Poised at the confluence of the Rivers Aspe and Ossau, Pascale Guédot’s Médiathèque re-animates a former industrial site in Oloron-Sainte Marie, a town at the edge of the Pyrénées in south-west France. Photography by Gaston F Bergeret
Originally the location for textile factories in the 19th century (attracted by an abundant source of hydroelectric power), the area embodies a familiar urban narrative of buoyancy and later decline, as once thriving factories decayed into a grungy, post-industrial wasteland sundered from the rest of the town.
Colonising the site of a former beret factory which was abandoned in the 1980s (suggesting that even traditional millinery can be a fickle business), Guédot’s Médiathèque heralds a radical shift in fortunes.
The building forms part of a wider regenerative ambition to reconnect the prow-like outcrop with its wider surroundings. Two new walkways, designed by RFR Ingénieurs, link the Médiathèque to the opposing riverbanks, creating a pedestrian promenade that threads across the site and through the town.
Although she is now based in Paris, Pascale Guédot is a native of the Pyrénées, and was educated in Toulouse before completing her architectural studies in Paris under the great French Peruvian Modernist Henri Ciriani.
Her work has an impressive rigour, but also a delicacy and lyricism in the way it experiments with layering, veiling, light and materials.
The new building adopts the wedge-shaped footprint of the old factory, but instead of the brute functionalism of industry, expressed by a hermetic enclosure pressed hard against the site perimeter, a glazed volume wrapped in a slatted timber skin now hovers lightly and diaphanously over an anchoring stone base (the archaeological remnants of the beret factory).
At ground level, the glazing is pulled back from the stone edge to create a pleasant riverside walkway, and at the north end, where the wedge tapers to a squared-off prow, a double-height vitrine frames views over the river junction.
This device is reprised in a plain but imposing entrance portico that civically signposts the new building and overlooks a new public square.
Even though the formal language has an innate starkness and simplicity, with the timber-clad volume hanging above the river like a stranded ship’s hull, the project also intelligently explores the dualities of solid and void, opacity and transparency.
The vertical lattice of Douglas fir is opaque by day, but after dark dematerialises into a shimmering surface, revealing the interior and activities within, calling to mind the famous Alfred Hitchcock film Rear Window.
The interior is a fluid succession of large, open-plan spaces, animated by natural light and views filtered and channelled by the timber screen and large serrated rooflights - an allusion, perhaps, to the original factory.
From the entrance portico you drift through a lobby and exhibition area to the main adult reading room, or go down one level to the children’s section. This lower floor is more compartmentalised, with rooms designed for storytelling and facilities for book conservation.
Chairs and bean bags dotted around the edge of the book stacks create informal enclaves for reading and browsing. Warm timber walls, together with a slatted wooden ceiling, contrive to evoke a softly rustic and welcoming ambience.
An upper mezzanine level slung underneath the roof contains offices, storage and meeting rooms. It’s all deftly and decisively done, from the big moves, such as exploiting the urban drama of the site, right down to the smallest details and finishes.
The Médiathèque also gives civic impetus and presence to a formerly rotting local backwater, and successfully reconnects it with people and place.
Architect Pascale Guédot, Paris
Project team Pascale Guédot, Virginie Gloria, Cédric Dartois, Valérie Astrie
Structural engineer GEC Ingénierie