Site Verrier de Meisenthal marries industrial heritage with a current institutional identity
by Anmol AhujaJul 11, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Sunena V MajuPublished on : Feb 09, 2023
“….closed in on itself, the large, magnificent, worn, fragmented, dark and dilapidated treasure chest has now been given a new identity, full of light.”
This is how Atelier Bruno Gaudin Architectes narrativised their 15-year-long renovation of the former National Library of France, also called the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF). In 2007, Atelier Gaudin was appointed as project manager for the requalification of the Richelieu Quadrangle, 'parent institution' of BnF. It was the first time that the building—the entire library, except for the five listed spaces—could be analysed and taken in its entirety by a single project manager. “The premises immediately appeared to be fascinating witnesses to the eventful architectural history of a building that was built in fits and starts over three centuries. Understanding the building is an infinitely complex undertaking because of the breaks in levels, the dead ends, the dispersal of traffic, the densification by strata or by ‘islands,’ and the often erratic transformations that impede an understanding of this vast tangle of spaces,” share the architects.
The first phase of the project, completed in 2016, enabled the architects to probe deeper into the site's reorganisation. This primarily involved the redistribution of circulation, preservation and reinterpretation of high-value areas, revealing traces of older design details and giving them new uses, along with providing work areas while ensuring good conditions.
The new circulation, both vertical and horizontal, was planned to ease the movement of users and provide easy access to the collections. These redistributed circulation nodes were built into the gaps of the site in an organised manner. In this venture, one of the challenges they faced was identifying the different architectural forms and styles that characterise the site. Since the historic site had undergone many layers of renovations and reconstructions by diverse and renowned architects, over the years, there were a multitude of architectural and spatial interventions. While presenting these preserved ornamentations and treasured heritage spaces of the building, the architects opted for glazed structures at places that would maximise their visibility. This transparency also enables users to easily find their way around the vast building.
Built in 1461, the BnF in Paris is on two sites, known as Richelieu and François-Mitterrand. Atelier Gaudin worked on the renovation of the Richelieu Quadrangle comprising the Vivienne Garden, the great hall, the Oval room, the Labrouste room, the central book stack area, Hôtel Tubeuf and the Roux-Spitz, and various other workspaces, reading rooms, and tertiary spaces. Spread across almost 69,000 sqm surface area, these spaces of Richelieu hold a significant history of the country’s past and treasured pieces of information in them.
"This polymorphous architectural and heritage complex had to be restored and/ or renovated, adapted and/or transformed to meet the challenges of a contemporary library programme from a spatial, functional and technical point of view, while at the same time integrating the architectural and heritage dimensions, a particularity that underpinned the project to create an architectural trail to discover this heritage jewel," mention the architects.
The spatial interventions in the site start from Vivienne Garden, by introducing a new entrance which helps elevate the presence of the garden. This new entrance reunites the three facades surrounding it– all of which used to be back facades–transforming them into the entrance facades to the Vivienne and Roux-Spitz halls.
To the north of the Vivienne Garden comes the great hall with a new sculptural spiral staircase. Amid the intricate ornamentation and stonework of French architecture displayed in the great hall, Atelier Gaudin has approached the staircase design as a contemporary embodiment that contrasts its traditional shelter. In an interesting use of spiral form, light, and the repetitive balance in the design, the minimal design of the stair uniquely fits the subtle grandeur of traditional motifs. This frame, visible from the entrance, where the new meets the old nudges visitors to experience the new additions in the space, imparting curiosity for the 562-year-old site.
Led by this expectation, the visitors enter the Oval room, completely refurbished and restored, from Vivienne Hall. The oval form of the space repetitively reflects in the seating and hanging storage, reminiscent of an abstraction of fingerprints and rings in an onion. “The aim was not to break with the existing architecture but to draw inspiration from the form in order to weave a link between contemporary uses and the furniture that has been preserved,” share the architects. Though the design language of the Oval room followed the familiarity of the old space, the new furniture design and artificial lighting have been designed to facilitate new perceptions of the large space.
The renovation of the Labrouste room was entrusted to Jean-François Lagneau, chief architect of historic monuments. While the Oval room is open to readers to source and access material to their choice, the Labrouste room allows readers to consult the printed matter of their choice, brought to them at request. The renovation of the space draws from the inspirations of neoclassical and greek architecture widely seen in France. With dome ceilings, caryatids-like columns, and subtle Baroque ornamentations, the Labrouste room is the coming together of different layers of time that have passed the building.
A series of beautiful rooms stretching from the courtyard of honour to the rue des Petits - Champs consist of the vestibule, the reading room, and the book storage area. The studies undertaken by the architects mention, “This ensemble by Henri Labrouste was built between 1857 and 1868. The infrastructure and superstructure extensions were designed by Michel Roux-Spitz in two stages: the creation of two basement levels between 1936 and 1938, followed by the raising of the five levels between 1954 and 1959.”
Mentioning this central book stack area as an "alchemy of wood, cast iron, and light," they further add, "The central book stack area is a particularly emblematic witness to the stratified history of the site. It is therefore as an exceptional piece that Atelier Gaudin decided to 'rediscover' this industrial architecture imagined and implemented by Henri Labrouste. However, as the shop was profoundly transformed by Michel Roux-Spitz in the 20th century, it is a composite whole that must be read in 2016.” While merging technical architecture and history in the renovation of the space, this intervention extends to become a result of the architects’ year-long study of the structure.
The other areas of the site that the architects have renovated and worked on are—the museum named 'The gallery of glass,' on the first floor, The Hôtel Tubeuf, the Roux-Spitz spaces, and various other tertiary spaces. Atelier Gaudin’s architectural approaches to these spaces are holistically rooted in their understanding of the structure. Even in spaces that aren’t accessible to the public and directly connected to, the architects have kept constant attention to not overdo the design.
With the coming together of the many detailed interventions, translated from years of study, research and documentation, the renovation of BnF can be considered a fine example of restoration that happens in the process. In their patient approach of probing into details of every layer of intervention in the structure, the 15-year timeline seems visible in every element of the newly opened library space.
Talking about the project, the architects conclude, “The architectural intervention of the Gaudin agency concerns the whole of the Quadrilatère and the logic of the project has remained the same whatever the nature of the spaces treated: understanding the site, determining the architectural qualities of a structure, a space, the historical trace it represents, dealing with the constraints, articulating the existing structures with the project without rupture, dialoguing, adapting... It can be said that each room was the object of a project in itself.”
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