Creative Writing #3: Monument to Mitterand

Well, here’s Creative Writing effort #3 for your comment.  It’s a little different than the others as I think you’ll notice.  As well, it’s a little bit longer which wasn’t planned but just happened. However, I think you’ll enjoy it and I’ve added lots of pictures to keep you going.  Once again, let me know what you think:

Monument to Mitterand

This week the meet-up point for my Creative Writing group was on the south eastern edge of the city that few, if any, of us had visited before.  At first glance when surfacing form the Metro, it appeared that we had been magically transported to a neighbourhood that could be found in almost any large international city but well away from the “real” Paris we all knew.   I didn’t know what to make of it but the first words that sprung to mind were: “Urban Anywhere”.

The buildings that surrounded us were more circa 1990 than 1660. Built in various configurations of predominantly chrome and glass they stretched well beyond the 6-storey height allowed in central Paris.  And, rather than “curls and swirls” the buildings were adorned with edges and geometric patterns.  BNF-1  The boulevards were wide with tree-lined medians and only a few cafés and brasseries opened onto the wide sidewalks decidedly void of the crowds I’ve become used to.  It’s not that I found the area unattractive, it’s just that, as I said, I didn’t know what to make of it and I definitely didn’t know what to write about.  A return visit was required.

On my return I was no less amazed at the “different-ness” of this area compared to central Paris.  Everything seemed big, new and shiny.  I was awestruck for a few minutes before realizing that the light was perfect and the cloud filled sky was creating amazing reflections everywhere.  Like a dog to a bone, I quickly became absorbed in taking pictures and promptly forgot that my real objective was to find a topic to write about.  BNF #1-11

I was wandering around a major complex that I discovered was the “Bibliothèque Nationale Francais” (BNF or ‘National Library of France’): a massive complex of four towers built in the early 1990’s on a piece of land donated by the Ville de Paris the size of 11 soccer fields.  It used to be an old railway depot.  BNF #1-8

This project was to be François Mitterand’s crowning glory, while the Ville de Paris hoped it would encourage further development of its massive “Nouveau Rive Gauche” project (‘New Left Bank’) which, to that point, was mostly empty space.  Following a hastily organized international competition a design by a young French architect, Dominique Perrault, was selected not for its respect of location and purpose rather for its boldness and recognition of Mitterand’s desire to build something monumental and prestigious as his final hurrah – and to do so quickly since his term in office was drawing to a close.  Trying to get a complete view of things I headed toward the Seine River that anchors the BNF on its backside where I found a series of very photogenic undulating footbridges that also offered a great panorama of the complex.  BNF #1-15

What attracted my photographic eye was the series of four giant glass towers Perrault had designed, each positioned to look like an open book facing inward.  These towers envelop a giant half-buried rectangle.  At the centre of all of this sits, for lack of a better word, a giant “hole” the size of the Jardin at the Palais Royale.  This hole is filled with trees.  While the completed complex offered up some excellent photographic opportunities to me, it’s perhaps not surprising that, when design trumps function, flaws in Perrault’s design began to surface before the ink had even dried on the page.

BNF #1-13

To begin, an academic uproar persuaded the government that the new library should not simply be an annex to the current National Library in central Paris as had been proposed.  They did not want to see the collection divided between two locations so far apart.  This meant that the new complex that had been designed to hold approximately 3 million volumes was suddenly required to hold over 13 million volumes without any additional construction.

Here’s a hint to the second major concern that caused a stir: the four towers were to be made entirely of glass. BNF #1-10

Perrault’s artistic vision was that the volumes should be visible to the common man from any angle and at any height, effectively suggesting the “accumulation of knowledge never completed”.   Mitterand loved this idea as it coincided with his desire to make knowledge accessible to everyone.  However, this part of the plan caused worldwide uproar among librarians and experts.  They pointed out that the paper from which books are made is light sensitive and consequently book stacks are best kept underground where it is dark and cool, not in glass greenhouses where they would essentially cook.   A compromise was reached between the experts and Mitterrand, who was determined to have the library built “torpedoes be damned”: printed volumes would change places with the administrative staff currently housed in the lower level of each of the towers.  This resulted in only 40 percent of the volumes being housed above ground.  These volumes are now protected by giant wooden shutters in front of all windows and kept permanently closed, essentially blocking views in all directions but offering me rather interesting photo perspectives.  BNF #1-4

I’d like to point out that, in spite of the excess of books and all the glass, I did not personally see a single book during my entire visit!  What are now lower level reading rooms are restricted for use by only “serious” researchers and scientists while the upper level reading rooms cost money to access. Irony anyone?

