Tuesday22 August 2017

Bibliothèque Alexis de Tocqueville, Caen by OMA

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With its regular glazed facades and cruciform shape, the northern French city’s new library  is surprisingly understated for an OMA project. But as you would expect from the Dutch practice, there are some clever architectural manoeuvres at play – as Ike Ijeh finds out

OMA Caen library

Source: Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti

The firstfloor reading room is “bookended’ by structural cores, allowing the space to be entirely column-free

The final resting place of invading monarch William the Conqueror might seem like an unusual location for a building determined to dispense with “visual violence”, but this is what OMA’s new library in Caen, northern France sets out to do. Having opened last month, OMA’s new Bibliothèque Alexis de Tocqueville assumes a cruciform plan, similar to a Gothic cathedral or a Greek cross church. But unlike a church, each wing extends for a roughly equal distance and is not generated by liturgical orientation but points in the direction of Caen’s four key urban landmarks.

The first wing, to the west, is set on an axis that points towards the magnificent Romanesque Abbaye aux Hommes, burial place of England’s first Norman king. The northern wing extends towards the equally splendid Abbaye aux Dames, another soaring Romanesque pile perched prominently on one of the highest hills in the city. The remaining two compass points reference new regeneration districts directly to the south and east of the new library, of which the library itself forms one of the earliest developments.

OMA Caen library

Source: Philippe Ruault

The library occupies a prominent canalside site at the entrance point of the MVRDV masterplan

It is not just the building’s geographically configured layout that is noteworthy, but also the relative simplicity and restraint of its form and facades, certainly in comparison with some of OMA’s more famously avant-garde designs. Moreover, this is not the first time in recent memory where OMA has opted for the less outlandish approach. Both its New Court headquarters for bank Rothschild & Co in the City of London and its Holland Green luxury flats development in Kensington seem to revel in the more measured, almost passive restraint that is evident at Caen. Is the formidable agent provocateur of contemporary architecture undergoing a more sober change of direction? Well, this is just one of many of the secrets and contradictions that this compact new library holds within its walls.

The cross

The Bibliothèque Alexis de Tocqueville sits some distance from Caen’s historic quarter on a prominent spot beside Caen’s extensive canal network, which itself eventually leads to the sea. Although it is sited squarely in the middle of a large open canalside plaza, it is overlooked by a series of new commercial, residential and retail developments and marks the starting block of a vast masterplan site for the city designed by rival Dutch practice MVRDV.

OMA won the competition for the library by beating Bibliothèque Nationale de France designer Dominque Perrault and two other French firms. “We were the only ones who came up with the cross form,” says OMA partner Chris van Duijn proudly, “and by setting it on an axis that points to these key landmarks it enables the building to make a new link to its historical context.”

OMA Caen library

Source: Philippe Ruault

The four points of the cross are oriented towards key city landmarks

But as van Duijn continues to explain, the cross is not just about the past but the future too. “It was also a way to attach the building to a new emerging city – it’s a strong symbol that defines and marks the spot of a new centre. It pulls the new city towards itself by creating a new centrepoint.” As OMA project architect Francisco Martinez also points out, “The cross form enabled a much more generous treatment of public realm by creating three triangular pockets of public space around each corner of the central crossing.”

The cross served a final crucial purpose. Although other buildings have sprung up since, when OMA started designing the library in 2010 the area was a post-industrial hinterland that, according to van Duijn, offered little in the way of readable context from which the new design could be generated. It is a situation that many development sites find themselves in when regeneration is tackled in deindustrialised urban areas, and van Duijn offers a solution. “As we couldn’t read from context we decided to create a new concept and let this be the driving force of the new design. The cross is central to that concept.”

OMA Caen library

Source: OMA

Axonometric drawing (first floor)


But the cross is not the only element of that concept – there are also the facades. There is a painstaking, almost repressive simplicity about the library elevations. All four wings are the same height (a constraint imposed by the masterplan), and the facades themselves are rationally and regimentally expressed as simple glass boxes that alternate between transparent and obscure glazing.

This sequence of alternation is key to the concept. The building is three storeys high and each level is given a subtly distinct elevational treatment. The ground floor primarily features clear glazing with relatively thick floor-to-ceiling mullions placed approximately 0.6m apart. The first floor is expressed as a “piano nobile” and features large single panes of glass measuring a mighty 6m x 1.2m. The reading room occupies this entire level.

OMA Caen library

Source: Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti

The transparent first-floor reading room contrasts with the smaller windows and thicker mullions of the ground and second floors

OMA Caen library

Source: Philippe Ruault

The reading room’s large windows are vertically domed to provide stability against the harsh wind conditions

Additionally, each window pane on the first floor is moulded into a vertical dome, to provide a warped, glass-blown effect that further differentiates this level. The system is a similar one to that used on Herzog and de Meuron’s recently completed Hamburg Elbphilharmonie – in fact, both panels were fabricated by the same Italian manufacturer.

Finally, the top attic storey is expressed as a denser plane similar to the ground floor with smaller windows and with truss bracing visible internally. “The concept is based on mass and void,” says Martinez. “The mass is essentially everything other than the reading room, which is why you have smaller windows with thicker mullions on the ground and second floor. The void is the reading room, so this is primarily transparent with bigger panes of glass and the domed surfaces providing these panes with vertical stability against the harsh wind conditions.”

