Where The Books Are

THEY ARE WHAT ANGKOR WAT IS TO Cambodia, or Disney World to America: the very souls of their countries, rendered in glass, wood and brick. In Paris, the Bibliotheque Nationale de France - four towers at the corners of a vast plaza - opened last winter with an exhibition whose title (""All the World's Knowledge'') suggests that whatever library might occupy second place, you don't need to know about it. And in London, passersby can at last glimpse the shape of the British Library, whose architecture Prince Charles once famously likened to an academy for secret police. It is the most expensive building in Britain and its foremost monument to the national pastime of muddling through. Or it will be, if it's ever finished.

For architect Colin St. John Wilson, the British Library has ruled his life since the fateful day 35 years ago when he was asked to design a new home for the book collection of the British Museum. Over the next decade and a half he did two completely different plans for sites near the museum, but the residents of Bloomsbury vetoed the idea, so in 1977 he started over at a new site near St. Pancras station. Governments came and went, budgets were cut and restored, and five more years elapsed before construction began. Along the way, the computer was perfected, rendering obsolete the intended centerpiece of Wilson's design: a monumental six-story atrium displaying the card catalogs. ""My heart dropped'' on learning that the library had switched to a database, Wilson said. After much thought, he redesigned the atrium to house the 60,000-volume collection of King George III. Patriotically, Wilson turned down an offer to head ""a major architecture school'' in the States, and his reward was public humiliation at the hands of the prince, who, in his reverence for the 18th century, didn't understand why the building wasn't covered in moss, like a proper library. All of Wilson's other work promptly dried up. As his building prepares for the first phase of its opening in November, Wilson, 75, may be the only major English architect with a better shot at sainthood than knighthood.

The Bibliotheque, by contrast, was decreed one day in 1988 by French President Francois Mitterrand and constructed with a magisterial indifference to political, budgetary or esthetic considerations. An 18-acre site was cleared on the eastern edge of the city, the young architect Dominique Perrault was hired, construction began in 1990 and the first reading rooms opened to the public last December. Although Perrault has been spared a lecture by the prince, his creation is controversial both with the public and with employees, whose characteristic brusqueness is now charged with resentment that since moving to this remote part of Paris they haven't had a decent lunch.

The British Library is a big building, over a million square feet, but the Bibliotheque is half again as big. Both buildings bury much of their bulk below grade, but Perrault perplexingly chose to put the people underground and house the books in the towers. He has an elaborate theoretical justification for this. The building, he says, ""goes beyond the concept'' of a ""natural ground.'' Ground is wherever you walk. ""This has received a lot of criticism,'' he admits, ""but you have to experience it before you can understand it.'' In practice, though, it meant bringing daylight to the reading rooms by digging a 600-foot-long sunken garden, while protecting the books from the same daylight by lining the glass towers with wooden shutters. Britain's Wilson lights his reading rooms with clerestory windows and stores the books in cellars. ""That,'' he says disingenuously, ""is where a Frenchman puts his wine.''

Both libraries, in addition to vast historical collections, receive copies of everything published in their respective countries each year. A press release from the Bibliotheque boasts that authors are thus assured that ""their works will be preserved for posterity,'' while a guide at the British Library, making the same point, remarks that ""this means we get all sorts of rubbish that no one will ever look at.'' The Bibliotheque stands in the great French tradition of logic carried to inhuman extremes: austere and rigidly symmetrical, an idea of a building projected full-blown onto the earth. (""It is a simple idea,'' says Perrault. ""I took everything but the four corners of a square, and put it into the ground. So you have the absence of a building. It is a paradox.'') One enters from a vast plaza invisible from the street because it is raised on dozens of narrow wooden steps; passes shrubs bizarrely locked behind metal grates; then descends a long, slow escalator past the garden no one is allowed to use. By thus expressing in its architecture the futility and absurdity of existence, the library creates the proper frame of mind for appreciating Sartre or Derrida. The British Library, by contrast, is a sprawling warren of halls, arranged around a welcoming courtyard, whose warm red brick echoes the Victorian turrets of St. Pancras - the perfect place to curl up with a volume of Ruskin or Wordsworth. It is a building that for all its size manages to be oddly unassuming, that expresses its fundamental humanism in the most direct way possible. By never being finished.