Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 4, 2014
Corinne Bélier, Barry Bergdol, and Marc Le Cœur, eds. Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light Exh. cat. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2013. 232 pp.; 225 color ills. Cloth $55.00 (9780870708398)
Exhibition schedule: Cité de l'architecture et du patrimoine, Paris, October 11, 2012–January 7, 2013; Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 10–June 24, 2013
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Henri Labrouste. Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, 1854–75. View of the reading room. © Georges Fessy.

A celebrated protagonist of nineteenth-century French architecture, Henri Labrouste (1801–1875) has been rigorously reappraised by subsequent generations of architects and architectural historians. In the mid-twentieth century, architectural historian and critic Sigfried Giedion likened Labrouste’s application of exposed cast iron in the interiors of his two Parisian libraries, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (1838–50) and the Bibliothèque nationale (1854–75), to such industrial marvels of the nineteenth century as exhibition halls and train sheds, arguing that the industrial aspects of Labrouste’s building represented formal precursors of twentieth-century modernist architecture. In 1975, the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) curator of the Department of Architecture and Design, Arthur Drexler, mounted a selection of renderings of Labrouste’s student work and of his Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève as part of the groundbreaking MoMA exhibition The Architecture of the École Beaux-Arts. In the exhibition’s catalogue of 1977 (New York: Museum of Modern Art), Harvard professor Neil Levine argued that Labrouste was not merely a forerunner of twentieth-century modernism, but rather that he also played a defining role in modernism’s development by sparking the Romantic rebellion in French architecture in the late 1820s.

The first monographic exhibition on Labrouste since the show mounted in Paris in 1976 at the Caisse nationale des monuments historiques et des sites in the Hôtel de Sully, the recent, striking exhibition at MoMA was organized by the museum’s former Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design, Barry Bergdoll; the Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine’s Corinne Bélier; and the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Marc Le Cœur. Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light again assigned Labrouste a privileged position in the development of modern architecture, an interpretive lens that is hardly surprising given MoMA’s renown as an institution synonymous with the historical evolution the avant-garde. To reinforce this connection, the exhibition’s organizers underscored Labrouste’s association with Saint-Simonian philosophers, who, in 1830, appropriated the very concept of the avant-garde from the discourse of military tactics to suggest that artists should guide social reform and renewal. If the emphasis on Labrouste’s vanguard persona proved a useful vehicle to familiarize wider audiences with this important architect, many museumgoers might still have struggled to understand how his lavish hand-drawn renderings and historicist architectural vocabulary constituted avant-garde practices in the nineteenth century. Therefore, the exhibition also sought to make sense of Labrouste for the present by proposing that his formal experiments with the industrial material of iron resonate in the radical transformations in contemporary architectural design and fabrication provoked by digital technologies. Moreover, the show suggested that his innovative approach to the library as a novel civic space in the nineteenth century, stimulated by emerging modes of mechanical reproduction and a growing reading public, holds lessons for today as new information technologies are again changing the figuration of this building type. And yet, these forays into Labrouste’s implications for the present played a subordinate role in an exhibition principally dedicated to a rich and probing scholarly assessment of the architect in his own day.

First densely staged in the confined underground galleries of the Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine in Paris, the show unfolded more comfortably within the spacious rooms of MoMA’s third floor, primarily illuminated by soft and diffuse ceiling light. A handsome and rigorously researched catalogue accompanied the show, including essays by the exhibition’s three organizers along with contributions from North American and European scholars. The contents of the catalogue are divided into three sections: “The Romantic Imagination,” “Spaces of Knowledge,” and “Prosperity and Affinities.” Also separated into these three sections, the exhibition progressed chronologically and tracked Labrouste’s student work, his projects as a practicing architect, and his impact on architects across Europe and the United States.

