With OMA’s Latest Library, X Marks the Spot

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The X-shaped Bibliothèque Alexis de Tocqueville in Normandy offers panoramic views of the city from its airy, column-free interior, making it an ideal public gathering space.

Plunked along the Orne river in Caen, Normandy, the 12,500-square-metre Bibliothèque Alexis de Tocqueville is the latest work by Dutch firm OMA, completed in collaboration with Barcode Architects. Set between the city’s historic core and newer developments, the new library intends to serve as a major civic focal point. As OMA partner Chris van Duijn stated, “The cross-shaped building marks this central location between the old city and the new, and is a symbol for an institution deeply invested in the future of Caen.”

OMA took that symbolism literally. Each of the library’s protruding planes is directed at a landmark: to the north and west, the Abbaye-aux-Dames and Abbaye-aux-Hommes (both 11th-century relics); to the south and east, the central train station and an area of the city under development. The library’s axial shape is also informed by its programming, with each wing housing a different discipline: science and technology, literature, human sciences, and the arts.

The interior is dramatically open. Above the ground floor, all four wings converge in an airy, column-free reading room, the library’s primary public space. With floor-to-ceiling load-bearing glass windows, this floor affords generous views of the adjacent park, pedestrian pathway and waterfront plaza. The cutaway form maximizes surface area, allowing light to pour in from all sides.

Though the library houses some 120,000 documents, it has also evolved with the digital age. OMA took the multimedia mandate to heart, integrating digital products right into the bookshelves. Other features of the library include a 150-seat auditorium, exhibition space and restaurant with outdoor terrace.

Sitting at the tip of a canal that leads to the English Channel, the Bibliothèque Alexis de Tocqueville cuts an imposing figure from the outside. Yet a peek inside shows just how light, open and inviting a 21st-century library can be.

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