, monumental architectural enterprises such as the Opera Bastille, the Louvre's glass pyramid, and Le Grande Arche, a 350-foot hollow marble cube. As architect he chose the obscure Dominique Perrault, who proceeded to fulfill the "master's" wishes, and construction was rushed to completion in 19 months.

Bibliotheque Nationale de France     From the level concrete base rise four glass-faced towers, each L-shaped in ground plan, intended to evoke an open book standing on edge. Over 320 feet high, internally 24 stories, they are visible for miles up and down the Seine. They contain most of the Library's 11 million books -- and give book "stacks" a new meaning. A 60-foot deep rectangular central well some 700 feet long nestles between them, and this "lower garden" is planted with a forest of full-grown evergreens whose tops are barely visible at ground level. Its sides are 5-story glass walls, and behind them are the subterranean reading rooms. 

     The costly artificiality of the scheme immediately drew the fire of critics, who pointed to the immense distances between books and readers and the difficulties of efficient book transport. But these problems called attention to a deeper and prior flaw in design. Originally, readers were to occupy the towers and books would be housed underground. But encroaching moisture stains suggested that the waters of the Seine were penetrating the basement, and it would be folly to imperil the whole legacy of French culture with damp, rot, or flood. So the towers were re-configured for books, and the basement for people. But books are also damaged by constant exposure to sunlight, so thousands of wood shutters were fabricated and installed, and of course this changed the intended appearance of the towers.

     These were early embarrassments. It took three years to move the 11 million volumes from Rue Richelieu (where there is still a repository for certain collections). The library was inaugurated by Mitterand in March 1995; and when he died ten months later, it was inevitably named for him. The Bibliotheque Francois Mitterand was not ready for public use until October 1998, and by that time had cost $1.5 billion (twice the cost of the new British Library). But within days there was a massive computer breakdown, and it was clear the system had not been adequately tested. Workers had to hand-carry books to scholars, new untrained staff were hired, and working conditions in the towers were deplorable. All this precipitated a strike of 800 of the 2800 employees, which temporarily shut down the library. When it reopened, hours were curtailed to permit further work on the computers. Blame for all the old and new problems was freely distributed, invidious comparisons were made with the new British Library, and the architect called for a "period of adjustment." The press revived controversy over Mitterand's architectural legacy, and there was, predictably, public introspection about social malaise and the soul of France.

     How successful is this "first library of the third millennium?" The public reading areas, for which there is a 20 franc ($4) daily charge, seem to be working well. In the 2000-seat research area, at 30 francs daily, there is a 24 hour delay in obtaining books, and no provision exists for even asking a research question. The sunken central mini-forest is perhaps a visual relief fro what is otherwise an ambience of austere modernism, but the overall impression I have from my two visits is that of an imposed imperial style that makes little concession to effective function or humane values.

Albert R. Vogeler