Light reading

James Parker reports on how a Parisian firm of architects created a highly transparent, modern multimedia library flooded with light, that feels at home in historic Bayeux

The new ‘media library’ or ‘mediatheque’ serving the 30,000 citizens of Bayeux. Normandy, was opened in early 2019. Inspired by a famous French author of children’s tales, and notwithstanding a very transparent, clean aesthetic, its architects designed the building to assume its place in a city with a rich history.

The high-profile location was an open area to the west of the old city centre which connects it with areas of new and planned development, and overlooks the 11th century cathedral half a kilometre away. To respond to the challenge of creating a highly contemporary glass building alongside a historic location, Paris-based Serero Architectes proposed the notion of a ‘building landscape,’ whereby users could access books, multimedia and entertainment “in the middle of a garden,” with the glass edifice opening up to landscaped, usable exterior areas.

The key design intervention to alleviate what would have been a very deep-planned building is a square patio courtyard cut into the centre of the building. It’s landscaped to bring natural colour as well as light in, and also provide an external relaxation and reading space. This 10 m² area helps the interior blend with the exterior, its glazed walls bringing light in to augment that already brightening the large open plan space from external facades. Exterior covered reading terraces to the south further help the library harness the functional as well as holistic potential of external areas.

As a result of the highly transparent design, each space within the building has copious amounts of light, a mix of artificial light from LED tubes overhead, borrowed light from the central patio, and “softened” light coming in from the main north facade thanks to a brise soleil design. This helps the building offer “great clarity and legibility of interior space,” commented the architects.

External form
The client had what the architects described as a “fairly fixed” brief for the project, in terms of the fact that there was a “very precise building footprint to respect to meet budget requirements.” Within that overall constraint, the key words behind the design, for client as well as the architect, were “space, light, transparency and simplicity.”

However, as architect David Serero explains, his firm decided to depart from the client’s original intention of a higher building to accommodate its various needs, to something more low-profile, and elegant. “We placed all of the programme on a single floor, instead of three floors as asked in the brief.”

The project is almost completely transparent thanks to its mainly glazed facades and the absence of partitions across its 2,500 m² floor plan. Only three spaces within the building have opaque cladding – in Caen stone – the reception, plus an entertainment room, and a quiet study space. The structure is an “innovative steel frame with very skinny steel square tubes of 14 x 14 cm,” on a 5 metre grid, says Serero.

The building’s envelope opens up in other places, including glazed bays to the east, south and west facades – which are equipped with motorised roller blinds. The entrance, to the north east, opens onto a forecourt, an “entrance square” combining paving and grassed areas in a similar way to the adjacent military cemetery to assist pedestrians crossing the road. The green roof, “conceived as a fifth facade,” includes skylights which help with ventilation in summer thanks to motorised opening, as well as adding further light to the interior.

There is a much smaller upper storey containing quieter spaces, plus a roof terrace, however overall the building presents a chiefly rectilinear profile. The white uprights across the length of the transparent facades give the building something of the look of a giant bookcase from a distance, however one key design intervention provides a dynamic horizontal rhythm to the building’s main elevation.

With the building referencing history in a number of ways, in its exterior appearance there’s a nod to the Bayeux tapestry in the brise soleil design within the north facade. The facade, which runs along the main boulevard, is fully glazed, but light is moderated by an internal ‘filter skin’ made up of 1200 horizontally arranged aluminium tubes coloured in the natural shades used in the 11th century wool tapestry. In eight colours (beige, brown, green, bronze, blue, deep blue, black, and yellow), these structures filter the light and provide a “luminous ambience” in doing so, says Serero.

The roof overhangs to the south facade “make it possible to filter views between the reading spaces,” say the architects, and combine with the transparent facades to create a “porosity, a series of rich transition spaces between the building’s interior and exterior.”

Structural glass was used on the north elevation to create a five metre high facade with no vertical supports. Solar control glass was used for the skylights, and the south elevation features a high transparency glass. Free cooling is provided by motorised glass louvres above the entrance and exit doors in the glass facade. At night, or in hot conditions, they automatically open to create natural cross ventilation to the interior spaces.

