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The Letter
Academic year 2008-2009
Selected papers

Reopening Ceremony of the Renovated Buildings of Chemistry and Biology, and of the General Library of the Collège de France - 26 May 2009

Collège de France et Jacques Glowinski
p. 8-15

Texte intégral

History of the Marcelin-Berthelot site

1The Collège Royal was founded in 1530 by François I. “Initially the Collège consisted of four professors or royal lectors: two for Greek, and two for Hebrew. Almost immediately a professor in mathematics joined them, followed by a third lector in Hebrew. In 1534 a seventh lector was appointed to teach Latin. François I subsequently expanded his work and added a Chair of oriental languages, a Chair of Greek and Latin philosophy, two Chairs of medicine…”.

2During the 16th century lessons were given in the halls of several Parisian schools, including Cambrai and Tréguier, situated on the site of today’s Collège de France. It was not until the reign of Henry IV that the project of a building for all the lectors and the royal library was launched. But as the first stone of the “elegant buildings designed by Chastillon” was laid, the king was assassinated.

3The construction was finally undertaken under the reign of Louis XIII but only the east wing of the building was completed, and “according to plans of far lesser splendour”. In 1773 the architect Chalgrin resumed the project. He designed lecture halls, the salle des actes, a fence and a gate, and created in its entirety what is now the main courtyard.

4In the middle of the 19th century, the architect Letarouilly designed an extension of the buildings between the main courtyard and the Rue Saint-Jacques, organized new working areas around the two courtyards, and gave the “old college” the shape that it has today.

Overall plan of the buildings before the beginning of the construction and renovation work in the 1930s.

Overall plan of the buildings before the beginning of the construction and renovation work in the 1930s.

The 1930s: a grand project for a building to house the exact sciences

Physics lecture hall.

Physics lecture hall.

5In the early 20th century the architect Guilbert designed the four buildings adjacent to the “old college” on the south and the east.

6The first one, built in 1929, was allocated to chemistry; the second, built in 1933, consisted of lecture halls; the third, built in 1939, was allocated to physics; and the fourth, designed and built by the architect Leconte in 1959, was allocated to biology.

7During the same period, Guilbert converted the “old college”, transforming former laboratories into offices, converting lofts, and altering the roof on the east and south sides.Since then, various changes and renovations have been made to the existing buildings (conversion of laboratories and offices, transformation of lecture halls) from time to time and as needed. In 1939 the Chairs of Physics were housed in a third building whose renovation will be started at the end of 2009.

Layout of the Collège de France buildings. 11, place Marcelin-Berthelot - Paris 5e

Layout of the Collège de France buildings. 11, place Marcelin-Berthelot - Paris 5e

A long research tradition

The Frédéric Joliot cyclotron, 1938 (on the right, F. Joliot).

The Frédéric Joliot cyclotron, 1938 (on the right, F. Joliot).

8Some professors who have occupied the buildings devoted to the exact sciences:

  • Jean Nageotte, Comparative History, from 1912 to 1937

  • Justin Jolly, Histophysiology, from 1925 to 1940

  • Marcel Delépine, Organic Chemistry, from 1930 to 1941

  • Jacques Eugène Duclaux, General Biology, from 1931 to 1948

  • Léon Brillouin, Theoretical Physics, from 1932 to 1949

  • Frédéric Joliot, Nuclear Chemistry, from 1937 to 1958

  • Francis Perrin, Atomic and Molecular Physics, from 1946 to 1972

  • Jean Roche, General and Comparative Biochemistry, from 1947 to 1972

  • Étienne Wolff, Experimental Embryology, from 1955 to 1974

  • Alain Horeau, Organic Chemistry of Hormones, from 1956 to 1980

  • Louis Leprince-Ringuet, Nuclear Physics, from 1958 to 1972

  • François Morel, Cellular Physiology, from 1967 to 1993

  • Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, Physics of Condensed Matter, from 1971 to 2004

  • Marcel Froissart, Corpuscular Physics, from 1973 to 2004

  • Alfred Jost, Physiology of Development, from 1974 to 1987

  • Jean-Marie Lehn, Chemistry of Molecular Interactions, from 1979 to 1997

Renovation of the Collège de France (1991-2012), by Jacques Glowinski

9Since 1991 the renovation has gradually been extended to all the Collège de France sites.