This last point is particularly crucial. In order to create as much transparency as possible in the reading room “void”, the entire floor above is supported from cores placed at the ends of each cross wing. Hence, elevationally, these “bookends” are expressed as solid with opaque glazing. The truss cross-bracing on the top floor, meanwhile, reveals this level to be, in structural terms, a giant 4m-high beam supported solely by the cores on each end of the cross. This frees the glass and the mullions in the reading room from any structural role whatsoever.

OMA Caen library

Source: OMA


“It’s about two glass facades operating in opposite ways,” says van Duijn. “We knew the building couldn’t be completely solid and we wanted a more volumetric expression. So this combination of mass and void is about creating a hierarchy of expression that can simply and cleverly conceal all manner of different internal conditions but still emphasise the overall whole. It’s much more than just a dumb glass facade”.

Which indeed it is. Moreover, the application of an autonomous concept that drives architectural decision-making in the absence of a guiding contextual narrative is an expeditious way to convey character onto a new building when a site fails to do so. OMA has license to be different here because the building is quite literally perched on the edge of an emerging city.

But whatever charisma the application of the concept bestows here, at least in the way the public are likely to perceive it, is a muted one. For all the earnest theoretical manoeuvres involved in its conception, the library remains little more than a flat, pale and pallid glass box whose orthogonal rigidity conveys little of the warmth and intimacy one might expect from a library. But thankfully things become more exciting once we step inside.

Reading room

Much of the ground floor is occupied by a generous lobby complete with café and the requisite combination of tables, chairs and more informal seating. Happily it is flooded with natural light through its mullioned windows, which, ironically, makes jest of the architect’s conceptual definition of this level as “the mass”.

But it is the void that is the true triumph of the interior. A swooping escalator with dazzling reflective metal soffit swoops visitors up to the reading room, which occupies the entire first floor. This is a glorious space, framed with vistas of the surrounding city, and most dramatically the hilltop Abbaye aux Dames. The lofty domed windows plunge these uninterrupted views so deep into the space that the room intermittently feels like an urban forum or external terrace. The spatial benefits of the corner-supported second floor also become clear with the reading room’s complete lack of columns.

OMA Caen library

Source: Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti

Wooden “performance” seating helps to animate the literature section

OMA Caen library

Source: Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti

The science section is marked out by futuristic curved seating

The reading room also displays far more diversity and animation than the elevations. Each of the four arms of the cross houses a different literary section: arts, humanities, science and literature. To further enliven the interior, each cross is treated with a different installation that reflects the subject matter it houses. Literature gets wooden “performance” seating stalls, science gets a futuristic planetary curve, arts get a number of stacked display cases and, most intriguingly of all, humanities get a puckered leather cabinet screen, with openable doors revealing gems or paintings inside.

“It’s a similar principle to the Sir John Soane Gallery,” says Martinez, “the idea of a space being subdivided into smaller spaces which provide a level of curiosity and diversity.” While the diversity is, to a degree, contrived as it operates seemingly independently of the architecture of the building that surrounds it, it still provides a welcome boost of wonderment and interest into a truly varied interior.


So with its open-plan arrangement, informal interior, high-tech facilities, movable bookcases (designed by OMA) and dynamic layout, what does Caen contribute to the evolution of the 21st-century library, still considered by some to be under threat? OMA, veterans of at least 12 library or media technology projects over the past 30 years, including the game-changing Seattle Public Library of 2004, is in a good position to take a wider view.

“We heard the same predictions about the death of the library back in 1989 when we were designing our Très Grand Bibliothèque project,” ponders van Duijn. “Even then, there were questions of whether you still need a building with books when we have computers. But we’re optimists – the book has proven its right to remain in existence. In our culture today news and social media are so fast that people appreciate the stability of books. So we feel the two can co-exist.

“What is interesting is how relevant the library as a social space becomes, it evolves more into a public space, a meeting place, a place of encounters, almost like a living room. And within this broader typology you can still incorporate the quieter, sheltered spaces that are required for study but you can also have the more communal and inclusive urban spaces too.”

OMA Caen library

Source: Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti

The windows frame views of the city, including hilltop Abbaye aux Dames

And what of the suggestion that the studious simplicity of Caen, taken in consideration with its calmer London work, points to a more restrained and less flamboyant OMA? van Duijn is reluctant to concur. “We never deliberately set out to make strange or extravagant buildings. Each project we do is totally dependent on its city, site and context and we treat every project differently. The restrained, rational approach was appropriate at Caen because it’s a sub-provincial, low-rise town with modest buildings, all of which tend to be of the same colour. The cross shape is also a logical response to the site and references Caen’s older historic structures. Our building doesn’t seek to challenge context but creates a tribute to it.”


Client: Communauté
D’agglomération Caen La Mer
Lead architect: OMA
Partner architects: Barcode Architects / Clement Blanchet Architecture
Engineer: Iosis / Egis Batiments


Readers' comments (1)

  • 'There is a painstaking, almost repressive simplicity about the library elevations' ........They are having a laugh.

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