National Library Of France: Background And Nowadays

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From young age I have been travelling to France, I have always loved the capital city Paris as do many people for its architectural elements and its richness in character and history. I will be exploring themes in the BNF Richelieu Site. I came across this library not having much knowledge about it mainly because of the way it looks from the outside compared to the inside. I have passed this building many times with my family or with my friends and I have never thought to ask what this building actually is. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw some of the photos showing the interior of this sensational building. This shows me that there are still magical places like this for me to explore in Paris. I am going to try to unravel the history of the National Library of France in an academic and a touristic view, from my personal findings and findings from other people, books and articles. The name ‘The National Library of France’ suggests that this is potentially the main Library in France in the capital city Paris, however BNF is just an umbrella consisting of four main libraries all located in Paris and one outside of Paris. These libraries go by the names of BNF Richelieu Site (which I will be focusing on); Bibliothèque Francois-Mitterrand; Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal; Bibliothèque-musée de l'Opéra and Maison Jean-Vilar located in Avignon, South of France.

The Richelieu site is the main birthplace of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France BNF for short. Found in the centre of the city Paris, “In the 17th century is was composed of several important and beautiful buildings. To this day it holds an incredible collection: manuscripts (from the remains of the most ancient writings to the manuscripts of modern writers), prints and photographs, stage music and art, letters and plans and finally the museum of coins, medals and antiques.”

This BFN dates back to 1368. Where there was a king by the name of Charles V. This library which we know now once accommodated the great Kings of France. The library had to move a couple of times due to the exceeded capacity and lack of space as more and more books were being made once the invention of printing had become a craze. The king wanted this library to have a copy of every single book which was ever made in France. The Library finally opened to the public in the late 17th century. Shortly after in the mid 19th century another key development took place in the Richelieu site where Henri Labrouste who had already designed a major library before known as Bibliothèque Saint-Genevieve was tasked to design the certain areas in the library. The first significant room which he designed was the reading room, which was named after him, The Labrouste Reading Room as shown below. Alongside this he also designed storage areas for the books.

From the late 19th century the library was still making improvements where architects Jean-Louis Pascal and Alfred-Henri Recoura worked on the oval room which is another one of the more popular rooms as shown below.

Following these major additions in the following years more storage and reading rooms were built due to the amount of book and manuscripts which were brought in. By the 20th century the library had held so many books that another library under BNT had to be built named after the French president Francois Mitterrand. This would be the beginning of the modern movement for the National Libraries becoming one of the largest libraries in the world. From the begging of the 21st century more adjustments were made to the library Richelieu, including renovations to the Labrouste reading room. To this day the library is still being refurbished in a chance to make the library more user friendly and accessible to all people with all types of abilities. During the second phase for the Libraries renovations, six BNF reading rooms are opened on the site. There are approximately 200 seats, not including the Labrouste reading room.

Henri Labrouste was a French celebrated protagonist architect in the nineteenth century. He studied in École des Beaux-Arts school of architecture and was immediately recognised as an outstanding student which allowed him to be moved to the second class. He shortly began to compete in competitions. Even though he wasn’t successful in his first competition for Grand Prix de Rome in 1821, he was noticed by many professors and architects for his talent and was given other opportunities for example working alongside Étienne-Hippolyte Godde as sous-inspecteur. In the next few years he again competed and subsequently won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1824 with his design for a Court of Appeals building. “In the mid-twentieth century, architectural historian and critic Sigfried Giedion likened Labrouste’s application of exposed cast iron in the interiors of his two Parisian libraries, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (1838–1850) and the Bibliothèque nationale (1854–1875), to such industrial marvels of the nineteenth century as exhibition halls and train sheds, arguing that the industrial aspects of Labrouste’s building represented formal precursors of twentieth-century modernist architecture.” Labrouste was admired by some and despised by others, Harvard professor Neil Levine argued that Labrouste was not merely a forerunner of twentieth-century modernism, but rather that he also played a defining role in modernism’s development by sparking the Romantic rebellion in French architecture in the late 1820s.

