Ville de Genève


The Conservatory and Botanical Garden Library: Please Read Over Leaf
Mise à jour: 06.11.2018

The Conservatory and Botanical Garden Library: Please Read Over Leaf

You planned to go for a nice walk in the Botanical Garden and it’s raining? Go anyway! If you find the hothouses too stuffy, if Le Pyramus restaurant is too crowded, then you should head to the elegant modernist Conservatory and Botanical Garden Library, plonk yourself in a comfortable chair and let the love affair between botany and books work its magic.
Conservatory and Botanical Garden Library
© Christopher Park / Ville de Genève

A Library That Grew and Grew

If you are travelling by train from anywhere in Switzerland, it’s the first building you see as you pull into Geneva, on the left side of the tracks. A collection of Modernist cubic modules with opaque wall panels held between maroon steel ribs, that looks like some kind of random geometric exercise in 3D. This is the Library of the Conservatory and Botanical Gardens of Geneva, an institution that goes back to 1824 and is inextricably linked to the person and spirit of Augustin-Pyramus de Candolle (1778-1841), the celebrated scientist who founded Geneva’s Botanical Garden in 1817.

From 391 titles on a few shelves in 1845 to 6.8 linear km of shelving and over 120’000 volumes on 2’257 sq. km of surface area in 2016, the Library certainly has grown a lot in not quite 200 years. It has also been moved a few times. Candolle’s first library, continued by his descendants Adolphe, Casimir and Augustin, was located in the Candolle family townhouse, on the Cour St-Pierre in the Old Town. It had expanded to 2’000 titles when it made a big step to the outskirts of the city and the current location of the Botanical Garden in 1924. It found a home in La Console, the elegant building between the road and the lakeshore, right beside the current WTO campus.

But the collection just kept on growing and growing (honestly, what did you expect in a botanical garden?) and by the end of the 1960s, La Console had reached saturation point, with books in every nook and cranny, threatening the safety of the Botanical Conservatory’s most precious resource: the herbaria (more on those later). In 1974, the current Library building was completed. The architect, Jean-Marc Lamunière (1925-2015) was known for his Brutalist reinforced concrete constructions in the Geneva area (the Tours de Lancy housing estate in Petit-Lancy, built in 1961-63, for instance). But in the early 1970s, Lamunière moved towards a lighter, more structural vision, using steel in the manner of Mies van der Rohe and the Conservatory and Botanical Garden Library is one of his masterpieces in this style.

Happy Herbaria and Botanical Books

By the turn of the 21st century, Lamunière’s Modernist vision had begun to look like one of the Botanical Garden’s vegetation experiments: unsound panelling, thermal leakage and water infiltrations had covered the cladding with algae and moss. Extensive refurbishments were undertaken between 2013-2016 and tons of sandstone were excavated to increase the underground storage areas for the Geneva herbarium. The result is visible today above ground as the stylish concrete-disguised-as-rammed-earth walls of the visitors’ centre and restaurant. Below ground, the achievement is much more impressive.

Simply put, a herbarium (pl. herbaria) is a collection of preserved plant specimens and associated data used for scientific study. Begun in 1824, the Geneva herbarium now contains about 6 million specimens and is one of the most important collections in the world after Paris and Kew. It allows researchers to examine plant species from all over the world, with a specialization in the flora of South America, Africa, West Asia, the Mediterranean and Europe.

The 2016 underground extension of the herbarium is linked to Lamunière’s original basement location of the herbaria. The new space is three levels deep, which guarantees optimal conservation conditions for the collections, which are kept in 36 linear km of compactable shelving. There is a study space underground with a well of natural light for curators and researchers. There is also a rare books collection, with its oldest book a Dutch incunabulum from 1483, featuring woodcut prints of medicinal plants (yes, there is a picture of cannabis) and among the newer ones, the enormous 2008-2009 Highgrove Florilegium, autographed by the Prince of Wales.

All this, of course, you never get to see as a simple visitor. So what’s in it for me, I hear you ask. Well, the 2016 renovations created a coherent, practical and pleasant public area of 155 sq. metres in the lobby of the library. As in all the research libraries of Geneva, visitors may not browse the stacks, which is all the more frustrating here as they are extremely visible (and tempting!) behind glass wall panels. But the librarians place all current periodicals and a rich, constantly renewed and increasingly bilingual, selection of titles in the public area: kid’s books for little green thumbs, general readership for indoor and outdoor gardeners, specialist monographies for geeking out on the wildflowers of Wyoming or going fungal on Agaricaceae. Currently, the Library is displaying some magnificent botanical drawings, hastily done by a battalion of Geneva society ladies in the 1820s for Monsieur de Candolle, in a fascinating story of botanic swashbuckling between the Spanish New World, Madrid and Geneva. So if the rockeries don’t rock your boat and you’re paranoid about the peacocks, you now know where to find a very civilised place to find shelter: the Conservatory and Botanical Garden Library!


Bibliothèque des Conservatoire et Jardin botaniques

Chemin de l'Impératrice 1
1292 Chambésy
Tél.+41 22 418 51 00
Fax+41 22 418 51 01

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