10The renovation project was initiated at the end of 1991 with a decision by François Mitterrand, President of the Republic, to include the renovation of the Marcelin-Berthelot site in the framework of the Mission des Grands Travaux du Président de la République (“President’s Grand Building Project Mission”). This decision followed an initiative taken by the Administrator of the Collège de France, Mr André Miquel, who had met Mr Émile Biasini, Chairman of the Mission, and Mr Jack Lang, Minister of Culture.

11Mr Jacques Glowinski, Vice-president of the Assembly of the Professors (1991-1999), Administrator (2000-2006), and then Honorary Administrator, was appointed by his colleagues to head this renovation project.

12Initially intended for the Marcelin-Berthelot site, this project was extended to the Cardinal-Lemoine and Ulm sites, to the Meudon and Nogent-sur-Marne stations, and to the Hugot Foundation of the Collège de France. It resulted in the reorganization of the location of the Institution’s various activities on these three Parisian sites, with a view to promoting its scientific policy, ensuring a more coherent functional organization, and cutting infrastructure and maintenance costs. The renovations already completed have contributed substantially to the development of the policy of openness and the Collège de France’s national and international image.

13The modalities of use of the different sites or stations warrant a description.

  • Marcelin-Berthelot: teaching premises and reception (entrance hall, lecture halls, conference rooms), administrative services, general library, cafeteria, offices of the professors of the literature Chairs, laboratories of the biology, chemistry and physics Chairs and hosted teams, and centre for the holders of international Chairs. The renovation of this site is expected to be completed in 2012.

  • Ulm: Chairs of the professors of mathematics and of earth sciences, and the Institute of the Contemporary World (contemporary history, sociology, economics, law). The renovation of this site was completed in 2005.

  • Cardinal-Lemoine: specialized libraries, Chairs of the professors of the Oriental Institutes and Chair of social anthropology. The renovation of this site was started in 2007.

  • In 2008 the Marcelin-Berthelot station in Meudon was transformed into a residence to house researchers from abroad (58 one-roomed flats).

  • After its renovation in 2008, the former Nogent-sur-Marne embryology station was rented out to INALCO, a partner institution of the Collège de France.

  • The foreign professors invited to lecture at the Institution are housed at the Hugot Foundation of the Collège de France, the renovation of which was completed in 2008.

The different phases of the renovation of the Marcelin-Berthelot site: a long adventure (1991-2012) and many actors

14The renovation of the Marcelin-Berthelot site has involved three main phases of work, financed mainly by the state. In the first phase the Mission des Grands Travaux was appointed as contractor; in the second phase this role went to the EMOC (Établissement public de maîtrise d’ouvrage des travaux culturels). M.L. Tessier, N. Boulay and, more recently, M.L. Maunoury, were responsible for these missions.

  • The first phase devoted to the renovation of the teaching quarters (ground floor and first-floor of the basement of building A) and financed by the Ministry of National Education and the Ministry of Culture, was inaugurated in 1998 by the then President of the Republic, Mr. Jacques Chirac. It required a major archaeological campaign and extensive work in the basement to build the Marguerite de Navarre and Budé lecture halls, conference rooms, the foyer and its outbuildings.

  • The second phase, consisting in the renovation of the biology and chemistry laboratories (buildings C and D) and the cafeteria (building D), and the construction of the general library (building A) and of its reserve collections (buildings C and E) was delayed for a long time, for administrative and financial reasons. The intervention of the then President of the Republic, Mr. Jacques Chirac and a decision by the then Prime Minister, Mr. Lionel Jospin, put an end to the deadlock. The operation was financed largely by the state under the State-Region Plan and a subsidy was granted by the municipality of Paris. The Collège de France also received a subsidy from the Pierre et Marie Curie University to host Professor J. Livage’s team, and support from the Bettencourt-Schueller Foundation, Sanofi Aventis, and Mr. David-Weill. The Ile-de-France Region contributed to the conversion of the animal house and the library.
    After a long period of design, the construction work was finally launched in 2005 and ended in February 2009. The renovated premises were inaugurated on 26 May by Ms Valérie Pécresse, Minister of Higher Education and Research.