Situated in a long corridor befitting the grand scale of many of Labrouste’s drawings, the first section of the exhibition subtly revealed the evolution of Labrouste’s architectural thought during his time as a student at the Parisian École des Beaux-Arts from 1818 to 1824 and then in residence at the Villa Medici in Rome from 1825 to 1830 as a laureate of the coveted Prix de Rome. Following Levine’s earlier assertion, the curators adroitly grounded Labrouste’s modernist lineage in the fiery debates prompted by his fourth-year envois—the obligatory annual submission of drawings by pensionnaires, as those honored with state-sponsored scholarships to Rome were known. While this assignment aimed to refine the skills of architects in training by studying timeless classical precedents, Labrouste’s drawings of the ancient Greek temples of Paestum deeply incensed academicians back in Paris. Labrouste surely intended his drawings as a provocation, as pensionnaires’ analyses of ancient sites were expected to stand in deference to classical tradition rather than question or reinterpret it. Refuting earlier studies, which proposed that the chronology of the three Doric temples of Paestum could be traced in the gradual refinement of their volumes, Labrouste instead posited that the fabric of the buildings evidenced the social evolution of the Greek colony that settled on the island. In the narrative account that accompanied his drawings, Labrouste contended that the Greek colonists culminated the building campaigns of Paestum not by erecting a third temple, but rather by constructing a secular structure that he called a “portico” or a basilica. In his brilliant longitudinal cross-section of the reconstructed basilica of 1828 on view in the MoMA gallery, Labrouste employed ephemeral decorations, including graffiti on its walls and a string of shields running along the length of its interior cornice to propose that secular rituals had taken place inside the building.

Labrouste’s architectural version of Romanticism appears aesthetically remote from its brooding, medievalist variation developed across the English Channel at Strawberry Hill or Fonthill Abbey. As Labrouste’s revolt against classicism occurred from within the confines of the academy, he delivered a series of subtle blows to academic convention in order to formulate his particular conception of Romanticism, evidenced in his sketches and renderings of 1825–30 made while in residence at the Villa Medici also on view in the gallery. Like Charles Percier and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine during their time as pensionnaires in Rome in the late 1780s, Labrouste and his cohort of French architects in residence at the Villa Medici, including Félix Duban, Louis Duc, and Léon Vaudoyer, were also dubbed the “Etruscans” for their interest in documenting a diverse spectrum of buildings in addition to those associated with the classical canon. Labrouste brought to these studies the then current fascination with architectural polychromy, which Jacques-Ignace Hittorff sparked during his travels to Sicily in the early 1820s as a means to help destabilize the perennial authority assigned to the Orders by searching out alternative forms of architectural meaning. Consider Labrouste’s late 1820s rendering of an Imaginary Reconstruction of an Ancient City, with its fortified city wall that wraps around the edge of the town cascading over a hill. On the neutral beige ground of the city and its surrounding stone landscape, Labrouste applied touches of ocher on the crenellations above the arched entryway as well as on the pilasters and entablatures of the buildings that meld into the sloping hillside, and he traced the outlines of cornices and a pediment with dabs of pale blue according with the color of the sky. Along with his use of paint, which appears rapidly applied as if for a celebration, a delicate spray—consisting of shields, arrows, a wheel, and a plume—adorns the top of the entryway and animates the citadel with the fleeting specters of the people who once inhabited it. These ephemeral marks of paint and ornament traced on this everyday landscape undermined the classical conventions inherited from Johann Joachim Winckelmann, which championed a view of monumental antique architecture assembled from milky white marble. Instead, Labrouste formulated an alternative reading of the past in which vibrant ornament functioned to revive social ritual and historical consciousness.

