Paris looks askance at new library

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The Independent Online

in Paris

In one of his last public acts as President of France, Franois Mitterrand will today inaugurate his last grand project: the country's new national library on the Left Bank of the Seine. The vast rectangular complex - with 80-metre glass towers rising at the four corners, each in the shape of an open book - dominates the skyline but has inspired almost as little public enthusiasm as the new - and still unfinished - British Library. In Paris it has become known, scornfully, as the Trs Grande Bibliothque or ``TGB'' - the Very Big Library.

The site of the TGB looks bleak, not helped by the driving wind and sleet on the day it was opened for a journalists' preview. Inside, however, the grey concrete blocks and chain-mail curtaining are warmed by rust- red carpeting and hardwood panelling.

The enormous concrete and glass rectangle surrounds a courtyard planted as a miniature forest with oaks and fir trees. The reading rooms - able to accommodate 3,500 people - and corridors all look onto the "forest", which will be open for readers to stroll in. The towers will house the bookstacks.

The distances are forbidding. Although it will eventually be no more than 15 minutes' walk - under cover - from the nearest bus and metro station, it will not be a place to drop into. It will be a place to spend the day. Technology should enable would-be readers to order their books and their seat by computer from home; for those in the library, a delivery time of 15 minutes is envisaged from ordering a book from one of the 180 computer screens, to receiving it via the conveyor. There also will be an extensive audio-visual collection.

The project has been controversial from the outset. When first conceived, in 1988, it was criticised for its ``gigantism'', for the expense - 7.2bn francs (£942m) - for the idea that it should combine the functions of national public library and research library, and for its position - in the centre of Paris, not in the suburbs where investment was thought to be needed. But the project went ahead and, so far, it has materialised considerably faster than the new British Library, on schedule and almost to budget.

Building began in 1990. The architect, Dominique Perrault, handed over the keys last week to the library's president, the historian Jean Favier.

Fitting out the building, with the huge quantities of shelving required, installing the computerised conveyor belt for fetching the books and transferring 12 million or so volumes from the old library building on the Rue de Richelieu is expected to take until the end of 1996.

The library is due to open to the public at the beginning of 1997. The Richelieu building will then be used exclusively for storing specialist collections, including coins and manuscripts.

After seeing round the new building, my feelings were mostly of envy at the investment and the quality; the building is admirably suited to its purpose. Most French comment, however, was critical. Even the left- of-centre Libration said that grand projects were probably a thing of the past, and a good thing too: the next job was to rejuvenate the rundown housing estates.

A biting editorial in the conservative Figaro noted that security and storage conditions meant the manuscript collections would remain at the Richelieu site: ``After spending almost 8bn francs on a library worthy of Kim Il Sung, we will still have to restore the old Bibliothque Nationale.''

Anywhere else, said the newspaper, such a huge project would have been the subject of open discussion and probably would have been blocked by parliament.