  • The third and last phase will consist in renovating the physics laboratories and creating a centre to host the holders of the international annual Chairs (building E). The design work was financed from 2006, and this phase was included in the State-Region project contract for 2007-2012 after the intervention of the advisers of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, and a decision by the Ministers of National Education, Research and Technological Innovation, Mssrs. Gilles de Robien and François Goulard. The construction work will start at the end of 2009 and will be completed in 2012.

-Views of the Marguerite de Navarre lecture hall.

-Views of the Marguerite de Navarre lecture hall.

15Several additional renovations financed by the Collège de France were undertaken from 1999 to 2005, in which the contractor was the Collège de France. These consisted in the renovation of the Assembly of the Professors’ hall, administrative premises, the reception hall, the literature professors’ offices, and the Maurice Halbwachs lecture hall built on the site of the former general library (building A). Building B, in which the biology Chairs and hosted teams are housed, was renovated extensively during this period, with funding from the state and the Collège de France.

16Initially all the renovation work of the site was awarded to architects B. Huet and J.M. Wilmotte, in 1992, with P. Mauger of the firm Wilmott as the project leader. For administrative reasons these architects contributed to the execution of the first phase only, and a second call for tenders was put out in 2000 for the second and third phases. This time architect Jacques Ferrier from the firm Technip TPS was awarded the contract (Director: J. Falleur; Project Manager: B. Bellan). Several architects responsible for the project participated in the design and construction: G. Saunier, J. Bernhart and J.-M. Coustère for Phase 2 and F. Marquet and M. Robert for Phase 3.

17The additional operations were entrusted to the firms of Mssrs J.-M. Wilmotte, J. Bernhart, Mrs M. Robert.

18For these operations, the architects took into account the recommendations of the Bâtiments de France’s architects in charge of patrimonial architecture restoration and the objectives set in the programmes of the Collège de France: homogeneity of the architecture inside, legibility of movement and spaces to favour interaction, transparency and clarity of premises, sobriety and solidity of materials (wood, stone, metal frames, etc.).

Entrance hall of the chemistry and biology building.

Entrance hall of the chemistry and biology building.

The second and third phases of the work: an integrated architectural project

19The organization of the three buildings C, D and E, situated side-by-side, was particularly complex. These premises were very run-down and failed to meet safety standards. Due to a difference of levels and the presence of two lecture halls in building D, the laboratories were separated into two main blocks, with few possibilities of communication between them.

20The guiding lines of the Collège de France’s programme were as follows:

  • to create an area to receive deliveries, post and maintenance workers in the Impasse Chartière courtyard and the ground floor of building C;

  • to locate the biology and chemistry laboratories respectively on the lower and upper floors of building C and the physics laboratories in building E; the first-floor basements of these buildings were to be used for common services (animal house, imagery centre, large equipment, workshops, computer service);

  • to group together in the central part of building C the mezzanines of the various floors situated in the wings of the building, to create easily accessible technical spaces for the laboratories; the researchers’ offices would be distributed under these mezzanines;

  • to use building D as a place of convergence with the conference rooms and common rooms, the secretariats of the biology and chemistry laboratories, and a seminar hall intended for all the laboratories;

  • to extend the cafeteria in building D and create a terrace for this cafeteria on building E;

  • to reduce the central courtyard of building E to enlarge the physics laboratories, with the experimental rooms facing the outside road and the offices facing the inside road;

  • to create a set of offices for the holders of the international annual Chairs and foreign lecturers on the fifth and last floor of building E;

  • finally, to create a general library in the east wing of building A (ground floor, first floor and basement floors) with its reserve collection in the second-floor basements of buildings C and E, and a museum area for the Institution’s historical objects.

21In their summary pre-project, J. Ferrier and his team set out their project to entirely renovate buildings C and E and to create the general library under the east wing of the main courtyard of building A, with its reserve collections in buildings C and E, as well as a museum walkway situated under the inside road and directly connecting the library with buildings C, D and E.

“The different parts of the programme have been treated as a global project with continuities between them. Through the distribution of [spaces for] circulation, a space has been created where one is welcomed, where one can easily find one’s bearings, and where one can grasp the organization of this complex of buildings and the research activities taking place in them. As the main entrance on the inside road, building D is the heart of this design. It links up the other buildings and for the first time establishes continuities between each level. This project obviously resonates with the first phase already completed, but it emphasizes the living and functional aspect of this part of the programme. Intended to receive few members of the public, the spaces are above all designed for work, reflection, interaction between scholars, and innovation. This reflects the fact that apart from being a secular institution, the Collège de France is a factory for intellectual ideas.”

