I love a good book and I certainly love a good library. Unfortunately, many of the grand Parisian libraries are private or not accessible to non-citizens. To my delight, Sainte-Geneviève is a public library and I toured it recently for a project with two talented expats. (More to come on the project in a few weeks.) Sainte-Geneviève is situated with a prominent Latin Quarter address. I suspect the library is often overlooked by visitors due to its famous neighbor, the Panthéon.
Sainte-Geneviève was completed in 1850 and is architecturally significant for the use of ironwork on the interior of the building. Massive arches vault the ceiling of the library’s reading room. The iron arches were controversial when the library first debuted; keeping in mind, this was 40 years prior to any whisper of the Eiffel Tower. You may also recall, the innovative Eiffel Tower launched like a lead balloon (pun intended). The French tend to root themselves in tradition.
The French architect, Henri Labrouste, played with a number of different themes when designing the library: light and dark, science and religion, exteriors and interiors, tradition and innovation. You’ll notice the dynamic juxtaposition of his themes. He believed that one was not better than the other – you must have both for the healthy pursuit of knowledge.
From a structural perspective, the contrast of light and dark is best shown in the different levels of the library. The first floor is dark. It is where many of the book collections are kept and ancient manuscripts. Our tour guide mentioned the darkness is well designed on this level as it helps preserve the library’s works.
A lighted staircase leads scholars to the second floor reading room. The gigantic arched mural in the stairwell offers a great story. The mural, L’École d’ Athènes, was designed for the Panthéon next door, but it was not used. Towards the end of Sainte-Geneviève’s construction, the budget was tight. Labrouste readily accepted the mural artwork for the library despite the proportions being off for the stairwell space. The painting is meant to be observed from a distance for proper perspective. The placement of the mural in Sainte-Geneviève’s stairwell gives the viewer a close up view. It is a bit like being in the first row seats of a movie theater except the viewer is on the same level as the screen.
Moving into the reading room, one has the distinct experience of transferring from an exterior space to an interior space. The reading room is flooded with light. It is a truly spectacular space. The books are readily accessible as they line the reading room on two levels. Sainte-Geneviève may remind library fans of the Boston Public library. The two libraries opened with in a few years of each other and Sainte-Geneviève was used as a model for parts of Boston’s library.
The library is open Monday through Saturday, 10am to 10pm. The library is available to visitors who do not have a library cards in the morning from 9-10am for a visit. Wonderful (free) tours are given on Tuesdays, if reserved in advance.
**A quick note of thanks to my Elliger Park neighbor, Matt, who introduced me to Sainte-Geneviève. He spent a year in Paris studying architecture and had the pleasure of using in this historic space.