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X Marks the Spot: Bibliothèque Alexis de Tocqueville in Caen by OMA

The Bibliothèque Alexis de Tocqueville in Caen combines four separate libraries, with the goal to encourage exchange

‘At a time when information is available everywhere, why do we want or need a library? Why would the public want or need to come to one? Is the library a useful public service and, if so, how can it be reinvented?’ These were the kind of questions that head librarian Noëlla du Plessis and her team asked themselves back in 2007, when the French town of Caen decided to spend €63million to replace its cramped old central library with a brand-new building on a new site.

Designed by OMA, who won the 2010 architectural competition, and largely piloted by French architect Clément Blanchet (who later left the firm but stayed on the project), the Bibliothèque Alexis de Tocqueville opened this January. And if the phenomenal first weekend is anything to go by – 15,000 visitors in two days – it would seem they’ve found just the right formula to keep libraries relevant and appealing in our digital age.

2 axes crossing

2 axes crossing

Caen was the power base of William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, and despite the best efforts of Allied bombers it is still dominated by the Norman monuments that are the Abbaye aux Hommes and the Abbaye aux Dames, founded by William in 1060. The site allocated to the new library is down in what is known as the Presqu’île Portuaire, former industrial- and docklands near the railway station that are undergoing redevelopment (the library stands just the other side of the canal to Bruther’s recent Maison de la Recherche et de l’Imagination (AR July 2016). The brief, in addition to detailing the requirements drafted by the librarians in response to their list of questions, stipulated that the building must respect the 2001 redevelopment masterplan drawn up by French urban planner Philippe Panerai.

As Blanchet explains, ‘Panerai’s plan involved traditional urban streets and blocks, and required that we build up to the four corners of the site. The librarians had come up with the idea of four separate libraries [arts, science and technology, literature, human sciences] linked by lots of footbridges [which Du Plessis imagined as ‘inventive spaces … whose goal was to encourage exchange’]. They’d drawn up a diagram with the four libraries in each corner. It seemed obvious that with lots of linking passages your chances of meeting people decrease. So instead of multiple crossings, we proposed just one, a cross plan, the negative of their diagram, which we then rotated to fill the corners.’

Ground floor plan

Ground floor plan

X marks the spot, as it were, and is also intended to anchor the building in its wider territory: one arm of the cross points towards the Abbaye aux Hommes, another to the Abbaye aux Dames, the third towards the railway station, and the fourth towards future neighbourhoods in the Presqu’île redevelopment, thereby symbolically linking the new Caen to the old. Furthermore, the librarians’ wish list included a desire that the building appear open and welcoming, which the cross plan arguably achieves not only through its external spaces that embrace the arriving visitor, but also by exposing the library’s heart to the outside world – a heart which is in fact completely transparent, and thus ‘perhaps more democratic’, as Blanchet puts it. But more on that in a minute.

Rising 18m above grade, as stipulated by the redevelopment plan, the building is organised on four principal levels, the first of which is underground and contains the bookstacks (housing 900,000 documents, a further 100,000 being directly accessible in the reading room). ‘That was a point that helped us win the competition’, explains Blanchet. ‘Placing the bookstacks below ground was fundamental in terms of the library’s density above grade.’ And indeed, on entering the ground floor via one of the two entrances (located opposite each other at the intersection of the cross), visitors arrive in a vast and rather spartan lobby, one part of which is intended as an exhibition space, another for reading newspapers and magazines, and via which access is gained to a canal-side restaurant and the library’s 150-seat auditorium. At the centre of the cross, a prominent freestanding escalator leads up to the main reading room on the first floor.

Section

Section

Section - click to expand

In a classic architectural manoeuvre, the building’s low-key ground floor renders visitors totally unprepared for what awaits them above: a 6.2m-high, 2,500m2 column-free chamber which, moreover, is entirely glazed along all but its shortest sides. It’s an astonishing feat, a prodigious panorama of pure space made perceptible, achieved using giant steel gantries, one 96m long and the other 85, spanning the arms of the cross between the concrete shafts that constitute their extremities. Within the gantries’ 4m height is the third floor, where the children’s library and staff offices are located. To avoid heavy glazing bars in the main reading room, the architects engineered huge billowing panes whose outwards bulge stabilises them against wind stress, and which are fitted into a clever chassis system that allows the steel gantries to expand without shattering the glass. Blanchet imagined the reading room as ‘an urban forum, a metropolitan living room’ that, in Du Plessis’s words, acts as ‘a point of confluence for knowledge and cultures’ in a non-hierarchical, flexible way. It also responded to the librarians’ request that ‘the collections shouldn’t obstruct the view so that each user can easily grasp the whole space and not feel lost by too much on offer’.

