This is the newest and largest of the five public sites of the French National Library. It was one of the “great projects” — which included the Great Arch, the Opéra Bastille and the Pyramid of the Louvre — that were undertaken during the presidency of François Mitterrand, who was President of the Republic for two seven-year terms from 1981 to 1995.
The library consists of a huge rectangular building with a forest in the inner courtyard and four L-shaped high-rise buildings at the four corners. These four buildings, which are supposed to represent open books, were widely criticized at the time as being unsuitable for storing books, since they are exposed to direct sunlight throughout the daylight hours. But the architect claimed that this was never a problem, since the buildings were designed from the start with special windows, insulation and air conditioning to protect the books.
The bright red “Discovery Space” is a permanent exhibition of the library’s history and a guide to its resources. The reading rooms are very popular with students from all the Paris universities, as I know because my younger son often went there with his laptop when he was a student in Paris.
After a decade of planning and building, with all the usual delays and cost overruns, the library was finally opened to the public in 1998. Twenty years later, in 2018, the architect Dominique Perrault presented an exhibition (in the library itself, of course) called “The National Library of France, Portrait of Project 1988-1998”. The exhibition showed an overwhelming mass of documentation from the ten years of planning and construction.
For me, as a non-architect, the most striking thing was the change, during this period, in the way the architectural plans were produced. The first plans, from the 1980s, were drawn in the traditional way by trained draftsmen (or draughtsmen in the UK) using rulers, T-squares, plastic triangles, compasses, lettering guides, 2H or 4H pencils and tilting tables. But as the project progressed, there was a gradual switchover to Computer Aided Design (CAD), which was becoming increasingly prevalent in those years. In the 1980s and 90s I used to read various monthly computer magazines, and I remember at least skimming the articles on CAD, though in retrospect I don’t think I understood very much.
The French National Library, which to my surprise wasn’t even given that name until 1994 (Bibliothèque nationale de France or BnF), now has five public sites, four of which are in Paris. These are:
- the François-Mitterrand Library in the 13th arrondissement;
- the Richelieu-Louvois Library in the 2nd arrondissement;
- the Arsenal Library in the 4th arrondissement, across the street from the Pavillon de l’Arsenal;
- the Library-Museum of the Opera in the west pavilion of the Opéra Garnier.
In addition, the BnF has a fifth public site in Avignon, the Maison Jean Vilar, which is dedicated to the performing arts.
My photos in this post are from 2007 and 2018. I revised the text in 2020.