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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 grand new public libraries opened in London and Paris at the end of the millennium say something about the differences in their cities, their histories and the societies that built them. Old habits and traditions die hard.

The TGB, la Très Grande Bibliothèque, or the Very Big Library to use its common name, (officially called the Bibliothèque Nationale de France), was the last of Francois Mitterand’s Grand Projets, his most ambitious, civic, political and cultural gesture, clearly designed to bolster French prestige and the importance of Paris. The library is on the left bank of the Seine in a run down area of to the east of the Gare d’Austerlitz, and the project was consciously conceived as a stimulus to the urban renewal of the unfashionable 13’ arrondissement. It remains to be seen if this library building does become a catalyst in this way or whether it will stand as a folly of political ambition.

Boldly Parisian in scale, the new library covers an area as big as the Place de la Concorde, a breathtakingly simple composition that is quite perverse in its organisation with the readers below ground and the books above. The architect Dominique Perrault has skilfully distilled what must have been an enormous and complex brief of requirements into this deceptively simple arrangement The site is dominated by four L-shaped 20-storey glass towers, one on each corner containing some offices but mostly the book stacks. When seen from a distance the towers are so far apart that, although obviously related in some way, it is hard to grasp that they are all part of one building. They are often described as resembling open books (why do people always seek such simple symbolism?) and they sit on an enormous open plaza. This plaza is the roof of a six-storey building which covers the whole site and has a long narrow central courtyard patterned on the Palais Royale and containing mature trees. This rectangular podium is sunken into the ground however, so it is only a storey above the surrounding streets. No entrance is visible as you approach and there is no sense of the immense size of this buried base. You enter by ascending a continuous flight of wooden stairs around the building up onto the vast elevated podium at tree top level.

Most commentators have described the appearance of the building as Orwellian, even pharaonic, because of its enormous empty heroic scale and I must admit the Ministry of Truth also came to mind. It has also been described as having grandeur and monumentality, and being at the same time forbidding and exciting. Another critic suggests that with cheap looking office towers the new library seems more like a business complex than a civic monument.

From the open plaza you descend via escalators at each end of the building into rich and interesting interiors. And all the reading rooms, special libraries and research rooms open off and look back into the enclosed landscaped courtyard, to which curiously there is no access. 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 extra large sheets of special fire rated, laminated safety glass, and timber screens are used inside the glass to protect the books from the sun. But the arrangement certainly seems contrary and the building has not been without criticism locally, both for its moonscape appearance and the unprotected way one enters the building, up and over a windswept plaza. The practical working of the place, in particular the retrieval of books from the stacks has also attracted criticism.

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

The new British Library next to St Pancras Station in North London has 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 housed elsewhere. Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital under its dome, and the reading room has been home to many famous writers. A new library was first proposed in the early ‘60s and was finally commissioned by Act of Parliament in 1972 but it then took almost 30 years before it was completed, a classic story of government bumbling, stop-start financing and Sir Humphrey-like machinations. This is a great contrast with the French situation; 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; all very English. Martin was a distinguished architect who had been head of the London County Council’s Architects Branch in its post-war hey-day, an organisation that built some of the best schools and public housing in the world until it was abolished by Margaret Thatcher as a socialist abomination.

The scheme met strong opposition from conservation groups. By the early ‘70s Martin had retired so Wilson prepared a second smaller scheme in Bloomsbury which also met opposition. So the government acquired railway land next to St Pancras Station 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 the building of St Paul’s Cathedral (which also took 36 years to reach completion) is comparable in timescale or the magnitude of controversy surrounding it’.

Inevitably architectural design is compromised by such a lengthy process of stopping and starting, changing clients and constant amendment. It is 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. It is hard to appreciate the position of the architect and his 30-year travail, and the creative energy needed to keep enthusiasm and creativity alive over that length of time.

The British approach could not be more different than that of the French.
Perrault hit on a big abstract concept (put the books in four ‘open book’ towers and sink the reading rooms into the ground) and then cram everything in to make it work functionally. Symbolic forms and ideas were imposed upon the situation.

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, Asplund, even Frank Lloyd Wright. He is worth quoting at length on his approach:

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 from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form. Such is the life, such is the 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-out 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 inevitable and right—one can’t imagine it any different—but more often it produces buildings that simply seem wilful and arbitrary. The organic approach has produced masterpieces like Aalto’s town hall complex at Saynatsalo, but in the wrong hands can simply look gauche and dyslexic.

It is inevitable that buildings like these will need to expand and change during their use. Experience shows that it is usually difficult to alter and expand the former without destroying the concept but is less difficult with the more broken and complex forms of organic buildings. Financial constraints dictated that the library be built in stages (only Stage I has been completed) and Wilson sees the freedom to deal with future changes as a virtue of his approach.

Wilson appreciates the modern dilemma about the symbolic role of a library clearly and embodied it in the incorporation of the Kings Library. It was a condition of the gift to the nation of the great book collection of George III that its beautiful leather and vellum bindings should be on show to the general public and not just 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.

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 smaller. The main body of the library has been set back from its main road frontage ‘in order to create an enclosed courtyard to mediate between the turmoil of the traffic and the entry into the building’.

The urban context was also important as the library’s main neighbour is Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s 1867 St Pancras Hotel, an over-the-top red brick Gothic Revival building, masterpiece to some and the butt of ridicule by Modernist orthodoxy. 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. The vertical arrangement of the library was largely conditioned by the importance Wilson attaches to incorporating natural light wherever possible, and as a consequence 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 basements where they have the most stable environmental conditions.

Reactions to this building vary widely. I appreciate the integrity of Wilson’s approach after years of post-Modernism and fake facades attached to mean buildings. And I approve of its incorporation of natural light and its approach to the importance 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 and more glassy, that it was ‘a very British institution’.

Those words sum it up. Everything about it, the architectural approach (the abstract approach doesn’t quite fit with British pragmatism does it?) the political suspicion of professionals, the concern about the urban context and the choice of materials is very British. The building suffers because all the basic design decisions were made 25 years ago and the uncertain political support and lack of consistent financial support have taken their toll. If it had been built then, it would by now be a well-loved, if eccentric, building. Although the interiors are impressive, it now it looks curiously out of time for a new building, a bit old fashioned, yet it sits in its fussy North London context with assurance.

How interesting to reflect on the differences in approach of these two buildings and how they reflect the political and intellectual cultures of the two countries. Vive l’difference !



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