Architects: Atelier Bruno Gaudin & Virginie Bregal – Raphaële Le Petit, Guillaume Céleste, Céline Becker, Nicolas Reculeau

Lighting design: L'Observatoire 1 – 8'18" – Georges Berne

Project management, lighting design team: Emmanuelle Sébie – Julien Caquineau

07. May 2018

Light as the arc of tension between historic ambience and modern media. The National Library of France in Paris/FR.

Text: Jo-Eike Vormittag
Photos: Takuji Shimmura


When renovating historic buildings or environments, due attention must be paid to (re)designing the lighting. A recommendation that could not apply more when it comes to modern-day libraries housed in time-honoured architecture. The inclusion of modern media in historic libraries is certainly not an absolute no-go. It makes sense in this day and age but, depending on how it is integrated or included, it can impact the ambience of the space even more than the contents of the books, and the books themselves. Light needs to be applied to reconcile these differences – to maintain the historic and to incorporate and enable the use of modern media. The solution lies in the detailed planning of the lighting design concept.

The Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) is spread across four locations, which are all open to the public. The building at Rue de Richelieu 58, in the second arrondissement, is probably the most striking of all of them. It makes for a prime example, given that from the start attention was paid to providing good, appropriate lighting featuring a clear link to daylight and a harmonious relationship with the architecture. This applies both back in the 19th century when the building was originally designed and erected – naturally in the context of the understanding of light and architecture at the time – as well as today in the course of the comprehensive renovation programme undertaken on the building.

What was initially a royal library, and later an imperial national library, is today recognised and known as a universal library. The books and works it contains stem from all disciplines and specialist areas, and all eras. Besides written works, the library also comprises collections of coins, medals, etchings, maps, plans, sound storage media, video material and much more. To accommodate all these documents and items, the Richelieu Library alone covers a rectangular surface area of around 16,000 square metres, taking up one whole block in the Parisian street. That was not always the case. At the beginning, and during the 17th and 18th centuries, the library was relocated a number of times. It was not until 1720 that it was relocated from side of Rue Richelieu to the other and was housed in part of the City Palace, the Hôtel de Nevers, from where it proceeded to expand fast and furiously.

Architect Henri Labrouste took on the task of creating a coordinated ensemble out of all the buildings dating from different ages. Between the years 1854 and 1875, he reconstructed some of the buildings and added some new parts including the large reading room, the Salle Labrouste – this was the time that marked the most significant construction phase in the history of the library. What Labrouste created as a result has in the meantime come to serve as a basis for similar complexes worldwide; for a variety of reasons, the style he applied was interpreted as standing for creativity and modernity. The architect designed nine stone cupolas for the ceiling of the reading room, each one with its own oculus, thus rendering the space ideal for study and reading under ample daylight. The cupolas are supported by iron arches that are in turn mounted on auf 16 slim cast iron columns that reach down to the floor. The grand architecture thus acquires an element of daintiness, the slim columns taking up very little space in the large hall and allowing the incident daylight to penetrate the entire space. Natural light is reflected by the light-coloured, high-quality materials, such as marble, that are used for the walls and ceiling. The paintings along the side walls feature green trees and clear, blue skies and underscore the daylight atmosphere throughout the hall. In order not to risk the dangers related to gas lighting, no artificial light was used in the library building in the beginning. Only when electricity became a source of power for lighting in the early 1920’s were luminaires considered an option, and a few were installed. Some of these are still in use today, after having been appropriately refurbished and retrofitted …

Recent renovation work on the historic library building, which was started in 2007, is in the hands of Architect Bruno Gaudin, and the lighting within the entire complex is being redesigned by L’Observatoire 1 and the design practice 8’18”. Practical work began in 2010. Half of the library building along Rue de Richelieu was closed and extensive renovation work undertaken up until December 2016. The restoration of the other section of the building, which is located on Rue Vivienne, is to be completed by 2020. What the creator of the library, Henri Labrouste, embarked upon as a mere architect around 150 years ago has thus been given a fitting update. In this case to maintain the existing high quality and functional comfort of the interior spaces, not only with respect to the architecture, but also with regard to the furnishings and, of course, the lighting. In the case of the latter, the designers gladly referred to Labrouste’s recommendation: to use as much natural light as possible and discreet artificial lighting that can be integrated into and thus harmonise with the architecture.

The new lighting scheme for Labrouste Hall was therefore designed to be ultra-discreet. Natural light, but not too much strong direct sunlight, still pours into the space through the opaia, as in earlier times. Huge arched frosted glass windows that continue the series of paintings on the side walls provide a further source of daylight. Spotlights are installed where the iron arches meet the cast iron columns and are directed upwards into the cupolas. Linear luminaires equipped with warm white LEDs are mounted at an angle below the first-level circulation route along the shelves to illuminate the lower bookshelves. The lighting has the effect of subtly marking the mighty room contours and revealing some of the treasures in the collection, which would otherwise be literally overshadowed by the circulation route directly above. The famous historic table lamps made of bronze and with frosted green glass shades that are placed on all the desks in the library have been restored and equipped with incandescent lamps.

In der Auguste Rondel Gallery, and also in the other central library spaces, small luminaires marked with numbers mounted on the side panels of the traditional dark wood shelving system, support orientation and help library users in their search for books. The shelves themselves are again illuminated by LED strip lighting mounted directly onto the shelving units or installed at a distance of 30 centimetres to the shelving with the aid of mounting brackets. The huge bookshelves are constructed to be as open as possible to enable the light to spread into every corner of the space on all levels. The latticework used along the circulation routes support this effect. The recessed fluorescent ceiling luminaires in the corridors and offices are likewise discreet but functional. The diffusers comprise translucent screen-printed panels that use photos, manuscripts, maps or plans to provide information on the different sections of the library.

The manuscripts reading room, on the other hand, is one of the few spaces that has received a very obvious but custom designed solution. A strikingly modern and unique 47-metre long pendant luminaire with a narrow, polished metal housing provides direct lighting for the desks below, indirect lighting for the wall surfaces between the windows to offset daylight and reduce contrasts. In spite of the fact that the appearance of the luminaire itself stands out in the historic setting, its design enables it to enter into an harmonious dialogue with the architecture and the interior as a whole. Whereas many of the historic chandeliers in other parts of the building have been preserved and refurbished, the lobby has received a magnificent new glass chandelier. In all other sections of the National Library the designers opted for linear LED lighting for the long rows of shelves and desks. In practically all cases, the LEDs have been discreetly integrated into the respective furnishings.

Light is not simply applied as a form a decoration, or as a touch of luxury, to round the project of. Light is and delivers spatial quality and reading quality in the modern sense. The lighting designers involved in this project took as their basis the lighting concept defined all those years ago when the building was created, which is seldom the case. What they have realised is an effective, contemporary and above all appropriate lighting concept. In spite of the fact that they were working in a building and with architecture that are highly significant, historically remarkable and of extremely high quality. The sensitive design approach blends with the demonstratively luxurious architecture, taking history as a basis and adding a reverent but confident lighting scheme to complete the picture. All of which results in the interior spaces in the National Library of France in Rue de Richelieu being comfortable, beautiful and functional.


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