The building for the new French National Library (the Bibliothéque de France) that is just about to be constructed in Paris is a threat to French culture. It is hostile to books, hostile to people, hostile to the city of Paris. It is impractical, indifferent to its site, indifferent to the sensibility of its users. The story of its construction has much to say about the cynicism of modern architects who want to please politicians and bureaucrats rather than the public, and it should be cautionary for other countries, even though French scholars and students will suffer mainly from its effects. It is impossible for scholars to do work on French history and culture without relying on the French National Library, and now it faces an architectural disaster in Paris.

The need to find a new home for the old Bibliothèque Nationale (BN) was obvious. Pierre Labrouste’s reading room in Paris, on the Rue de Richelieu, constructed in 1868, like panizzi’s chef d’oeuvre at the British Library in London, is a splendid work of architectural design; but four years from now, there will not be one inch left on the BN’s 100 miles of shelf space. Moreover it is essentially a library for scholars who must apply to use it. It was right for François Mitterrand to support a project for a new library, even one costing between one and two billion dollars. The problem is that the new complex at Tolbiac on the southeast edge of Paris, which will replace the old one on the rue de Richelieu and rue de Vivienne, is a librarian’s nightmare.

From the first, the project has had two main liabilities. The first concerned its purposes. The socialist government has been understandably keen on the need to democratize culture in a society where, as Pierre Bourdieu has shown, style and savoir-faire are mighty weapons in the social civil war. The government wanted the costly new National Library to serve larger, democratic goals, including wider access of the French public to books, to computerized information, to movies, exhibitions, and other cultural events. During 1989, the French officials in charge of the library proposed that the BN collection should be divided into two parts (with two thirds of its books placed in silos) in order to create more space in the new building for a section that is to be separate from the BN and would be for the “general public” (Grand Public). This was to include not only public reading rooms, for which there is a good case, but also exhibition halls, restaurants, ten movie theaters, and even, it was said, a Turkish bath. Scholars were dismayed; they feared that such functions would crowd out scholarly research. To some degree such fears have been appeased by changes in the original plan. The theaters have been canceled. In late 1990, to everyone’s relief, President Mitterrand wisely decided that the library should concentrate on books instead of on presenting images, although the future internal arrangements both for scholars and the general public are still unclear.

Some urgent questions remain about the government’s Parisian solution to a problem that is national in scope. At the very heavily used library at the Centre Pompidou, to which the public has free access, two thirds of the readers are university students, which is not surprising since French university libraries (“Bibliothèques Universitaires”) in both Paris and the provinces are notoriously deficient. They buy only one fourth as many books as German universities do. In next year’s national budget the increase in funds, per student, for the university libraries will come to only seven francs. In these difficult circumstances, is it wise to spend so much on activities that are not essential to a modern library? Shouldn’t the French have addressed the existing deficiencies of university and other libraries throughout France rather than try hurriedly to resolve, in one Parisian building, so many of the elusive problems of creating a democratic culture?

What concerns more directly both the international community of scholars and lovers of Paris everywhere, however, is the second defect of the current scheme, namely the project’s enormous height and layout, and its astonishing impracticality.

Dominique Perrault’s design seems a throwback to a once-popular modern style that has now become stale and widely discredited. Its unrelieved rectangular patterns, its four L-shaped towers of glass and steel, 282 feet high, derive from 1960s modernist architecture. For some critics, these tall structures set at each corner of the site appeal to the French love of ordered balance and scientific lyricism. (Le Monde described it as “un héroisme technologique.”) And yet, their effects on the Paris cityscape are bound to be very troubling indeed.

The building, which has been compared to an overturned table with its legs in the air, makes no concession to either the present or the past of the French capital. Rather the reverse: all of the high-rise buildings with towers in the French capital so far have turned out to be aesthetic mistakes of one kind or another, and Perrault’s design is no exception. It resolutely turns its back on the Seine, which runs directly in front of the site. Its reading rooms look instead onto a huge, sunken inner courtyard the size of the Palais Royal, which will be planted to simulate the forest of Fontainebleau. Instead of echoing the facing building of the Ministry of Finance, which is in part built over the Seine, Perrault’s plan arrogantly refers only to itself. It will rest on a huge, wind-swept slab of concrete the size of the Place de la Concorde. Its tiny, unmarked entrances will baffle visitors. Its glass walls extend right down to the ground: there is no provision here for any sort of interaction between pedestrian and building.