Having established the foundations of Labrouste’s Romantic conception of architecture, the second part of the exhibition explored the proposals and realized projects of the practicing architect. As was customary for architects in state service in nineteenth-century France, Labrouste’s professional career concentrated on only a few official commissions that were complemented by smaller projects, including the design of private residences and decorations for state festivals. In his two principal commissions, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève and the reading room at the Bibliothèque nationale, which were the focal points of this section of the exhibition, Labrouste enclosed exposed cast-iron skeletons within delicately sculpted masonry envelopes. In his Space, Time, and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1941), Giedion fetishized the bare iron of the mesmerizing reading rooms along with the ironwork of the closed stacks of the Bibliothèque nationale. In MoMA’s 1977 catalogue, Levine proposed an alternative analysis of the role of cast iron in the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, forcefully arguing that the material was one aspect of Labrouste’s overarching design for the libraries, as the architect synthesized historicist form and industrial materials to forge a symbolic language for public architecture appropriate to the nineteenth century. The curators’ assessment of Labrouste’s libraries negotiated between these two earlier interpretations in order to demonstrate the ways that his manipulation of architectural technology helped to craft buildings conducive to the requirements of their users.

While Labrouste’s renderings naturally lent themselves to the format of the exhibition in the first part of the show, the display of Labrouste’s built work brought some of the inherent complexities associated with curating architecture to the fore. In the second section, historical photographs and drawings were deftly intermingled with contemporary modes of architectural representation. For example, digital projections and laser-cut models communicated the scale, composition, and spatial configuration of the libraries. Additionally, the curators employed display tables supported by spiral legs that overtly recalled the design of the desks at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. On these tables Labrouste’s studies of iron were juxtaposed with screens that offered digital reconstructions of the changing light levels in the reading room of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, an important aspect of the building’s performance since Labrouste lit its interior with gaslight, as it remained open until 10:00 PM. Such contrasts between traditional and novel modes of representation created an inventive tension between historicism and technology in the exhibition—a theme central to Labrouste’s built work.

The third section of the exhibition sketched an ambitious history of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century architecture, which placed Labrouste at the heart of architectural developments in Europe and the United States. When Labrouste returned from Rome in 1830, a group of eight students at the École des Beaux-Arts encouraged him to open his own teaching atelier. Many of his students went on to have successful careers, including Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus, Julien Guadet, and Anatole de Baudot. His Dutch pupils Anthony Willem van Dam and Johannes Hermanus Leliman imported Labrouste’s ideas to the Netherlands, where they were merged with regional traditions, the subject of a fascinating catalogue essay by Sigrid de Jong. In the United States, Labrouste’s ideas became visible in such buildings as McKim, Mead, and White’s Boston Public Library with its facade’s arcaded windows that illuminate its interior reading room in the same manner as the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. John Galen Howard’s Hearst Memorial Mining Building of 1907 on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, was not considered in this section of the exhibition, a regrettable omission as the airy domes of its entrance vestibule overtly recall those of Labrouste’s reading room at the Bibliothèque nationale.

For all of Labrouste’s traceable impact on subsequent architecture, it is hard not to wonder if many of the lavish projects on display in the final section of the exhibition—ranging from publications by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc to buildings by Auguste Perret and his brother Gustave—simply contributed to a modern architectural culture of structural rationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. That is to say, did not Labrouste’s work share in a fascination with the formal and symbolic expression of structure that contained multiple genealogies and transcended the impact of any single figure? For instance, did Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler’s conception of the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri, depend on Labrouste in particular? Although David Van Zanten meticulously traces in a catalogue essay the milieus in which Sullivan moved in Paris when he briefly studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, were his ideas about the curtain wall—and decoration more broadly—not indebted far more to the German architect Gottfried Semper than to Labrouste? While such historical precedents are not mutually exclusive, the exhibition’s sharp monographic focus in its final gallery ran the risk of suppressing the many sources and multitude of forces that together forged architectural thought and practice. Still, it is to the curators’ immense credit that the shortcomings in the final part of the exhibition did not undermine the exhibition’s decisively rigorous appraisal of the architect and his pivotal role in the historical course of modern architecture.

Sean Weiss
Assistant Professor of History and Theory, Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of the City University of New York

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.