A tale of two cities.

In the same way that it helps to have read Pushkin and Gogol to understand the present day Russian Czar and his bureaucracy, the important new public libraries that opened in London and Paris at the end of the millennium say something about the differences of these two cities, their histories and the societies that built them and the way innate national attitudes and traditions die hard.  They not only illustrate national differences but are also on either side of a much wider architectural design divide.

The TGB, shorthand for la Tres Grande Bibliotheque or 'very big library' as the Bibliotheque Nationale de France is most commonly called, was the last of President Francois Mitterand's Grande Projets.  It was his most ambitious civic, political and cultural gesture, clearly designed to bolster French prestige and the importance of Paris.  It's a bit cringe making that the Melbourne equivalent is the Grand Prix!

The library is on the left bank in a run down area to the east of the Gare d'Austerlitz, and the project was conceived as a stimulus to the urban renewal of the unfashionable 13tharrondissemont.  This is not a new idea; five hundred years before, Suleyman the Great had deliberately located the great mosque complex of the Suleymaniye, with its schools, shops, soup kitchen, hospital and asylum in the middle of devastated Constantinople for much the same reason, and it worked to stimulate the regrowth of Istanbul.  It remains to be seen if the library does become a catalyst for redevelopment, or whether it will stand as a monument to political ambition.

There is a great tradition of libraries in France, and the mid 19th century Bibliotheque Nationale by the architect-constructor Henri Labrouste is of particular importance.  Although the domed ceiling of the reading room has openings at the top of each dome to admit day-light and cast iron was used for the structure, the general appearance of the reading room remained traditional.

The book stacks however, were more radical and are considered important in the development of modern architecture. A glass roof and gridded cast iron floor plates, like those first used in the boiler rooms of ships, permitted daylight to penetrate to the bottom of the six storey stacks. In 1868 these innovations in the construction and appearance of the stacks held out new artistic possibilities. With this background, the building of a new library was clearly an implicit challenge to match Labrouste with new innovations.  

Boldly Parisian in scale, the new library covers an area as big as the Place de la Concorde and has a breathtakingly simple composition that stands the conventional wisdom on its head by putting the readers below ground and the books above ground!

The architect Dominique Perrault has skilfully distilled what must have been an enormous and complex brief of requirements into this deceptively simple arrangement of four 20-storey towers containing the book stacks, one sitting on each corner of a great open plaza.  Although obviously related in some way, the towers are so far apart that it's hard to grasp that they are all part of one building. The L-shaped towers have been described as symbolizing open books!

Because of its enormous, heroic scale, most commentators have described the appearance of the building as befitting a Pharaoh or something out of Orwell's 1984, and I must admit the Ministry of Truth came to my mind.  It's also been described as having a monumental grandeur, forbidding and exciting at the same time!

The plaza covers the whole site and is elevated above the surrounding streets with a continuous flight of steps all around the perimeter. As you walk up the steps you become aware that the plaza is the top of a six storey podium which has been sunk into the ground.  No entrance is visible and there's no sense of the immense size of this buried base until you find that you can look down in the middle of the podium into a courtyard with trees at the main reading room level below.

Descent into the library from the open plaza is by escalators at each end of the building, and the reading rooms, special libraries and research rooms look into the landscaped courtyard.  It was a dull autumn day when I visited and the place had a monastic, cloistered feeling of being removed from the world, an oasis for quiet study.

The visual scale of the towers has been reduced by the use of extra large sheets of special fire rated, laminated safety glass, and there are timber screens inside to protect the books from the sun. 

The upside-down parti of the building has not escaped local criticism, both for its moonscape appearance and the unprotected way one enters the building in inclement weather, scuttling up a long flight of stairs and over a wind-swept plaza to reach the escalator.  Some practical aspects have also attracted criticism, in particular the mechanical system for the retrieval of books.

The contrast between its austere grey exterior and the rich materials and colours of the minimalist interiors and the opposition of the noisy city outside and the quiet, sunken cloister inside is impressive and intriguing.  Baron Haussmann would have approved of both its size and ambition.  It's all very Gallic, only the French have the courage to make such a confident gesture in scale with the city of the Sun King.

