The archives of France were long housed in the center of Paris in the Hôtel de Soubise, a gracious, two-story, 18th-century palace whose symmetries, proportions, and stately order expressed in stone the humanistic rationalism of the French Enlightenment. By the turn of the millennium, however, the archives had outgrown the palace, and a new repository was needed.
Following long-standing state policy and recent studies of a “Grand Paris” that promote a decentralized—and democratized—culture in the suburbs rather than in the city center, France’s Ministry of Culture and Communication staged a competition in 2005 for a new, expanded archive for the post-revolutionary nouveau régime material in a state-of-the-art facility outside the city center. The site in the Parisian suburb of Pierrefitte-sur-Seine is located at the end of the extended Saint Denis Metro Line 13, adjacent to a new University of Paris campus, and not far from the Cathedral of Saint Denis, where the French kings and queens of the ancien régime are interred. (Their archives, dating back to the seventh century, remain ensconced in the Hôtel de Soubise.)
If reason is to the French what beauty is to the Italians, the new context for the archives was not only a vote for égalité, but also for rationality. The new archive would, the ministry hoped, play a role in building a new, expanded French cultural ecosystem that embraced the overlooked and marginalized outer edges—and societies—of the city. The move was smart.
The winning design, by Roman architects Massimiliano Fuksas, Hon. FAIA, Doriana Fuksas, and their eponymous studio, is arguably as rational as the Hôtel de Soubise was in its time. After all, when René Descartes, a father of the Enlightenment, wrote his philosophy Discours de la méthode (1637), he admitted only what was clear and self-evidently true. For the archives of the country that invented and first adopted the metric system, the Fuksas scheme was a model of methodical and measured clarity, laid out in a straightforward Cartesian grid, and built in the materials of our time—glass, steel, and aluminum.
The 10-story structure is a virtual translation of 18th-century rationalism into a modern idiom, minus the Hôtel de Soubise’s aristocratic lineage, and minus any sense of craft—here, abstraction of the mind has replaced any evidence of the hand. The architects, with Studio Fuksas’s Michele D’Arcangelo acting as project architect, have sited the building not only in the context of the new cultural ecosystem but also in the context and tradition of French reason, without concessions or apologies.
The clarity of the nearly 1,165,000-square-foot building declares itself from the street, where a pedestrian just off the Metro can see the whole complex in three-quarter view. Long, juxtaposed, stacked, and cantilevered prisms—each with a triangulated, exoskeletal façade—stand in front of a huge 10-story, aluminum-clad box, housing the archives behind its very crisp edges. “I intended to design a jewel box,” Massimiliano Fuksas says, “with scattered elements and suspended functions in front.”
Reflections in the anodized aluminum cladding the archive dissolve its mass, while providing a plain, ethereal backdrop that silhouettes the stack of prisms to the fore—these volumes house conservation labs, administrative offices, conference rooms, lounges, and reception areas. The architects have separated the individual prisms with wide gaps that act as reveals allowing light, air, and shadow between the sections. Enclosed bridges link the front and back structures over a canyon of space that sits between the archive and the office volumes.
At ground level, shallow pools meander in and out of the sections—filling the space between the two structures and under the bridges—reflecting light and mirroring the building above. These form a calming context that recalls the great gardens of the French Enlightenment. The architects speak of the ensemble as a landscape, but the gaps between the sections tilt the landscape, creating dynamic vertical and diagonal views in a porous, three-dimensional field of structure.
The ground level offers three access points: for visitors, personnel, and deliveries. The main entrance and reception lobby link to the main reading room, the heart of the entire complex, which has the spatial volume and presence of a modern cathedral. Massimiliano and Doriana have kept the space visually controlled and neutral, with a sea of ebony desks forming a datum that visually anchors the triple-height space. Natural light enters through a brise-soleil replete with fins that adjust to allow light, while still protecting books and researchers from glare. The architects have calmed and simplified the interior to a point of academic monasticism.
Staff members work at desks and in rooms on the inboard side of the reading room; librarians are seated at a raised control point that gives them a visual overview of the space. Behind the desks is the access point to the 10 floors of archives, which are arranged in a double-loaded plan, with a central trunk corridor branching into separate stacks, each separated from the other with a full-height void of space. Each stack is windowless, to protect the materials inside, and each is separately air-conditioned and heated via equipment in a decentralized system. The archives give way to bridges that connect to the administrative satellites.
Despite the non-aligned geometries of the stacked volume, the satellites connect with perfect clarity via internal corridors. All interiors have windows off balconies serving as service galleries, which ring all the office blocks. The cantilevered upper prisms shade the lower buildings, while also creating cavernous exterior spaces spotted with columns that rise from the squared pools of water below. Although the pools evoke the landscape and bring a natural element into the environment that forms a common “ground” between the satellites and the archives, the water is also treated as an architectural element, conforming to, and extending, the geometries of the building. The effect is environmental, reflecting the buildings above, sending dappled effects onto walls and soffits, and generally softening the experience with water’s tranquilizing effect. The water is not treated as an object but as an environmental base for the building complex.
The whole enterprise, including both the institution itself and the building that now houses it, is an appropriate response to its larger urban context. “The building is scaled to the small houses [across from the] front, and the scale graduates, stepping up to tall structures that will eventually be built behind,” Fuksas says. But besides the appropriateness of its scale here, the design abstracts the rationalist essence of French culture and builds on it, and so belongs to this institution and site. Unlike the Pompidou Center, designed by Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, and Richard Rogers, Hon. FAIA, to which this campus seems visually related, the archives do not play on technical imagery or allude to the Industrial Revolution. The design strips the architecture of any fetishizing of the machine, taking the building back to pure Enlightenment rationalism.
For all its conceptual clarity, the simplicity is deceptive. What appears at first to be a rudimentary Cartesian layout that builds off the grid seems, at moments, to introduce chaos theory. In the tall underbelly of the satellites, the columns are so multitudinous that they become a forest of piers, all set into a playful parallax within the spatial push and pull of the office blocks above and the basins of water at grade. There is an added twist of Italian chiaroscuro as the openings among the stacked blocks create shifting compositions of light and shade, solid and void. Yet an excess of reason can breed irrationality. The satellites, so apparently clear, edge toward the irrational as the columns multiply within a complex void that expands and contracts in shadow and light. Through the apparent complexity, one cannot comprehend the whole from any single viewing point, even from a frontal position, as one could the Hôtel de Soubise and the Pompidou Center. If there is a whole, it is elusive. There are subversive strains of counterintuitive logic in this building that shade and nuance what is otherwise a thesis of architectural clarity. —Joseph Giovannini