The former site of France’s National Library has reopened after years of renovation work by architects Bruno Gaudin and Virginie Brégal. Located at Rue de Richelieu in Paris, the historic complex houses the collections and reading rooms of the manuscripts department, the maps and plans branch, the coins, medals and antiques bureau, and the performing arts office. Since 1993, the quadrangle has also been home to the French National Art History Library.
In the early 2000s, it was decided that the aging building had become unsuitable for the demands of the 21st century, and a major overhaul was planned. With work starting in 2011, Bruno Gaudin’s architecture firm was responsible for the project’s general management, while the restoration of the listed ‘Salle Labrouste’ was entrusted to Jean-François Lagneau. To keep the library partially open, the renovation has been divided into two phases, with the second stage set to complete in 2020.
In order to gain as much information as possible, the architects completed exhaustive historical and structural studies. Striking a balance between restoration and contemporary addition, Bruno Gaudin’s office developed different typologies of ‘weaves’, which set up a variety of dialogs between architecture, history, and technique.
‘This long history of the construction of the library, often conducted by the major architects of each period, has left us with a heritage of extreme complexity commensurate with the richness of the heritage of the spaces that characterize it,’ explains the design team. ‘By hewing as closely as possible to the reality of the existing ensemble, the challenge of this project consisted of seeking the right balance between a building and a program.’
The architects’ first move was to reorganise visitor flow through the complex. A new distribution, oriented North/South as well as East/ West reorganised the technical networks as well as the movement of users, providing easy access to the collections. Between the main rooms, stairs and elevators have been inserted into the building’s intervening spaces, without disturbing the unity.
Two entrances offer access to a single lobby, imagined as a transversal space linking the two sides of the quadrangle. The renovation of the reading room, known as the ‘Salle Labrouste’, has been carried out by Jean François Lagneau, architect in chief of monuments historiques. The biggest challenge was to restore the room’s original vibrant colors, while ensuring that the space was compliant with modern day building codes and regulations. meanwhile, the site’s six reading rooms have undergone interventions, adapted to their specific heritage.
The central book reserve was originally built in 1868, before two underground levels were added between 1936 and 1938. These were then joined by five upper storeys in 1959. As a result, the reserve is a particularly important example of the site’s stratified history. Bruno Gaudin began by removing the insensitive modifications that had been added over the decades — including elevators, cladding, and unsightly drop ceilings.
This offered the opportunity to expose the metal additions made in the 1930s and 50s, which had been intricately woven into the original structure. A contemporary material palette of aluminum, steel, and LEDs, seeks to highlight the history of the reserve. Finally, a new reflective ceiling and a link to the reading room have been added via the central nave.
Two further galleries, also designed by Henri Labrouste, have been preserved. Both spaces comprise self-supporting wood and metal shelving and a floor covered in cast iron grates. The Viennot Gallery, which houses the collections of the performing arts, is presented through the glass curtain wall of public circulation, while the gallery Des Petits-Champs has been adapted to serve as a second reading room.
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