Václav Havel library in Paris-La Chapelle: a gift for everyone

Written by Thomas Guignard. Thomas is a librarian and photographer based in Toronto, Canada. He has been traveling and photographing libraries for more than 10 years. His images can be found on Instagram under the handle @concretelibraries and on his website. For how to contribute to Library Planet look here:  https://libraryplanetnet.wordpress.com/contribute/

* Bibliothèque Václav Havel

In 1926, as part of the expansion of Paris’ Gare de l’Est, a new hall was built to host railway customs and courrier services. Designed by the engineering firm Bouché-Leclerc, the “Halle des Messageries” (or Halle Pajol) was a functional, steel framed structure bridging the railway tracks below with loading docks for trucks on rue Pajol, covered with the sawtooth roof characteristic of the industrial age. As parcel handling facilities relocated to the outskirts of the city, the site slowly fell into disuse and by the 1970s it landed on a list of “insalubrious” sites ripe for redevelopment. A sequence of projects to transform the site failed to materialize due to political rivalry and public opposition. In the meantime, the hall was leased to artist Carlos Regazzoni, who used it as a studio for his monumental sculptures using industrial scrap materials. Other spaces were in turn used for dance and theatre performances, turning the former industrial land into an intrinsic part of the social fabric of this working-class neighbourhood.

In the early 2000s, the city of Paris launched another redevelopment project for the Halle Pajol. This time, the population was invited to provide feedback. This consultation process established that the most required services were communal spaces, affordable short-term housing, cultural spaces, restaurants, as well as a library. Site architects Janine Galiano and Philippe Simon proposed to retain the hall’s steel frame and signature roof, dedicating half of the surface gained to a new building and keeping the other half for a large covered garden, providing much needed green space while celebrating the railway heritage of the site.

* Bibliothèque Václav Havel

The construction of the building, nestled underneath the former Halle Pajol was awarded to architect Françoise-Hélène Jourda, a specialist in sustainable architecture. Providing a warm contrast to the original steel skeleton, her project makes extensive use of wood, not only as a decorative touch but as the main structural element. Cast in place concrete floors (providing thermal inertia) sit on massive laminated timber support beams. Walls and ceilings are all made of wood, and covered in wood-fibre panels. Solar panels installed on the roof generate more power than the building needs, and turn the building into the largest urban solar farms in the country. Solar power is also used as a heat source, coupled with geothermal heat pumps for cooling make the building energy neutral.

In this video (in French), the architect Françoise-Hélène Jourda explains the role of wood in her design for Halle Pajol

Following the functional requirements identified by the local communities, the building hosts a youth hostel and cafeteria, cafés, a bakery, cultural and gathering spaces, and a library  Named after Czech writer and dissident Václav Havel, the library opened in 2013 and immediately became one of the most heavily used spaces in the complex. Providing critical services in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city and its large migrant population, its 133 seats, power plugs and free, anonymous WiFi have been in high demand ever since. A recreation room complete with a collection of video games, table tennis and foosball offers a welcome respite to local teens with limited options to gather and spend their free time. Collections and activities are directly aimed at engaging the large multicultural youth and young adult population of the neighbourhood.

* Bibliothèque Václav Havel

Sketch by Laura Genz of migrant populations in front of Halle Pajol and the Václav Havel library: https://www.flickr.com/photos/laura_genz/19223585749

The provision of such crucial services in a difficult socio-economic context and with limited staff resources doesn’t happen without its share of conflicts. Repeated acts of violence have threatened both staff and patrons, and the acute migrant crisis affecting Europe following the war in Syria has further escalated tensions. Migrant camps established in front of the library led to clashes with police on several occasions, and in early 2018 the library had to reduce its opening hours to deal with the crisis. Recognizing the importance of the library in this fragile context, the city worked to find solutions, increased staff to 21 and added a mediator position to ease tensions.

Admirably,  the staff of the Václav Havel library kept providing services to everyone throughout this difficult time, opposing requests from police and the city to impose ID verification for Internet use.

* Bibliothèque Václav Havel

Their commitment to the communities they serve earned them respect and recognition. In July 2018, representatives from many underserved communities gathered in front of the library for an afternoon of celebration and gratitude, with music, workshops and a shared meal. They presented the library with a photograph by Stéphan Zaubitzer, titled “le cadeau“, the gift. On the picture, the library serves as a background for a joyous gathering of diverse figures, representing the “joys, meetings and surprises offered by this wonderful place… a kaleidoscope of experiences lived within its walls, all different, all enriched by the quality of the attentiveness and work of the library staff“. A sound recording collecting oral histories of members of the community, completes the photograph. The photo now hangs proudly on the wall by the library stairs, greeting all visitors.

The photo and the sound recording can be found here: https://lecadeauoffertalabibliothequemunicipalevaclavhavel.org/

The migrant crisis is far from over, and the social conflict has escalated throughout the country, epitomized by the Yellow Vests movement. After a transition period, the library has now gone back to normal opening hours. Weathering the storm, the Václav Havel library is still there, opening its doors to everyone who needs help, rest, a book, access to the Internet, a power outlet, a roof on their head, a place where they belong.

All photos are CC-BY-NC-SA Thomas Guignard, unless noted otherwise.

* Bibliothèque Václav Havel


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