Saturday, February 4, 2012

A visit to the library

I surprised myself yesterday.  I ended up not hating something I was convinced I wasn't going to like.  In fact, I ended up liking it, sort of.  I speak of course of the Bibliotheque nationale de France, the complex of buildings completed in the early 1990s on the left bank of the Seine towards the eastern edge of the city housing one of the world's great institutions, the French national library.  The buildings are named for former French president Francois Mitterand.

I don't know the architectural style.  I don't even know the architect, though I know I could find that out.  If you're not familiar with the buildings, here is a photo of them:

Bibliotheque nationale de France

The four towers are supposed to represent four open books, each facing into a central courtyard.  The courtyard isn't really a courtyard, it is more of an arboretum, closed off to humans, but with a strong tree canopy that is designed to allow birds and other wildlife to thrive.  Since all the buildings are sheathed in glass, and the couryard is sunk down a floor, while inside the library one sees the interior courtyard at the the tree canopy level.  Of course, given the freezing temperatures in Paris over this past week, there were no birds to be seen, but I got the idea.

More striking about his building is how it presents itself to the outside world.  Sterile, antiseptic, uninviting, exclusive, bureaucratic.  These are all words I would use to describe the experience of climbing the steps to get there (see photo).

Climbing the stairs to the library

But honestly, once on the platform made of wooden planks, the experience is not as hostile as I would have imagined.  There isn't a warmth to the space, but there is an inkling of a human dimension to it.  And I say that having visited it on a very cold day in early February.  If it can accomplish that then, it hasn't truly failed.

On the platform, looking toward the Seine

Once inside, one is again in a library, an active place of learning and socializing and participating in knowledge and in culture and in the transmission of these across generations and down through generations.  The interior works.

Interior hallway of BnF, courtyard trees visible through windows on left

What this building won't do well is age.  I am fairly certain about this.  Somehow, the gimmick that made it palpable upon construction will seem terribly dated 25 years from now.  But that will be the problem of a Next Paris, not this one.