“Buildings are the wealth of nations, our largest capital asset, the ornament of cultures, and where we spend most of our lives.” – Stewart Brand
On the 14th of July, 1988, President Mitterand of France announced his intention to build a library in Paris for the modern world. He passed the logistics of this task onto the committee of the “Association pour la Bibliothèque de France,” who over the following months deliberated over the proposals of 244 internationally renowned architects. Four of these proposals were brought to President Mitterand for comment, and Dominique Perrault – a lesser known 36 year old French architect at the time – was chosen to complete the task.
Inaugurated in December of 1996, the French National Library’s four towers stand at 259 feet tall. Their 2,690,978 square feet of surface area is often categorized by its lack of decoration, where thick sheets of glass – intended to refract the sun’s rays – enclose it and its users in a greenhouse where temperatures rise high enough to increase the aging of books on the shelves. As a result, slabs of wood were added at each window, giving users their necessary shade. This monumentally increased the construction costs of the FNL, and caused the French Finance Ministry to cut the budget for book purchasing in the following years.
The question of buildings as platforms is complex. The ‘building codes’ that guide construction and the political systems through which these considerations are formulated, the architects, planners, contractors, and labor demanded, the users who inhabit and modify, and the physical construction – wood, concrete, and metal hide beneath, creating an exoskeleton of services – are all at play.
Looking to the example of the French National Library above, we see an instance in which various actors made predictions that resulted in disaster for various users, and where these decisions brought with them new platform rules. Using this same conceptual framework we are pushed to evaluate who acts as a user in the platform of the FNL. Professors and students? Books?
As platforms, buildings organize human activity, display a manifestation of tradeoffs, and profess user identity. Buildings are only started and never completed. They are in a constant stage of transformation. They moderate and compete with their users, like platforms, locking and unlocking possibilities. Buildings come and go, in the most severe form, of demolition and reconstruction.
Buildings as platforms constantly take up roles never intended by their designers. Coffee shops, for example, can serve as meeting venues, napping spaces, and concert halls all while still being coffee shops.
Buildings in certain ways are also stacks. We see this through British journalist Stewart Brand’s investigation of the shearing layers of a building in his 1997 documentary “How Buildings Learn”. Working from the outside in, a building begins with a site. This location is eternal. Next follows the skin, a thin layer of visible of material that composes the facade, physically visible from the outside. Behind this facade is the structure of the building, which is composed of all load bearing elements. Between the the inner facade and the outer facade – or the interior design – is the service layer, where pipes and wiring intertwine to give the building life. And on the innermost point is the stuff. These layers are constantly in conversation with each other, sometimes moderated by the user, and sometimes not.