Oh, and what about the displaced administrative library staff?  They’ve been relegated to above ground space in each of four separate buildings – 11 soccer fields apart at their furthest. This means that even the smallest task can take a great deal of time and burn hundreds of calories especially if it involves a visit to another department!  Not surprisingly, complaints are numerous but my guess is that everyone’s in great shape.

The other major design flaw, and the most ironic, though humorous, in my opinion, concerns the massive walled garden or, the trees in the hole. BNF #1-3

Perrault’s objective was to offer visitors a “cloistered oasis of calm”.  The garden was to resemble a chunk of wild, virgin nature similar to bygone days on the Ile-de-France.  To achieve this he imported mature pines from Normandy and arranged boulders and undergrowth in a “wild and random” way to resemble the Forêt de Fontainebleau.  In his dreams Perrault saw researchers taking a break from the rigour of their intellectual pursuits to relax and recharge in the garden.

This sounded like a great idea to me and I spent a good deal of time searching both inside and out for an entrance to the forest.  While I could access the outer deck above the forest, I finally had to conclude that no lower level access existed. This exercise contributed little to my own sense of calm and relaxation. BNF #1-12

Sitting in one of the long basement hallways looking into the forest like a visitor at the zoo I learned that someone had pointed out to Perrault that trees attract wood-eating insects and insects that like wood also tend to like paper and books are made of paper so…in the best interests of the library the garden has been hermetically sealed and all access is forbidden.  So much for the notion of man dominating nature!


Has the BNF achieved François Mitterand’s original objectives?  Well, it is an imposing and rather prestigious looking complex that currently houses every piece of French publishing so, to that extent, yes.  At the same time, it has some serious design flaws and remains in an obscure location that’s difficult to get to from many areas of the city.  As well, the books are only available with a fee or proof of “serious academic pursuit” which I would not classify as overly “accessible”.  I, however, quite enjoyed my afternoon tromp both inside and out at the BNF.   I got some great photos and also visited two wonderful free art exhibits housed in the lower level gallery area.  And, at the end of it all, I was thrilled to discover that the main deck entrance to the BNF is one of the few places in Paris where food trucks regularly congregate.  I just may have to make another visit.



BNF #1-17

Additional photos from my little adventure:

BNF #1-7 BNF #1-5 BNF #1-1 BNF #1-2


  1. well Tracey I would have to say, you are an excellent “story teller”, which I am assuming is an A+ in your creative writing story. So, as I read this, i realized you were telling many stories at the same time! You did a beautiful job telling Perrault’s story – the story of his architecture, his vision, his creation, his mistakes and triumphs – it was fascinating to read actually! You also told your story beautifully, from going…and going again, being distracted, wandering, learning and eventually finding your way to the food trucks 🙂 And, as always, you told the story beautifully through pictures, helping bring all the other “stories” to light 🙂


  2. Glad you made it to the library within the first six months of moving to Paris! Gladdens this librarian’s heart. Great research to find out the story behind it and you told it well. I’m so disappointed to hear about the lack of free access. Directly flies in the face of everything I, and all the library staff I know, believe in and try to provide.


    • Thanks for reading Sherri. It’s quite an interesting place – and a unique space. They do take books seriously here – don’t see as many e-readers on the Metro either.


    • Thank-you for your comment. Although many people do not like the BNF building, I actually find it rather interesting. And it is certainly nice to have so much space.


  3. Loved your pictures of this space aged glass, steel, non accessible forest ambitious undertaking as an ode to Mitterand – reinforces my love of central Paris architecture and spaces accessible and filled with people. Your essay is excellent!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Cheryl! In spite of how much many Parisians dislike this part of the city I actually kind of liked it – it’s different. There’s more space. It’s modern with touches of the past. Plus there are lots of cool photo opps! The library though is a little odd.


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