In its mathematized spirit, the building is the very opposite of Frank Gehry’s design for a handsome American student center on the opposite side of the river, where the ground level will be open to pedestrians, with varied and inviting use of space. Perrault’s plan is being promoted as a bold futuristic step. In fact, it is an oldfashioned enterprise that reflects American visions of the postwar years, but not our current sense of the urban problems that have since arisen.

The part of the building that is beneath the street level also poses difficulties, and the plans for using these underground levels have often changed. The lower, or garden, level will house the Bibliothéque Nationale. The plans for the upper level, reserved for the Grand Public, are less clear. Much of the mezzanine above the main library will be given over to glass-covered passageways intended to provide a “circuit initiatique” that will somehow incite impressed visitors to become scholars as they view the readers below. (The image of a zoo also comes to mind.) Other space that could have been used for books has been perversely allocated to an underground parking garage.

From a librarian’s point of view, the most appalling aspect of Perrault’s plans is that he intends to store the BN’s collection in glass towers far removed from the reading room, with obvious possible risks for the preservation and delivery of books. Instead of putting the books underground and giving those who use the library a reading room with a view on the Seine and its river traffic, Perrault has decided to put people underneath and the books above them.

In Perrault’s building, form follows function only if it is understood that the function is political. The building was designed with an eye neither to contemporary architectural aesthetics nor to the people who will use it. It fulfills instead Mitterrand’s desire to build something very grand, and responds to his well-known preference for simple geometric forms. That is why the new Bibliothèque de France has to have towers looming above the skyline and why it has to be very, very large. What was wanted was a striking building corresponding to the government’s aim of having “the world’s biggest library.” In fact, the collection of the Library of Congress is twice as large, but it was the slogan that counted. As in the case of the disastrous Opéra Bastille, the need came second, the desire for a building first. It’s hard not to think that the library project was seen by Mitterrand as an occasion to set his mark on Paris, and that his wishes were cleverly anticipated by Perrault in his proposed design. In the architectural competition of 1989, only Perrault’s project called for storing the books in towers. His was the only project clearly designed not to be used, but to be seen.

In response to a recent and damning indictment of his plans in the journal le débat by Philip Leighton, a highly respected international expert on library building, Perrault now claims that he had no choice but to design these towers. He needed to build upward, he writes, because in a crowded city he could not build sideways. This is absurd. His site is the last great open space in Paris, eighteen acres in size. The site in Saint-Pancras of the new British Library (with two thirds the shelf space of the Bibliothèque de France) takes up about seven acres.

Perrault seems to have been both calculating and unprepared. Perhaps because the plans were drawn up in a great rush, he never seems to have realized, or been told, that no national library today would plan to store its books above surface level. The New York Public Library has just extended its underground storage in two cavernous floors. The Deutsche Bibliothek has underground space on three floors for eighteen million books. In Japan, the Diet’s library is below ground level as is the planned National Library of Catalonia.


The history of the project gives us some clues to the cast of mind of the bureaucrats in charge. Though planning for a building of this size ordinarily takes at least a year, the competition for the library was opened on March 8, 1989, and Perrault’s design was chosen on July 26, 1989, when the government was still planning to house no more than three to five million books in the new building and to leave the rest at the Rue de Richelieu. It was only later, on August 2, that a government ruling came down after Perrault’s design had been selected: all but one hundred thousand of the eleven million books would be moved to Tolbiac, with plans to store twenty million more books during the next century. (In the present plan, the rue de Richelieu library will house an arts research center.) In any case the design competition was not re-opened: if construction was to become irreversible before the next election, when a neo-Gaullist majority might suspend it, there was no time to consider new plans.

Perrault has tried to meet criticisms by undertaking somewhat desperate revisions. How, it was asked, could he protect the books in his towers, many of them old and fragile, from sunlight, fluctuating temperature, and changes in humidity? At first Perrault planned to use very costly glass developed by the US space agency that would let in light but block out sun and heat. To no one’s surprise, that solution turned out to be too expensive and technically unfeasible. He then briefly decided to build a solid-steel tower with a glass sheath. But that would have been absurd. The plan now is to build a glass tower with wooden shutters, a Rube Goldberg arrangement with thousands of shutters that will open up when it’s dark outside, and shut when the sun comes out. It is not clear just what will be the point of having the shutters open at night.

