French National Library

13th Arrondissement
Paris, France

Contributed by Project for Public Spaces

This library is at best a carefully constructed void, and at worst a notoriously expensive project that "designs out" not only people, but books.

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Why It Doesn't Work

Set apart from the metropolitan community to "seed" a new neighborhood in the eastern section of Paris, the library is set upon a vast platform with a sunken garden consisting of four glass towers constructed to resemble the open book. The failure of this austere, modernist structure can be attributed to a lack of accessibility, a grand and imposing non-human scale as well as a complete absence of activities. The plaza and gardens are silent, and remain devoid of the public they were built to serve.

The towers contain more than one design flaw. For example, it was realized too late that a library built from transparent glass would provide little protection for the books from sunlight; and that in fact, excessive sunlight would actually overheat the towers (and pose a risk of turning them into blazing infernos!). In addition, the glass design failed to account for condensation, another threat to delicate books. These issues were remedied by the architect only after the construction had been started, and at additional expense to the French public.

Outside, the unfriendly and inaccessible nature of the design provides no direct link among the four towers, and so traveling from one end of the library to another is an endless trek. There is also deficiency in directional signage. The signage that exists subscribes to strict minimalist standards (a mute gray-upon-gray scheme), and is often placed in hidden locations. Therefore, help for visitors trying to find entrances, restrooms, or the way to the street or metro is scarce.

There are also problems with the library's services, which include the latest technologies and four super computers - but undertrained staff. Because of this, the public soon found retrieving and requesting books to be all but impossible. So many requests are lost that the library staff went on strike, seeking time to find the lost requests, and to receive additional training for the computers system.

History & Background

Commissioned by Francois Mitterand during the final stretch of his political career, the library was conceived as "one of, if not the biggest and most modern library in the world." He chose Architect Dominique Perrault's design to be a grand monument. The library would eventually cost the French people $1.3 billion dollars, and an undue amount of trouble.

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