Ecole Normale Supérieure

May 9, 2006By Heidi EllisonWhat's New Potpourri

Paris Modern

The handsome main staircase.

A new building in the heart of Paris is a true rarity in these days of fervent architectural preservationism, but one has nevertheless gone up in the Latin Quarter, designed for some of France’s most elite scholars.

As if ashamed of itself (or hiding from preservationists), the new library extension of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, alma mater of such luminaries as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, is hidden away in and accessible only from the school’s private courtyard. The building is visible to the public from the back, on the Rue Rataud.

It has been nearly 10 years since architect Philippe Gazeau won the competition for the building’s design, but it has taken that long to wade through the bureaucratic maze that must be navigated to put up a new building in the city. Part of the delay was caused by actions taken by two neighborhood associations, whose objections were dismissed in the end since the area around the building site has no particular architectural heritage to protect. A walk through the student quarter immediately surrounding the ENS reveals plenty of 20th century buildings with little to recommend them.

Budget constraints imposed by a publicly financed project also quashed many of the architect’s ideas, such as hanging bookshelves. On a recent visit to the empty building, Gazeau seemed especially proud of the system of glass shutters controlled by sophisticated individual motors of the type used in nuclear plants. Each shutter is a sandwich of two sheets of tempered glass and two of EVA film, with a thin sheet of perforated stainless steel between them. With a flip of a switch, the shutters – which when fully open stand perpendicular to the glass façade – can be partially or entirely closed to control the amount of light entering the library’s main reading room.

These shutters also form the main point of interest on an otherwise undistinguished façade. Inside, a handsome concrete stairway, woven metal half walls and another stairway wrapped Christo-style in a textile composite liven up the otherwise grim interior.

Let’s hope the installation of the books and a human presence will add some color to the interior’s unremittingly grayness. The only touch of color was provided by a strip of purple carpeting and some orange electrical outlets.

The building, which replaces a temporary structure put up in the courtyard after World War II, is topped by what looks like an afterthought, a block of 59 dormitory rooms. These personality-free institutional rooms make you feel sorry for the students who will have to live in them until you remember that as some of the country’s top brains the “normale supes” have maid service and free room and board.

It seems a shame that when Paris does get a rare new building, it has to be hidden away and submit to so many design compromises. But then perhaps it would have been a good idea to hide another library, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, which would still have been a disaster even if its architect, Dominique Perrault, hadn’t been forced to truncate the tops of its four “book-shaped” towers to placate critics.

Heidi Ellison

© 2006 Paris Update

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