Will the cost of building, cooling, and heating this white elephant be ruinous? Not at all, according to its technical managers: extra maintenance for the towers will add no more than one third of one percent to normal costs, though experience everywhere shows that storage space in a tower is twice as expensive to manage as storage space underground. Will the final cost of constructing a building whose uses have not as yet been fully defined also not exceed the government’s estimates? The huge Grande Arche constructed at Place de la Défense in the end cost twice its original estimated budget, and the Opéra Bastille ended up costing three billion francs instead of a projected three hundred million.

How are we to understand the decisions that are inexorably leading to the construction of this grotesque building? There are, of course, people who argue that Perrault may be right, that his towers would be different and that his wooden shutters may be the answer to technical problems of building library buildings, such as protection from sunlight, that have baffled architects everywhere for three decades and more.

It seems more plausible to suppose the architects and managers of this devastating project simply think that books are on their way out. They may well believe that what once would have been in print will soon be electronified, microfilmed, and microfiched. In this view there will never be many books in the towers, and if there are and if they do decompose, it won’t really matter because all those pages will be on CD-ROMs, on-line periodicals, and computer screens. Such suspicions are given support by some of the early plans for the library, which called for a heavy emphasis on converting books into a data base. The French are at once the most modernminded and the most tradition-bound of European nations. They cherish an aristocratic past, but they’re fascinated by computer processing—“l’informatique“—and the aura surrounding sleek modern technology.

No one questions, of course, that the new library must have a computerized catalog system as well as the full range of modern techniques for reproducing and storing information. The entire cost for such modernization is estimated at no more than 6 percent of the projected total. What is directly at issue here, however, is that these managers and bureaucrats are about to gamble on the survival of an irreplaceable collection that carries their nation’s collective memory. That is the long-run risk. In the short run, their commitment to finding high-tech solutions to problems that needn’t ever have arisen may well create a persistent financial drain so large it will threaten the entire French library system, especially the university libraries. Their-highly optimistic cost estimates and predictions of efficiency have yet to be corroborated by any independent group that has examined them. If they are wrong, the consequences are too sad to contemplate.

The small group of five or six officials who are responsible for the planning of the Bibliothèque de France were very confident at first but they have recently become more anxious. They used to make nasty attacks on critics, but now they organize sumptuous public colloques, all expenses paid. They defer to the press, welcome criticism, appear on TV shows, and talk of pluralistic consensus. Their aim, in fact, is merely to ride out the rising storm. As of June 1991, they still planned to expose the books stored in the towers to the view of passers-by, at least for part of the day. A few more months, and they will be home free. The towers will begin to rise.

One hope is left: Jacques Chirac, the popular mayor of Paris, has yet to sign the official “donation” for the site which still legally belongs to the city of Paris. He should agree in principle that a new library is critical to the intellectual life of France, and that one should soon be constructed, but not the building planned. And Chirac should put forward to President Mitterrand a simple alternative: appoint a committee of five experienced librarians and ask them to submit within two months an assessment of the project so far. Have its functions been clearly defined? Are Perrault’s towers the right way to store books? Is this a building that Paris needs? Kenneth Cooper, the head of the new British Library and a member of the Bibliothèque de France’s scientific committee, would be one logical person to head this five-member group. Other names that come to mind are Klaus Dieter Lehmann of the Deutsche Bibliothek, James Billington of the Library of Congress, and Goéry Delacôte of the San Francisco Planetarium. The original committee that chose Perrault in 1989 was dominated by French architects. Experience has shown that these men were indifferent to current techniques of library building. In any case, it would at this point be extremely risky for any French architect with hopes of receiving official commissions to oppose Perrault’s project publicly.

If you have any feeling for France, if you think that the Paris skyline doesn’t need four new, twenty-story towers, and above all, if you love old books, do what you can to prevent a disaster from taking place. Write to Jacques Chirac at the Mairie de la Ville de Paris, Hotel de Ville, Paris, 004.

This Issue

August 15, 1991