Functional organization of the renovated parts of buildings C and D

22Even though there were changes in this second phase of the work, the main lines of the original programme and the summary pre-project were maintained. The two parts of building C were united to create continuous luminous spaces. The laboratory rooms are located in the wings of the building and the offices and mezzanines at the centre. The different floors and mezzanines are served by an interior staircase and an easily accessible goods lift from the department on the ground floor of the east wing of the building, along the Impasse Chartière courtyard, that receives deliveries, post and maintenance workers, and provides reprography services. The rotunda and the large stairway in building D have been preserved and renovated. The two new panoramic lifts serve all the floors, affording easy access to the biology and chemistry laboratories (and later the physics laboratory of building E), the cafeteria with its different annexes and, in the basement, the common services of the laboratories and the general library with its carrel room, its museum walkway, and its vast store rooms for the reserve collections.

23This highly complex renovation necessitated infrastructural ground-work and technical installations of ventilation, air-conditioning and electrical equipment (high- and low-voltage) on the mezzanines of building D, on the terraces of buildings C and D, and in the third-floor basement of building D. Some of these installations are in preparation of the third phase.

24The total surface area of these renovations is 9,277m² (8,376m² net floor area) and the overall cost will be 38 million €.

The biology and chemistry laboratories, their technical premises and their common services

25These laboratories are located in buildings C (ground floor and first four floors) and D (first, third and fourth floors). The spaces in building C are devoted to experimental rooms and to the researchers’ offices, and those of building D to the offices of the directors, the secretaries, the common rooms and the conference rooms. The ground floor and first two floors are for biology and the third and fourth floors for chemistry. About 150 people can be accommodated in this section.

Chemistry laboratory

Chemistry laboratory

26These different laboratories have a common seminar room on the second floor of building D. In building C, with the exception of the fourth floor, all the laboratories have mezzanines used as technical areas (cold room, measurement room, machine room, storage room, etc.).

27The common services of the laboratories (animal rooms, image centre, large equipment) are located in the first-floor basement of building C, while the areas for storing solvents, gasses and chemical products are in building D under the Impasse Chartière courtyard. An underground passage is planned to reach building B.

The cafeteria and its annexes

28The cafeteria, with a stunning view of Paris, is located on the fifth floor of building D. It has been enlarged considerably and has a mezzanine which can be reached by an inside staircase. The self-service restaurant and its annexes are situated on the fifth floor of building C in which there is also a reception hall. When the third phase of the renovations is complete, this cafeteria will also have a huge terrace situated on building E. The cafeteria with its mezzanine and reception hall will be able to seat about 150 people.

Cafeteria on the 5th floor of the chemistry and biology building.

Cafeteria on the 5th floor of the chemistry and biology building.

The general library and its reserve collections

29The creation of the general library required major construction work in the basement. The library is arranged on the two sides of a staircase situated at the centre of the eastern wing of building A. Two reading rooms are on the ground floor and two others on the second-floor basement with a mezzanine on the side. These four reading rooms can comfortably accommodate 58 people. From the main courtyard, the main entrance and reception area of the library are situated on the right side of the central stairway.

30The offices of the conservators and librarians, which have a view over the main courtyard and Marcelin Berthelot Square, are situated on the first floor, from where one can also reach the hall of the Assembly of the Professors, containing a valuable collection of the Institution’s historical works.

31One of the basement reading rooms leads onto a carrel room (i.e. with individual reading booths) and onto a long museum walkway with showcases in which various historical scientific instruments of the Collège’s collection are exhibited. Situated under the inside road, this museum walkway leads to the landings of the first- and second-floor basements of building D, thus allowing for a direct link between the general library and the biology, chemistry and physics laboratories. The walkway also leads onto technical areas (binding room and material handling) and to several rooms with the library’s reserve collection, located on the second-floor basement of building C and in a large area of the second-floor basement of building E (the latter reserves will be created in the third and last phase of the renovation work).

