Paris’ Richelieu Complex Re-Opens After Stunning Renovation
The renovation of the French national library’s Richelieu complex has brought a new dynamism, while protecting the best of its historical features.
Courtesy Marchand Meffre
From the Louvre to the Musée d’Orsay, nearly every historic building in Paris has a fascinating history, layered with re-use and transformation. The French national library’s Richelieu complex, recently re-opened after six years of restoration work, is no exception. The renovation, by Bruno Gaudin, has brought a new dynamism and intelligence to the library, while preserving and protecting the best of its historical features.
Discussions about the need to renovate and reorganize the complex began in the late 1990s, with the opening of Dominique Perrault’s vast François-Mitterrand library, which first allowed Richelieu to reorganise its collections between the two sites. Many of the Richelieu’s reading rooms required restoration, and circulation problems across the site also needed addressing, given the relatively organic way in which extensions had been added to the site since the eighteenth century.
The site had once housed Cardinal Mazarin’s extensive collections, before becoming the home of the Royal Library in the 1720s. Following the French Revolution, the Royal Library became the National Library, and was considerably enriched thanks to numerous confiscations of royal collections. This multitude of new material in turn precipitated the destruction of most of Mazarin’s palace to make way for a new suite of reading rooms; by French architect Henri Labrouste in the nineteenth century, and by Jean-Louis Pascal and Alfred Recoura between 1897 and 1936.
In 2010, tasked with undertaking the renovation works, but also with keeping the library partially open for researchers, Gaudin and his team divided the works into two phases. The first, which has recently been completed, includes all buildings which align with Rue de Richelieu to the western perimeter. The second phase, scheduled for completion in 2020, will address all buildings on the Rue de Vivienne side to the east.
Exterior, with view of new glass gallery walkway
Courtesy Takuji Shimmura
In addition to the renovation of numerous reading rooms, the architects were also tasked with the essential brief of rethinking circulation routes across the site and providing easier access for users and public visitors. Gaudin and his team have simplified and improved circulation with their thoughtful combination of improved wayfinding and architectural interventions. They have also provided a path of public access through this important cultural site, which had formerly been largely off-limits to non-research visitors.
Upon completion of phase two, the public route will cross the site’s quadrangle like a “T,” providing visitors with a tour of the greatest architectural “hits” of the library, including the Labrouste reading room on the ground floor, the newly-designed performing arts reading room and exhibition gallery, as well as Pascal’s nineteenth-century, oak-lined manuscript reading room, accessible via a new external glass gallery that connects the eastern and western parts of the building.
For library users, perhaps the most noteworthy change is the new connection between the Salle Labrouste, the main reading room, and the central bookstacks. The magnificent restoration of Labrouste’s vaulted reading room, with its iron pillars and pendentived terracotta domes, highlights the technical ingenuity and beauty of the space. The bookstacks, directly to the south of the reading room, were designed, also by Labrouste, as a storage annexe to the main reading room. In contrast to the decorative splendour of the reading room, the central bookstacks possess a functional, industrial aesthetic. Now home to the Bibliothèque INHA’s collections (National Institute of Art History), Labrouste’s three-story stacks have been renovated and opened to library users for the first time.
In the yet-to-be-restored Salon d’honneur, an entrance hall to Pascal’s famous Salle Ovale and one of the oldest parts of the Richelieu site, a statue of Voltaire by Jean-Antoine Houdon watches knowingly over comings and goings. What many visitors don’t know, however, is that Voltaire’s actual heart resides in a box in the base of the statue, installed there by Napoleon III in 1864. Although the engraving on the box was later changed, it initially read, “His spirit is everywhere, his heart is here.” Given the painstaking and sensitive work carried out by Gaudin and his team, the Richelieu library will no doubt continue to provide a safe and worthy home for Voltaire’s heart for years to come.