Friday, July 18, 2008

The Mitterand National Library of France

Paris_BibDeFrance-1, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

The "Bibliothèque national de France - François Mitterand" opened in 1992, the result of a highly publicized design competition won by Dominique Perrault, who happens to have an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou right now which details in multimedia format how awesome he and his signature metal link screens are. The "Bibliothèque national de France - François Mitterand" also has the distinction of being the least inviting public space I have ever visited. It makes City Hall plaza in Boston seem like the Luxembourg Gardens.

It's very cool from a distance, especially when approaching via the new Simone de Beauvoir footbridge, as in the photo at the top. However, once you arrive on site, this is the view:

Among the things forbidden on this vast expanse of pressurized decking are bicycles, skateboards, roller skates, and dogs. What few pedestrians there are have to huddle on a few uncomfortable stairs if they need to rest during their trek from one tower to the other.

Perrault's concept, supposedly, is that the library is sunk into the ground around a central garden and the book storage towers, um, tower over the ground like four open books. I'd like to interject here that the "garden" would more accurately described as a wild tangle of trees lurking menacingly in a pit. (In case you're wondering, there is no entry in the "garden.") I tried to take a photo that effectively showed how forbidding it is, but this actually looks much nicer than it is in real life.

On a sunny July morning I felt the chill of Mordor in this place; I can only imagine what it must be like in November. This is a great example of a designer coercing his ideas what a "space" should be without any consideration of its function for all the little people figurines they scatter around their architectural models like cake decorations. Can you believe that it didn't occur to them until after the library was finished that designing the book storage towers entirely in transparent glass was not the best solution for the books? (They have since installed swinging wooden shades behind every single window.)

As a final raspberry to the public, entry is $5, and there is no free wifi. In a library. Clearly, they are not interested in having this be a place where folks will congregate, despite the original idea that the library would help vitalize the scruffy 13th arrondisement. Remarkably, this celebrated building succeeds in actually worsening the sense of isolation in one of the more neglected areas of the city.

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