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Three-Dimensional Puzzle: Archive and Library Building in Montpellier

“Its conception is one of the most ambitious and comprehensive assertions of our will to create dynamic and fluid spaces. It blends formal geometric complexity with bold structures and an innovative use of materials. It is not only the form of a construction that interests us, but the new uses of a building. With pierresvives, we needed to ensure that this large complex would be clearly and efficiently organized.”

Zaha Hadid, typically succinct, while cutting the French Tricolore ribbon at the inauguration of the new archive and library building in Montpellier.

Architects: Zaha Hadid Architects, Blue Tango, Chabanne & Partenaires
Location: F-34000 Montpellier

“We really wanted the pierresvives project to be a new landmark. Today, in the digital 21st century, people’s lives have become flexible and globalized, and we must deal with much more complex social realities than in the industrial 20th century. I don’t think cities should be like Venice, never changing and never evolving. It is important to introduce contemporary buildings – but this must be well thought out. pierresvives fits in perfectly with the existing urban environment. Architectural creation involves pushing the boundaries – and I believe that pierresvives is an excellent demonstration of that.” (Zaha Hadid)

The complex space allocation programme is distributed over five floors and houses the huge archive of the Hérault region, a library, an auditorium, exhibition areas, foyers and offices on a total floor space of 26 000 m². The sculptural structure is based on a large rectangular shape which is 196 m long, 46 m wide and 24 m high. The construction can be described as a sandwich composed of a lower base and an upper package containing office and archive space, with a section of glass, functioning as “piano nobile” for public use, in the middle. This vertical division into three is naturally not strictly followed in the horizontal plane – the parts are linked to each other through diagonals.

The library and most public space, is located in the south in the extensive glass strip between base and upper floors. The receding line of the building is reminiscent of the bow of a cruise liner and is a gesture towards the planned open park landscape.

The densely built-up area in the north gets a closed and rectangular impression of the sculptural structure. The archive rooms are stacked on top of each other inside. This closedness gradually gives way to a sculptural design in the southern part of the building. On the sides, structural projections jut out of the trunk at the openings of the building, like three-dimensional parts of a puzzle. Incisions and indentations not only create an interesting structure, but also give rise to complex spatial sequences in the interior.

On closer inspection of the building, various questions may arise, such as: how could such perfectly curved sharp edges be formed, how could this smooth surface be produced without any holes for turnbuckles and how could such a construction be built without visible expansion joints.

This can't be done with in-situ concrete, but there is also almost no visible evidence of pre-cast concrete parts, with the joints filled flush in the colour of concrete. Yet most of the structure is not a solid concrete steel construction, but a skeleton construction clad with pre-cast concrete parts. The 2.70-metre widths of the elements are subtly indicated by delicate lines on the concrete surface. The height of the prefabricated parts of 12–15 m and the single jointless elements composed of curved and plane sections of concrete result in a monolithic rather than modular impression.

A variety of materials was used for the formwork: basic formwork for plane surfaces was made of steel, while slight curvatures were formed using steel and wood. Epoxy-resin- coated polystyrene parts were inserted in the basic formwork to obtain the complex double curvature shapes. After the concrete was poured in the formwork, the still fluid pre-fabricated element in the formwork was placed on a vibrating table to allow included air bubbles to escape, thereby producing perfectly closed surfaces.

Another challenge was the assembly of the 16-centimetre-thick concrete parts: the rear of the fragile elements had to be braced or reinforced with steel beams for transport. For perfect alignment of the elements in the building shell, 10 pre-cast concrete parts were placed in a row on a hydraulic lifter. Surveying equipment was used for perfect adjustment in all three directions before finally fitting the parts to the edges of the floor slabs in front of 10 cm of thermal insulation. The joints between the elements and adjoining window openings were sealed and filled to make them waterproof. All concrete surfaces were hydrophobed and the accessible areas on the ground floor were finished with an anti-graffiti coating.

The book depots of the archive rooms represent the starting point of the whole project and the core of the building. With a total shelf length of 35 km, the entire archive of the Departement Hérault can be stored here and made available for academic analysis.

The archives are accommodated in cubes made of in-situ concrete in the centre of the building. The books are therefore protected from UV radiation and fire and the room climate can be controlled as required. Onion-like, these are surrounded by a layer of offices supplied with daylight through the façades.

When the pierresvives project was first envisaged in 2002, the archive, which was spread over various buildings throughout Montpellier at the time, was the actual trigger of the project. By combining various cultural uses, a centre has been created for the city district that Zaha Hadid, Patrik Schumacher and their team have turned into an unmistakeable landmark. The fact that the original budget of EUR 42 million grew to EUR 125 million during the 10 years of planning and execution demonstrates the complexity of the project. With pierresvives, the New City Hall by Jean Nouvel and the School of Hotel Management by Massimiliano Fuksas, Montpellier has gained three further highlights of contemporary architecture in only two years.

Together with the post-modern satellite town Antigone by Riccardo Boffil, Montpellier is now not only the fastest growing city in France but also worth a visit for architects.

You can read a further report about the project in our German/English edition of DETAIL 11/2012: Concrete Construction.

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DETAIL 11/2012

Concrete Construction

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