National Archives of France by Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas 28.06.13

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(image: Philippe Rualt)

Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas’s aluminium-clad store for 180km of state papers is inevitably imposing, but manages to retain a human scale.

The Italian architects Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas have recently completed a new building for the National Archives of France in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine in the northern suburbs of Paris. The National Archives were created during the French Revolution to centralise and make public the most important documents – ancient and modern – that related to the history of the French state.

Currently, they contain some 406km of documents and occupy a handful of buildings in Paris and across France. In 2004, the Ministry of Culture and Communication, which manages the National Archives, launched an international competition for a new building to store 180km of post-Revolution state papers. Now, after three years of construction, it is open to the public.

The building is a tale of two halves, perhaps unsurprisingly given the requirements for offices and public space, alongside the more demanding technical requirements required by the storing of precious archival material. While the two parts are connected by a shared geometric diamond pattern across both facades, the stacked volumes at the front of the building present a more human scale than the monolithic structure that rises up behind.

"We tried to establish a substantial division between the functions of the building," says Massimiliano Fuksas. "A big 'treasure chest' is dedicated to the preservation of documents and is opposed by a series of six 'objects' superimposed [on the treasure chest], connected by walkways. So the office is formed by the structure that slopes down to the neighbouring residencies, restoring a human scale, whereas the large 'treasure chest' establishes a different scale with the adjacent buildings."

The "treasure chest" houses all of the reading rooms as well as 220 stock rooms on ten levels. The facades are coated with an aluminium skin that runs across the building, with the exception of a small number of glazed insertions that allow for natural light in the reading rooms and in the entrance. "The archives must have a complex protection," Fuksas says, "a humidity control, temperature, air conditioning and ventilation, thermal inertia, all of which ensure a future for our heritage and our memory."

The cantilevered satellites contain the offices, a 300-seat conference room and an exhibition room. In contrast to the tower, the facades of the stacked horizontal volumes are mostly glazed to bring in light and are reflected in the surface of the pools dotted throughout the site.

The site itself is rich with history. Though located in a north Paris suburb, the National Archives are not far from the medieval Cathedral Basilica of Saint-Denis, where nearly every king of France from the 10th to the 18th century was buried. You can also see the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre from the building, as well as the Eiffel Tower. Such connections are important to Fuksas. "The main purpose of our architecture," he says, "is to give places related to people their scale, their humanity and new experiences, to enrich the world of ideas."

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Crystal Bennes

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We tried to establish a substantial division between the functions of the building. A big 'treasure chest' is dedicated to the preservation of documents

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