Check Out The Gorgeous Restoration Of France’s Old National Library

C’est magnifique!

After 10 years, the first phase of the restoration project of France’s one-time Bibliothèque nationale has reopened, merging the 19th-century historical architecture with more contemporary flourishes in glass and metal from the architect Bruno Gaudin. The building currently houses manuscripts, maps and plans, antiques, the national performing arts office, and the national art history collection (though it’s no longer France’s central national library). Given the stunning photographs of the restoration, it looks like the space was worth the wait.


The Richelieu Library was originally designed by Henri Labrouste in the mid-1800s. The building was celebrated for its main reading room, known as the salle Lebrouste, which was supported by 16 iron pillars–an unusually ornamental use of the material within the architecture of the day. Lebrouste also designed a complex system of pneumatic book delivery tubes within the walls; since visitors weren’t allowed in the stacks at the time, the tubes would deliver the requested materials to the reading room–a kind of library magic that continues, albeit in more mechanical forms, to this day.

The renovation, featured on Designboom, remixes rich historical detail with modern materials. For instance, the salle Lebrouste was entirely refurbished and cleaned by France’s chief architect for historical monuments. But the treatment of another reading room–for the performing arts department–stands in opposition to that history-focused approach. Instead, it was entirely redesigned by Gaudin with an airy wood architectural detail that sweeps along the length of one wall. One of the most stunning touches of Gaudin’s restoration is the glass gallery that connects the manuscript department’s reading room with the library’s exhibition spaces, which are still under renovation. It’s a contemporary update to Labrouste’s original wooden gallery that let visitors look out onto the library’s central courtyard.

The heart of the library–Labrouste’s central stacks–will now be open to readers for the first time, too. The three original stories were built in the late 1860s, and they were revolutionary for their time. Each bookcase was small enough that ladders weren’t needed, and the duckboard floors allowed light to pass through. Instead of being closed off, the stacks were designed such that people passing below them could see the books. In the 1930s, two underground levels were added, with five more stories added on top in the ’50s. Gaudin’s revamp of the space exposes the metal railings and details added in the 20th century, and a reflective ceiling brings more light to the building’s heart. Meanwhile, his new, customized furniture enables visitors to read and work in the space.

The photos reveal the infrastructural innards of the library–no books yet crowd the shelves. The rest of the restoration is slated to be completed in 2020.


About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.