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The new British Library, next to St Pancras Station in North London, replaced the circular reading room attached to the British Museum.  Since 1753 the Museum library had housed one of the finest manuscript and book collections in the world until overcrowding forced parts of the collection to be located elsewhere. Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital under its dome, and the reading room has been home to many famous writers.

A new library was proposed in the early '60's and was finally commissioned by Act of Parliament in 1972 but it the took 30 years before it was completed in a classic case of government bumbling, stop-start financing and Sir Humphrey-like machinations. This is in great contrast with the French situation where, despite public criticism, Perrault had unflinching political and financial support and his building was completed in ten years.

The first design for a new British library was prepared in 1962 by Sir Leslie Martin and Colin St John Wilson on a site further down Great Russell Street from the Museum.  It wove itself into the Bloomsbury context by incorporating St Georges Church and Georgian terraces into the overall scheme; it was all very English.  Martin was a distinguished architect who had been head of the Architects Branch of the London County Council in its post war hey-day; it was an organisation that built some of the best schools and public housing in the world until Margaret Thatcher abolished it.

The first scheme met strong opposition from conservation groups and by the early '70's Martin had retired so Wilson prepared a second smaller scheme in Bloomsbury that also met with opposition.  So nine acres of railway land next to St Pancras Station was acquired in 1976 for a third scheme but construction didn't commence until 1982.  In his book about the library Sandy Wilson complains that: 'no other project in Britain since St Paul's Cathedral (which took 36 years to reach completion) is comparable in time scale or the magnitude of controversy surrounding it.'

A lengthy stop-start process like this, with changing clients and constant amendment inevitably compromises architectural design.  It's a truism that great architecture not only needs a good architect, it also needs a good client; both are rare and the combination is even rarer.  I feel for the architect and his 30-year travail and appreciate only too well the energy needed to keep enthusiasm and creativity alive over that length of time.

The British design approach could not have been more different than that of the French.  Perrault hit on a big abstract concept, put the books in four towers, sink the reading room into the ground and then cram everything in to make it work.  This simple concept and symbolic form were imposed on the situation regardless.

Wilson claims to have a more organic approach, working outwards from the brief of requirements without any preconceived ideas and letting the building become 'what the building wants to be' to quote the poetic US architect Louis Kahn.  Wilson, who is very historically aware, has been strongly influenced by what he calls the 'Other Tradition' of modernism, architects like Aalto, Scharoun and Asplund.  He is worth quoting as this dichotomy in approach to architectural design is still one that divides architects:

In designing the British Library building we have drawn widely upon this tradition not only in the adoption of organic forms that are responsive to growth and change but also in the repertoire of sensuous materials that are particularly responsive to human presence and touch--leather, wood and bronze.  We touch, hear and smell a building as much as we see it and furthermore what we do see in terms of weight and texture, density or transparency transmits explicit resonances of a body language that is common to us all but all too seldom consciously addressed.  The organic form is innate, it shapes as it develops within, and the same with the perfection of its outward form.

Unlike the hard-line modernist obsession with 'Progress' this tradition never sought to cut itself off from the past or deny itself allusion to precedent and always retained a blood relationship with painting, sculpture and hand crafts in an age increasingly committed to mechanical reproduction.

This brave inside-outside approach is more difficult to pull off than the big king-hit approach of the TGB, although both of course, depend on the skill of the architect.  In the best hands the symbolic approach can look so inevitable and right that one can't imagine it any different, but all too often it produces buildings that simply seem arbitrary or are breathtakingly capricious; working back from an idea determined by aesthetic or symbolic preconceptions simply doesn't work well enough much of the time. 

The organic approach was well put by Hugo Haering, a little appreciated German architect of the '30's who declared,

' We want to examine things and allow them to discover their own images. It goes against the grain with us to bestow a form on them from outside.'

The idea that it's only by studying in depth a particular building on a particular site and place that it's most appropriate form can be revealed, appeals to me.  True functional analysis demands that solutions can only be discovered 'en route' with emphasis on the particular situation.  This approach has the keen rigour of rational-ism, absorbing new facts and making them sing!

