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The Office for Metropolitan Architecture, under the direction of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas, is reimagining libraries for the digital age. In a world where both physical media and human interaction are becoming increasingly rare, the firm has radically shifted the focus of libraries from book collections to social collectivity, creating spaces that celebrate public gatherings and the sharing of ideas. Their recently completed Bibliothèque Alexis de Tocqueville, located in Caen, France, is no exception.
This X-shaped multimedia library marks the spot where the historic city meets the burgeoning waterfront. Each of the four wings is dedicated to a specific area of knowledge — literature, humanities, arts and sciences — which converge to form the library’s “beating heart,” a sprawling public space that is part reading room, part forum and part performance hall. “The idea was to trust the intuition of the reader, allow him to get lost and discover areas that are foreign to him. In short, to create a place of chance and meeting,” explained OMA associate Clément Blanchet. Exploring its design in depth, we take a look at the building products and manufacturers that make this revolutionary library possible.
Manufactured by Seralu
The façades are clad almost exclusively in aluminum-framed shadow boxes — typically reserved for curtain wall spandrels — which consist of aluminum cladding beneath a layer of frosted glass. Their opacity emphasizes the building’s solid/void relationship, a theme OMA examined previously in the unbuilt Très Grande Bibliothèque: “The library is imagined as a solid block of information, a dense repository for the past, from which voids are carved to create public spaces — absence floating in memory.”
Manufactured by Sunglass
The main reading room is surrounded by 20-foot-tall panes of clear glass which frame panoramic views of the adjacent park and waterfront plazas. The glazing was slumped over convex molds in a special glass-bending oven, creating an undulating surface that plays off the rippling water. This curved profile also increases the structural rigidity of the glass, enabling it to be supported with minimal silicone joints rather than mullions.
Manufactured by Armstong Ceiling Solutions
The vast, column-free interior is accentuated by an uninterrupted ceiling of white lacquered aluminum. Large perforations in the ceiling panels improve interior acoustics while keeping the air condition-less space cool and well ventilated. At the end of the science wing, this ceiling curves downward to form a long, concave projection screen which doubles as reclined seating.
Manufactured by Hubert Parquets
The continuity of the ceiling overhead is paralleled by the wood flooring underfoot. To add warmth to the space without sacrificing durability, the architects chose an engineered floor made of parqueted veneers of bright Canadian maple and variegated walnut. In the literature wing, this wood floor rises upward, forming stepped seating for performances and public lectures.
Manufactured by Otis Elevator Company
Spatial continuity is also maintained vertically from one floor to the next by double-wide escalators and glass-walled elevators. These freestanding elements are clad on three sides in polished stainless steel paneling — one of OMA’s favorite materials — whose mirrored surface visually doubles the already spacious interior.
Manufactured by Coalesse, Knoll, Sedus, Silvera, and Vitra
There are hardly any partitions or permeant fixtures organizing the main reading room. Instead, the architects relied on modular furniture systems which empower users to define their own spaces. White tables and black desks provide formal workstations for adults while brightly colored poufs and shapely chaise lounges create a more playful atmosphere for children.
Manufactured by BCI Library Furniture
The library shelving was also designed for maximum flexibility. The bookcases rest on casters so they can be rearranged effortlessly to accommodate different events. Whereas traditional bookcases obstruct views and cast shadows, these contemporary units are kept below eye level and are made of semi-translucent white resin. The architects equipped the shelves with wireless touchscreen devices, cleverly juxtaposing paper and digital media. This technology helped limit the physical collection on display to just 120,000 copies, liberating significant amounts of floor space for social activities.
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