The new médiathèque and the esplanade unfolding before it are integral parts of a vast urban redevelopment project (ANRU project) currently implemented by the City of Toulouse. The multiple aspirations of this new multimedia library logically include the rehabilitation of unoccupied urban spaces and the creation of a strong, purposeful architectural symbol. The médiathèque stands in the Le Mirail suburb of the city, laid out between 1961 and 1971 by Georges Candilis and whose urban fabric today is largely fragmented.
Additions down the years to Candilis’s original work of Modernist beauty have undermined the area’s structure and the role of this new public building was to reinforce the neighbourhood’s identity, along with other recently rehabilitated or completed constructions. The plot designated for the médiathèque lies on Avenue de la Reynerie and was originally occupied by a low-lying building, now demolished, and areas of vegetation which have been integrated into the new design.
The immediate vicinity is composed of unoccupied planted spaces, a number of high-rise apartment blocks of Modernist inspiration (10- 14 floors) and tall detached houses. The closest neighbouring building is a low, brick built, cube-shaped structure topped with a roof terrace and occupied by the Jehovah's Witnesses. The building plot for the médiathèque came with a certain number of constraints, ranging from regulatory distances with neighbouring plots and roadways, to the underground train running beneath the projected building and thereby strongly influencing its morphology.
The building’s design responds to these constraints with unabashed delight. To escape the apparent inflexibility of the rules and regulations, the ground floor works as a sort of all-embracing curtain wall, enfolding not only the library itself but also an area referred to as the ‘patio’, planted with vegetation around a magnolia tree, and part of the public space prolonging the esplanade protected by a canopy. These spaces serve as a succession of ‘buffers’, effacing the frontier between inside and out and dilating the surface area of the médiathèque itself. The design opens amply onto the immediate urban context, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
This double layer of casing at times departs from the central structure and at others closes in around it, quite different to the monolithic mass of the neighbouring tower blocks and thereby lending the building a heightened sense of volume, while also providing excellent insulation. The light curtain wall exhibits a range of contrasting textures and materials and creates a succession of in-between spaces, as well as allowing natural light to flood into the building. The ground floor of the médiathèque forms a base at once permeable and impermeable. The curtain wall is composed of cladding panels, some of which are perforated to suit the building’s multiple purposes. Along with the concrete walls, the outer curtain functions as an exterior insulating skin, like a coat wrapped round the building.
The panels positioned along the ample French windows are adjustable and swivel to control the amount of sunlight entering the building. They also serve to enclose the central patio, again regulating the luminosity while maintaining a sense of translucence. They gave way in places to glass plaques in unbroken continuity with the lines created. The conference hall and office areas are situated on the first floor, positioned in a cube-shaped volume surrounded by vegetation (both garden and roof). This entity mirrors the ground-plan dimensions of the central library section, where the books, DVDs etc are housed. In fact, this portion of the building is an emanation of the whole. The individual treatment of the fifth façade softens the design’s overall impact and improves the vistas it offers to the surrounding apartment blocks.
The public point of access is signalled by a generous canopy in continuity with the esplanade. The entrance itself is set back, but is amply glazed and clearly identifiable. The canopy protects visitors from the elements and shields the lobby from the hot summer sun. Pride of place is given to translucence, as the eye roams freely through the lobby and reception areas, underscoring the welcoming, while still functional nature of the building’s main entrance. The esplanade is the highlight of the project and plays a key role in the urban recomposition of the neighbourhood.
It interconnects freely with the surrounding public spaces and forms a magnificent backdrop to the médiathèque, providing a convivial meeting place for visitors to the library and those living in the local neighbourhood. It falls into two distinct but complementary sections, forming a walkway along the patio and canopy. Shrubbery provides a green fence screening visitors from the prevailing winds. A succession of benches and candelabras underpin the urban vocation of this quasiorganic extension of the building, its surface paved with natural stone, laid in a dynamic motif of exquisite precision and echoing the main lines of the site’s overall design.
A fountain rises in the esplanade’s eastern section, like an underground river springing to the surface through the stone paving, pouring forth into a basin set at the building’s foot. It is framed by metal duckboard, offering inviting glimpses of the bubbling, gurgling water beneath. Occasional clouds of mist issue forth. The esplanade is lit up at night, further heightening the welcoming, lively atmosphere. The open paved area is lined along its northern edge with an embankment planted with Judas trees, while cypress hedges provide a natural shield from the elements. A garden of reflection (not open to the public) is situated at the northwest corner of the site and is composed of two diametrically opposed natural environments, wet and dry, seldom brought together within the same space. Car parking is provided to the southwest, on Rue de Lizop, and offers spaces for 14 vehicles, 5 of which are reserved for disabled drivers. The area is surfaced with black asphalt concrete with painted road surface marking. Plane trees have been pruned to link branches around a tubular structure made of galvanised steel.
The metal grates at the foot of each tree are square in shape and the public lighting respects the mast and lantern system specified in the urban charta. The interior distribution of the building aims to guarantee maximum functionality and user comfort, designed with such concerns as acoustics and heat insulation uppermost in mind. Natural light is carefully regulated in the reading areas, including the central zones. The ground floor is an open space offering great flexibility of use for future projects. The architects elected to create self-enclosed reading and study spaces, sheltered from outside distraction – the médiathèque is more akin to an oasis than a supermarket, and naturally so! This does not mean that its rooms lack light, just that the windows framing views of the architecturally lacklustre urban context provide a sense of distance and immateriality, or open onto the gardens of reflection, removed from the hustle and bustle of daily life… even if library users enjoy full internet access. The building is positioned to take full benefit from the prevailing winds (west/northwest and southeast), limiting proofing by nearly 40%, thanks also in part to the green roof. Its silhouette is compact and monumental, with three floors rising upwards at its heart. The materials chosen are efficient and enduring, including a concrete frame and double skin of glass and aluminium. Surface area prone to heat loss is kept to a minimum and a double flow ventilation system has been installed, along with urban central heating, a borehole heat exchanger and photovoltaic panels. These installations mean that the médiathèque is one of Toulouse’s first modern public buildings not to require air conditioning, while ensuring a maximum level of lighting and hygrothermal comfort.
In terms of the RT 2005 norm (pertaining to the thermal regulation of new buildings), the médiathèque du Mirail is a low-energy construction, with primary energy consumption estimated to be 59.6% below RT 2005 specifications. It is a highly efficient, passive building. It was never the architects’ intention here to break with the Modernist urban design of Georges Candilis. Rather, they delved into the history of Le Mirail for inspiration, creating meaningful bonds between past and present. This is the driving force of all their projects, past and future