Salle Labrouste (reading room), Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Richelieu Library--page 1 (of three pages)

Henri Labrouste

Today there is a new Bibliothèque Nationale de France in eastern Paris (since 1995) but for more than 250 years the national library was housed in a complex in this location; at the behest of Napoleon III the original library was rebuilt and restored here by Henri Labrouste who had made a reputation with the earlier Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. Of his designs the most justly famous is the large Reading Room, which, like the earlier library, uses cast iron, both for practical reasons (it is fire proof) and reasons of design. As Norval White says, "This grand and delicate essay in cast and wrought iron brings a host of hovering domes to form a glorious secular baldachino for the library's secular readers. . . . Labrouste raised the art of iron to a level that transcends the elegance of engineering (in a strict mathematical sense) and creates a space of great beauty and joy" (9).

One exterior wall and nine domes with skylights

The roof is glazed in order to provide more light for reading. The nine laterally intersecting domes are supported by 16 thin iron columns. See the plan.

The concave wall opposite the entrance

The room is square except for this concave area.

The single exterior wall--thus fenestrated

The arches in the adjoining wall have murals which appear to depict the natural world outside. The paintings are recent (1964) by the landscape painter Alexandre Desgoffe.

Arches and domes

"The lattice work and rivets of the arches supporting the domes are left exposed for their natural decorative effect, while the domes' interiors are clad with white enamel panels that gently augment the light entering them through reflection. These airy umbrellas must have appeared quite astonishing to contemporaries" (Ayers 59).


Continue to page 2


Works Consulted or Quoted:
Andrew Ayers. The Architecture of Paris. Stuttgart/London: Edition Axel Menges, 2004.
Norval White. The Guide to the Architecture of Paris. NY: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1991.

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