Reading room in the basement of the library

Reading room in the basement of the library

Reading room (ground floor)

Reading room (ground floor)

Multidisciplinarity: a specific feature and an asset of the Collège de France

A multidisciplinary biological research centre

32Biological research has always required interaction between different disciplines, especially chemistry, physics and mathematics. In imagery, for example – which plays an important role in biology –, signal analysis, the production of molecular waves, and the development of optical tools clearly all depend on this interaction between disciplines. Examples abound in pharmacology, largely based on in-depth interaction between chemists and biologists. Less intuitively, it is within biology itself that the fields of expertise are necessarily complementary, for physiological questions are so complex that they cannot be illuminated from a single point of view. Cellular and molecular biology, physiology, genetics, evolutionism, development biology, etc., all have to interact, and researchers in these different disciplines have to learn to understand one another better.

33This is why it has been decided to take advantage of the new premises made available for research, to create a multidisciplinary research centre on the Marcelin-Berthelot campus of the Collège de France. This centre will and already does bring together independent teams from these different disciplines. With the support of its supervisory authorities, the CNRS and INSERM, this Centre will enable researchers to share tools, to compare points of view, and to create an intellectual community that is in keeping with the Collège de France’s tradition and contributes to its influence.

Chemists, biologists, physicists: fruitful collaboration

34“This building has the privilege of hosting an equal number of biochemistry and biology researchers, which is conducive to extensive collaboration between teams from the two disciplines. Interaction will furthermore be facilitated by: the longstanding tradition that the Chair of Chemistry has of working on biological models such as the morphogenesis of the silica skeleton of diatoms, whose beauty Ernst Haeckel marvelled at; and the Chair of Biology’s equally longstanding custom of collaborating with chemists, without whom work on penetrating peptides, vectors of cellular addressing, a speciality of this laboratory, would not have been possible.”
Professor Alain Prochiantz

35“‘Bio-inspired materials’ developed by chemists also have remarkable physical properties. These optical, electronic, ionic or magnetic properties pave the way for further developments in nano-materials, communications technologies and renewable energies. They will be able to serve as ‘seeds’ for future collaboration with the teams of physicists who are going to move into the new buildings.”
Professor Jacques Livage

Siliceous envelopes of diatoms

Siliceous envelopes of diatoms

Interface Chairs such as the Chair of Chemistry of Biological Processes

36“The cell is a chemical factory that can be understood with the specific molecular tools that synthetic chemistry and analytical chemistry produce. At the same time, during several billion years of evolution, living beings have developed molecules with exceptional properties that fascinate chemists. A fine example is enzymes and metaloenzymes which endow cellular reactions with unequalled characteristics of efficiency and selectivity, and which can have biotechnological and industrial applications in the fields of health, the environment and energy. It is these processes that biological chemistry studies and exploits in multicultural and varied collaboration between biologists, doctors and physicists.”
Professor Marc Fontecave

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Table des illustrations

Titre Overall plan of the buildings before the beginning of the construction and renovation work in the 1930s.
Fichier image/jpeg, 44k
Titre Physics lecture hall.
Fichier image/jpeg, 24k
Titre Layout of the Collège de France buildings. 11, place Marcelin-Berthelot - Paris 5e
Fichier image/png, 94k
Titre The Frédéric Joliot cyclotron, 1938 (on the right, F. Joliot).
Fichier image/jpeg, 64k
Fichier image/jpeg, 12k
Titre -Views of the Marguerite de Navarre lecture hall.
Fichier image/jpeg, 72k
Fichier image/jpeg, 72k
Titre Entrance hall of the chemistry and biology building.
Fichier image/jpeg, 40k
Titre Chemistry laboratory
Fichier image/jpeg, 48k
Titre Cafeteria on the 5th floor of the chemistry and biology building.
Fichier image/jpeg, 60k
Titre Reading room in the basement of the library
Fichier image/jpeg, 68k
Titre Reading room (ground floor)
Fichier image/jpeg, 64k
Titre Siliceous envelopes of diatoms
Fichier image/jpeg, 25k
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Référence papier

The Letter of the Collège de France, Collège de France, Paris, juin 2009, p. 8-15. ISSN 1958-1408

Référence électronique

Collège de France et Jacques Glowinski, « Reopening Ceremony of the Renovated Buildings of Chemistry and Biology, and of the General Library of the Collège de France - 26 May 2009 », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 4 | 2008-2009, mis en ligne le 15 novembre 2010, consulté le 14 décembre 2017. URL :

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