“He took traditional masonry, although he refined the expression and thickness of its varied stone courses, and combined it with and architecture of assembling, in his two libraries, he set large metal frameworks within a stone enclosure and gave those frameworks proportions that fit their properties. Labrouste thus inaugurated a new building practice and heralded the fruitful research that architects would devote for the next century and half to shaping industrial materials, particularly composite material such a reinforced concrete.” Labrouste clearly inspired people with his rationalism. “These Americans recognized Labrouste as a provocateur and poet with a pen and pencil whose influence reverberated across the centuries.” “Labrouste gracefully transformed the classical language of masonry into an architecture suffused with space and light by exploiting the new structural possibilities of iron in his civic monuments.” (Suzanne Stephens Architectural Record)

Labrouste studied at the French Academy (Rome) from 1824 to 1830. There he developed ideas on ‘romantic rationalism’. What is rationalism? In the book A Companion to Rationalism it states that “The rationalist insists on the distinction between appearance and reality. Reality is revealed to our rational thought, which might also be called reason or intellect. Since appearance is the way reality appears to us, philosophy has two important tasks” Whereas romanticism and rationalism is a “particular view about the way the world is; what we can know about it; and a bit about what people are like. The basic idea is that you can't trust your senses, only your intellect. One is that sometimes your senses deceive you; for example, a straight stick in a glass of water looks bent” From this I can see that Labrouste did what he felt was right, this is in fact what everyone noticed about him and why he was recognised for his bright new refreshing talent. Labrouste ended up falling out with the Beaux Arts over his restoration study of the ancient Greek temples in 1828 as he probably had new ideas about the order, balance and restrain which was the opposite of the neoclassic temples. “Labrouste believed that architecture should reflect society. Accordingly, his work reflects the rationalism and technical aspects of industrial society. His work also embodies the ideals of writer Victor Hugo, who believed that architecture is a form of communication, like literature, and that in ‘organic phases’ of construction it expressed a coherent body of social belief.”

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Whilst studying in Rome he learnt and accepted functionalist theories by Jean Nicolas Louis Durand and the classical Italian structures which we see the influence taken in his more famous designs later on. In 1978, Labrouste’s work was still celebrated by other architects for his magnificent drawings and technique. Peter Smithson an english architect told an audience at the Architectural Association in London after visiting the Museum of Modern Art’s Beaux-Arts exhibition, which showed the drawings by Labrouste, “The rendered shadow of the feathers of the arrows and the shadows of the shields lashed to the columns are drawn so lightly that it’s almost impossible to believe it was done by human hand. It’s the best rendered drawing I’ve ever seen. In one long touch of the two-hair sable brush the drawing reveals two languages at work: the language of the permanent fabric and the language of its attachments – that which continues the idea of architecture and that which is the responsibility of those who use it.”

Labrouste opened up his own workshop to teach students about using new materials “the vital pre-eminence of a building’s function, and in the art of combining minimalism with an appreciation for classical ornament.” In 1856 once Labrouste’s studio was shut down the Encyclopédie d’architecture celebrated Labrouste as a leader and teacher. Stating his work as ‘the idea that in the design of buildings form should also be suitable and subordinated to function and that decoration should be born of construction expressed with artistry. ‘Throughout Labrouste’s career, he took part in the make for many other buildings such as monuments and hotels. But to this day he is most recognised for his two remarkable reading rooms, the photo below on the left hand side showing the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève which was made in 1851 and on the right the BNF Richelieu site.