Internal arrangement
Following a “reflection on uses” at the outset of the design process, the architects decided to place virtually all public spaces on an open-plan ground floor for “ease of access and optimal functioning.” The architects commented, “The library is designed on a free platform with no enclosed boundaries.” However it is still a “finite space,” yet one which “assembles an infinite number of organisations of subspaces.” Those ‘subspaces’ are a simple, repeating pattern of 5 m² square zones, containing storage shelves, work tables, reading chairs and storage ‘bins.’

The Bayeux municipality, the client behind the project, had a concept of ‘seven places’ to engage users of the new library, inspired in part by the mythical ‘seven-league boots’ described in the tales of 17th century French author Charles Perrault, including ‘Puss In Boots.’ With the centre being named Les 7 Lieux (Places) to reinforce the notion, the client hoped the centre’s different zones would further follow the theme by “allowing visitors to access culture by leaps and bounds!” Users will be able to find something to suit them in one of the zones, “just as the seven league boots follow the shape of the foot of the one who wears them.”

Continuing the concept, the design provides seven distinct areas. ‘The Platform’ is the open plan 1000 m2 ground floor which houses most of the ‘free-to-access’ documents for readers. Located on the ground floor behind the reception area, ‘The Gallery’ is an area for hosting exhibitions and events, and ‘The Forum’ is a soundproof room for more specific events with 80 seats mounted on a telescopic ramp.

Also on the ground floor, at the furthest extreme from the reception, are ‘The Workshop,’ a flexible space accommodating workshops, and ‘the Work Room,’ which is reserved for “calm and studious activities,” and contains a selection of heritage documents. The final two zones are the cafe and patio, an “indoor green garden” where users can read and relax.

Interior design
The design, as per good practice for libraries, transitions from the naturally often busy reception and open spaces to quieter, more internal areas, where concentration is a must. David Serero explains that the functions required in the open-plan ground floor “are only made possible by the 400 pieces of furniture that have been designed and assembled inside the library.” The open plan design leaves the building “adjustable to future evolutions of reading, sharing, playing and learning.”

The carefully-designed furniture items “define the functions and usage of each part of the library more than the architecture itself,” says the project architect. They include double-width armchairs, for working with laptops, double sofas for video gaming using headsets, and adjustable leather stools for piano and guitar playing. There are also oak storage cupboards intended for “agricultural seed sharing,” and round tables with counterbalanced feet for “all in one” computer working, as well as soft items like bean bags for quick stops to read magazines and comics.

The interior design concept was to create a “living room-like space,” therefore a comfortable environment for reading, working and listening to music, but also playing video games, reading a newspaper, surfing the web, or activities like sewing. The key internal materials are limestone (floors), white-lacquered steel, Corian and Oak, combining with the ever-present glass. The internal patio provides the finishing touch to the feeling of calm relaxation, echoing a cloister of the nearby cathedral, with a range of planting common to Normandy including apple and cherry trees.

With ventilation being crucial in a large, glazed building, a “double-flow” mechanical ventilation system supports the dominant natural ventilation. While not being sustainability certified, the building, which has underfloor heating throughout, has been designed to be high-efficiency and low energy, delivering less than 20 kWh/m².

This building provides a strong statement in glass within a sensitive, historic context, but its careful, high-quality design provides for the varied functions it accommodates, while adding a new subtle urban landmark. It provides as much natural light as it can, alleviating carbon costs, but also providing the best possible environment for concentration and study.

The proof is in the pudding with a municipal asset such as this, so is it being used to the levels expected? The statistics are impressive, since opening there have been 6000 subscriptions to the library, and the population of Bayeux is only 4000! Of course this is partly due to the city’s popularity with tourists, but also speaks to the demand for a multi-faceted public resource like this, and one who’s impressively transparent skin helps it relate to its surroundings.

Project Factfile

  • Architect: Serero Architectes Urbanistes
  • Client: Bayeux Intercom
  • Acoustics: Pasquini
  • Floor area: 2,550 m²
  • Cost: €5,020,000