Library #2: The BnF

A forest grows through the national library of France.

Forest at the centre of the BnF, photograph by me.

In early June I spent a week in the Bibliotheque nationale de France. Every day I walked up through the 13e arrondissement and onto the roof of the library where one found the entrance. The BnF was designed to take its place alongside a host of other monumental buildings along the banks of the Seine – Les Invalides, for example – but I always approached it crab-wise, through a building site on the other side of the Avenue de France, criss-crossing through the roadworks.

In his conceptual outline for the library, the architect – Dominic Perrault – emphasises the ‘horizontality’ of the building and the way it opens itself to the wider city. It’s hard to work out the true scale of the building, for the roof is level with the street and you enter it by climbing down a flight of stairs. It certainly sits alongside the other wide-open spaces of Paris like the Place de la Concorde. Walking between the four great towers that mark the corners of the library, it’s easy to imagine oneself strolling down a broad boulevard.

Paris has these open space for a reason. On Saturday I was speaking with some library workers who were joining the protest against the loi travail on 14 June. As they reminded me, the streets and boulevards of Paris – what the architect calls its ‘horizontality’ – were born from a deliberate attempt to foreclose the possibility of uncontrollable civil disturbance. This determination to conserve power is immanent in the beauty of Paris. The horizontality of the library replicates this; libraries are places of conservation, after all.

Forest are also sites of conservation, or rather, places that are conserved. By wrapping the library around the trees, the architect offers a sanctuary for the wild at the heart of the city. It’s a place for the wood in the midst of the paper. With the forest at its heart, the concrete structure of the library comes to seem much more transient; the weathering is more apparent and the defects in the walls can clearly be seen. Walking between the wall of the library and the forest outside suggests an impermanence, a gradual disintegration that could so easily overcome the ordered streets of the city.

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