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

The long-awaited moment after 10 years of planning and building: Zaha Hadid cuts the Tricolore and hands the building over to its users.

“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)

Zaha Hadid during her short but emotional inauguration speech.

South-eastern side, with the delivery and parking area to the right.

Southern façade, the bow of the building contains the library with a view of the park.

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.

View of the western façade from the north. The building with its stacked archive rooms presents itself as a smooth rectangular shape to the adjacent buildings in the north.

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.

View from the south of the western façade with the auditorium protruding over the main entrance.

View from the north of the sculptural eastern façade with delivery ramps.

Eastern façade facing the parking area: the northern part of the eastern façade with the archive rooms is smooth, while the recessed loggia design of the delivery area makes it blend in unobtrusively.

Southern section of the eastern façade: one of the three-dimensional puzzle pieces protrudes from the line of the building for delivery. This is also where the central hall that continues throughout the first floor of the entire trunk is located.

Western façade: the auditorium in the grand cantilevering canopy above main entrance is distinctive from afar.

Eastern façade: a pushed out puzzle piece screens the outer area of the ground floor exhibition space from the parking area.

Eastern façade: viewed from the front, the sculptural structure appears plane. The curved design of the parking area in the ground plan corresponds to the lines of the building in the sectional drawing.

The precast concrete parts are fitted with a rainwater drip groove and an internal drainage system to avoid run marks.

The joints of the 2.70-metre-wide and up to 15-metre-high prefabricated parts are filled smoothly and unobtrusively.

The sharp curved edges of the prefabricated parts were produced with formwork made of steel, wood and epoxy-resin-coated polystyrene.

Photograph: Delta Prefa

Photograph: C. Cieutat © Delta Prefa

Photograph: C. Cieutat © Delta Prefa

Photograph: C. Cieutat © Delta Prefa

Photograph: Delta Prefa

Photograph: C. Cieutat © Delta Prefa

Curves and plane sections were formed as single prefabricated parts

Photograph: Delta Prefa

Photograph: C. Cieutat © Delta Prefa

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.

Photographs: C. Cieutat © Delta Prefa

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.

Main entrance under the auditorium from the south

Front view of the main entrance from the east

The auditorium protrudes 12 m from the longitudinal line of the smooth western façade. The structural design challenge was met by the Arup engineers by means of a strong in-situ concrete ceiling and two reinforced concrete walls. Like bulkheads, the latter offer wall-height supports for anchorage of the cantilevering canopy towards the core of the building. The auditorium boldly jutting out of the even line of the western façade of the building identifies the main entrance from afar and serves as a generous canopy as well as starting point of a “promenade architecturale” diagonally through the building to the roof terrace.

Starting from the low-height foyer, escalators carry visitors diagonally towards the centre of the building.

All the slopes in the building are based on the angle of inclination of the escalators.

Inside the building, the auditorium looks like a long concrete cylinder inserted through the whole building.

Central hall: a cut in the concrete cylinder allows access to the auditorium, library and roof terrace stairs.

Auditorium with 210 seats: when the room darkening system is opened, a narrowed-eye view of the newly created square of the future city district presents itself.

View from the crossing in the upper auditorium level of the backstage area in the lower level of the auditorium.

Exits from the auditorium to the library. The vertical column grid cuts across the diagonal surfaces in many places.

Children's area in the library with a view of the park.

This room is pushed out from the eastern façade like a puzzle piece: adjoining room to library, hall or auditorium. The column grid is also visible in the form of inclined struts in front of the sloping walls.

Study room of the archive north of the central hall. Ceiling with integrated lighting and acoustic perforations.

The column grid is particularly dominant in the study room.

Study room of the archive, with interior design by Stéphane Hof, the project architect of Zaha Hadid Architects for the whole building.

Backlit shelves made of solid surface material.

The stairs from the library to the upper floors.

The broad stairs with sitting steps for visitors continue upwards as interior roof terrace stairs.

The view from the upper floors across the parking area and the city centre of Montpellier is much like looking out of an aeroplane.

Light reflections and haptic materials turn the long narrow corridors into interesting spaces to experience.

Upward view of the stairwell between the archive floors.

Corridor area between the inner book depots of the archive (right) and the outer offices along the façades (left).

The slotted undersides of the internal stairs between the archive floors have a mannerist flair.

Corridor inside the archive depots. The angles in the layout of the corridors are necessary to allow manoeuvring of the book trolleys in the narrow corridors. Coloured guidance lines on the floors and doors create a visually dynamic impression and are helpful for orientation.

The actual core of the whole building: book depot with folding tables in the archive rooms.

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.