‘The usual OMA contrariness is expressed in the library’s anti-monument, anti-blob, banal orthogonality’

To preserve the freedom such a space affords, OMA provided all its furnishings, which can easily be moved around and which include specially designed translucent white shelving on wheels. Architects and librarians having jointly decided that ‘the physical and the digital book should have the same equivalence’, the shelves include 60 built-in screens that allow both electronic books and scans of physical books to be viewed, and via which physical books can be ordered (to free up staff time for more qualitative activities, there are also automatic book-return machines on the ground floor, disposed in such a way that the geek in us all can enjoy watching his/her volume disappear down a conveyor belt to the reserves below). Blanchet’s one big fear was that the acoustics in the main space would prove too noisy for its use as a reading room, but on the day I visited, with a huge yapping press pack running after Rem Koolhaas and the culture minister who had come to inaugurate the building, sound levels remained at a comfortable background murmur. In addition, for those who seek greater intimacy, there are more private spaces at the end of each arm of the cross: science and technology hides two levels of small-scale reading rooms behind a giant curving screen onto which films can be projected; literature achieves a similar result with an enormous row of tribune seating that affords sweeping views across the main space; arts stacks up a pile of glass-fronted sound and montage labs; while human sciences’ small-scale spaces are disguised as a padded display case whose doors open to reveal historic portraits and other curiosities from the library’s collections.

Koolhaas has prided himself in the past that no two OMA buildings are alike and that there’s no house style. But as the firm matures that boast no longer seems tenable, for there are very obvious OMA ticks and an instantly recognisable material vocabulary in this building. Firstly there’s the usual OMA contrariness expressed in the library’s anti-monument, anti-blob, boring, banal orthogonality, which is further underlined by a facade treatment so generic the building looks at first glance like it could be any dull tertiary-sector office block. Of course things are never quite as simple as they appear, since the library is anything but a regular cross.

As Blanchet explains, ‘There was the grand democratic gesture of having a huge space that would be visible from outside at night, but at the same time we didn’t want the geometry to be too simple or easily read given the building’s role as a multi-faceted institution’. To achieve their ‘grand democratic gesture’, the architects had recourse to a venerable old OMA trope, the inhabited beam, which we find in various forms at the Villa dall’Ava (1991), the Maison à Bordeaux (1998), Cornell’s Milstein Hall (2011), the Fondazione Prada (2015) and the Pierre Lassonde Pavilion in Quebec City (2016), to name just five. Indeed inhabited gantries have become rather an architectural cliché over the last 20 years, but unlike in many instances, their use at Caen has nothing gratuitous about it, the engineering exploit being the product of a fundamental component in the building’s social programme. Indeed in its leanness and layout – bookstacks below and a glorious reading room above – the Bibliothèque Alexis de Tocqueville is arguably a SuperDutch revisit of Henri Labrouste’s seminal 1851 Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris, rendered in a classic OMA material vocabulary of raw concrete, metal mesh, neon-lit striped methacrylate and slashed Petra Blaisse auditorium curtains on the ground floor, and acres and acres of blond wood, glass and white perforated ceiling tiles in the main reading room. 

‘The ambition of this project is to rid architecture of responsibilities it can no longer sustain and to explore this new freedom aggressively. It suggests that, liberated from its former obligations, architecture’s last function will be the creation of the symbolic spaces that accommodate the persistent desire for collectivity.’ Written almost 30 years ago, these words describe another OMA library project, their 1989 competition design for President Mitterrand’s Bibliothèque Nationale de France. 

‘Entirely dedicated to local public service, the Tocqueville library is an extraordinary generous gesture.’

Judging by its first weekend of use, the Bibliothèque Alexis de Tocqueville has admirably fulfilled the goal of ‘collectivity’. But it also seems to have encouraged reading, for on the first day alone 4,000 loans were recorded, smashing the old library’s record of 800 in a single day. Moreover, at a time when scores of Britain’s libraries, once envied on the other side of the Channel, are closing due to cuts, it seems astonishing to see the French authorities investing €63million in a brand-new one for a small town like Caen (106,000 inhabitants, 405,000 including its hinterland). Of that sum, €33million is accounted for by construction costs (ie, €2,820/m2, within the average price range for this kind of public project in France), while €5million was spent on a new digital portal to make the library’s holdings as widely accessible as possible. With that same goal in mind, opening hours have been extended, including – a minor revolution for French functionaries – Sunday access. What’s more, it’s a social investment that seems to cut across party-political lines: initiated by a right-wing mayor, the project was developed and launched by her left-wing replacement, and completed by his right-wing successor. All this for a building that is a complete anti-Bilbao, a lean, ascetic, hard-nosed information-delivering machine entirely dedicated to local public service, which at the same time constitutes an extraordinarily generous gesture. ‘Chapeau!’

Bibliothèque Alexis de Tocqueville

Architects: OMA with Clément Blanchet and Barcode Architects

Engineer: Iosis / Egis Batîments

Sustainability and facade: Elioth 

Photographs: Iwan Baan