This organic approach requires the designer to have confidence that the best solution will be found through the design process. It has produced masterpieces like Aalto's town hall at Saynatsalo, but in the wrong hands can simply look gauche and dyslexic.

It is inevitable that buildings like these libraries will need to expand and change during their use.  Experience shows that it is often more difficult to expand the TGB type of design without destroying the purity of the concept.  On the other hand, extending is less difficult with the complex forms of more organic buildings.  Financial constraints dictated that the British Library be built in stages (so far only Stage 1 has been completed) and Wilson sees the freedom to deal with as yet unknown changes as one of the virtues of his approach.  He likens it to TS Elliot's boast about the English language as having  'the greatest capacity for changing, and yet remaining itself'!

Wilson admits however that 'there is a sense in which a library has to be celebrated over and above the observance of duty; there is an inherently symbolic content that has to be given its embodiment and celebrated …… However at a time when there is no universally accepted language in which to celebrate such abstract ideas this is a delicate matter.....Rhetoric, if it is to be intelligible, requires a public realm of shared values and beliefs.  In writing about the absence of any such public realm in our time, the poet WH Auden wryly observed that 'whenever a modern poet raises his voice he sounds phoney'!

The danger of being phony clearly applies to architecture as well as poetry, and Wilson appreciates this modern dilemma. His answer to the symbolic role is  the incorporation of the Kings Library within the building.  The great book collection of George 3rd was gifted to the nation and one of the conditions was that its beautiful leather and vellum bindings should be on show to the general public as well as scholars.   The collection has therefore been housed in a central free standing structure inside the building, an object in its own right, a six storey high bronze and glass tower that can be seen from many parts of the interior including the restaurant.

The British Library is the kind of building where the inside and the outside must be understood together.  Externally it seems like a large building trying to look small.  The main body of the library has been set back from its main road frontage in order to create a courtyard to mediate between the external turmoil of the traffic and entering the quiet building.

The urban context was also important as the main neighbour is Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's St Pancras Hotel, an over-the-top red brick Gothic Revival building, masterpiece to some and butt of modernist ridicule to others.

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 A similar red brick was chosen for the library, both to work with its surroundings and because in Wilson's opinion brick is the one material that improves in appearance over time in London. 

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The vertical arrangement of the library was largely conditioned by the importance Wilson attaches to incorporating natural light where possible, and the reading rooms are located at the top of the building under a variety of Aalto-like roof forms to admit daylight.  As a consequence the book stacks are in the basement where they have the most stable environmental conditions; the exact opposite to its counterpart in Paris!

Reactions to this building vary widely.  I appreciate the difficult integrity of Wilson's approach after all those post-modernist years.  And I also approve of his emphasis on natural light and use of natural materials that age gracefully.  One UK critic concluded by saying that while some might have wished the British library to be more modern, that 'it was a very British institution!'

Those words seem to sum it up.  Everything about it, the political suspicion of professionals and reluctance to fund it properly, the architectural approach and the concern about the urban context and the choice of materials are all very English; the abstract TGB approach doesn't quite fit with British pragmatism.  The building suffered because all the basic design decisions were made many years before it was built, and the uncertain political backing and lack of steady financial support took their toll.  If it had been built when it was designed, it would by now be a well loved, if eccentric, building.  Although the interiors are impressive, it now looks curiously out of time for a new building, a bit old-fashioned, yet it sits in its fussy North London context with great assurance. It's interesting to reflect on the differences in approach to these parallel buildings, and the way each reflects the political and intellectual cultures of their respective cities. Vive l'difference!

And it's not just the design of buildings, the differences run into all aspects of our lives.  Once when I was in Paris there was a move to reduce teacher entitlements, so the teachers barricaded the Boule-varde Saint Germain, displayed posters, threw things at the flics and burnt a few cars until the government caved in. The French Revolution was a messy business but it lingers on in the basic French attitude of being prepared to stand up to authority!

We've inherited too much of the English attitude, and I sometimes think we could do with a bit more French backbone about things like the Grand Prix; we're a bit too laid back if it's a nice day at the beach.

Don Gazzard  LFAIA
August 2013.  (This is an amended version of an article that first appeared in Eureka Street in August 2004)

 

 

 

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