Both of the reading rooms were recognised for their elegant iron roof structure. I am really excited to visit both of these magnificent rooms to compare them and find similarities. I can straight away see some beautiful artistic work in the frames in the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève they seem to be circular spirals filled with some kind of flower whereas in the BNF Richelieu site they are squares filled with crosses. “Commissioned to Labrouste in 1839, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève was the architect’s first major project, and a chance for him to demonstrate the validity of his design principles in the face of opposition. The large, oblong exterior of the library was in itself unusual at the time, whilst its appearance is suggestive of a similarly utilitarian use of iron inside the building. Compared with the austere grandeur of the exterior, the interior is, however, surprisingly delicate, characterised by its lightness and simplicity. Sixteen iron columns running down the centre of the room divide this vast interior into two barrel-vaulted naves punctuated by intricate metal arches, yet attention remains on the room’s primary purpose of learning and study. Remaining focused upon creating an intellectual and stimulating atmosphere, Labrouste also incorporated gas lighting into the building and was one of the first architects to do so.” Gas lighting is explained as a production of artificial light from combustion of a gaseous fuel, such as hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide, propane, butane, acetylene, ethylene, or natural gas. “The Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève seems to embody Labrouste’s belief that functionality, when built with artistry, is the most expressive and beneficial form of decoration.”

After continuously learning and working on his style over the next couple of years, Labrouste was hired to make an extension for the BNF, the main reading room. Once Labrouste’s design was made it became the most important and known room in the library, hence why it was named after him. Re using the iron frame structures from The Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève reading room, “Labrouste positioned 16 iron columns, each only one foot in diameter, at intervals throughout the room to create expansive 10-metre-high spaces. Natural ‘zenithal’ lighting filters between these columns as they support nine shallow domes, each with its own oculus; the neutral shades and subtle decoration of these domes contribute to the tranquillity of the room, providing readers and thinkers with the ideal environment in which to work.”

After his death, Labrouste is still leaving an impact on millions of students and architects all around the world, his new ideas of design has allowed other architects to also explore themselves in their designs, I know that I, myself am very inspired from his work now, I have learnt that architecture can be artistic and modern and neoclassical at the same time. “His influence is recognised in innumerable styles, schools, and individual constructions, including Neoclassical forms, the Gothic Revival in France, the work of Louis Sullivan, ‘the father of skyscrapers’, in the United States, and even in the use of reinforced concrete.”

“The Royal Institute of British Architects publicly recognised his impact upon the art of architecture, ascribing to him ‘the vigour and vitality which has given birth to and guided the growth of the highly original art which marks the French school of the second quarter of this century. In 1875, the ramifications of Labrouste’s innovations in architecture have been repeatedly redefined, identifying him as an architect of truth, and as one who harnessed emptiness and light. Lucien Magne, author of L’Archotecture francaise du siècle, the first history of modern and contemporary architecture, discussed Labrouste in terms of ‘art nouveau’ even as early as the 1830s, testifying to his singularity amongst the Romantic architects of his time. The book was published in 1889 to align with the Exposition Universelle, a fair which sought to demonstrate the modernity of France after the turmoil and Revolution of the last hundred years. The symbol of this modernity, and the entrance to the fair, was the Eiffel Tower, a huge construction formed using wrought and cast iron, a monumental structure in the ‘iron order’, of which Labrouste has been named the creator.

The significance of this French architect, therefore, has clearly not been forgotten. In 1902, a bust of Labrouste was placed in the Bibliothèque Nationale, and in 1953 the architect was commemorated again in the library’s first exhibition of his work. More recently, in 2013 the Bibliothèque Nationale collaborated with the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris to exhibit his work to a larger audience than ever before. The exhibition in New York contained over 200 pieces, from original drawings to modern films and models, and was the most-attended architecture show worldwide in 2013. The retrospective, Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light, was the first solo exhibition of his work in the United States, and will surely not be the last.”

“Labrouste (1801–1875) has been rigorously reappraised by subsequent generations of architects and architectural historians.”


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  3. EU Touring (Year of publication unknown) History of the Bibliotheque Richelieu-Louvois Library. Available at: (Accessed: 4th March 2020)
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  6. Pinterest (2020) The Richelieu-Louvois Library, Paris – France Available at: (Accessed 4th March 2020)
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  9. The New York Times (2013) A Poetry Grounded in Gravity and Air. Available at: (Accessed: 1st March 2020).
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  11. Profiles of Selected Architects (2017) Floor Plan Available at (Accessed: 4th March 2020)
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