Ancien Modernist

Ancien Modernist

Bibliothhque Nationale de France (1868).
Georges Fessy / Courtesy MoMA

Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street, New York
Through June 24

The name Labrouste is synonymous with two libraries in Paris, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (1850) and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (1868), both of which feature astonishing reading rooms created by the unprecedented meeting of an elegant cast-iron structure with an austere neo-classical masonry envelope. The current Museum of Modern Art exhibition, Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light, offers detailed and original analysis of these two libraries, as well as fascinating material related to the architect’s lesser-known works, most of which were never built. Organized in association with the Bibliothèque Nationale and originally mounted last year at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris, the show is presented in New York by MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design under the direction of Barry Bergdoll. As with all of Bergdoll’s exhibitions, it is grounded in the highest level of scholarship, but is also accessible to non-specialists, allowing us to see material we thought we knew in an entirely new light.

The initial question of appropriateness (is a show of architectural works dating back to the 1820s and 30s really “modern”?) is convincingly answered. The curators argue that the work of this nineteenth-century French master was a direct response to modern times, in particular his redefinition of the library as a form of democratic public space. The show promises and delivers an image of Labrouste as an “avant-garde” architect, a contemporary of Eugène Delacroix and Victor Hugo, “committed to experimentation and the creation of new forms for art in response to new social, economic, and cultural conditions.” In this regard, it makes a provocative pairing with the exhibition 9 + 1 Ways of Being Political: 50 Years of Political Stances in Architecture and Urban Design in an adjacent gallery, which features neo-avant-garde works from the European revolutionary moment of the late 1960s and early 70s.

Drawing of Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (left). Imaginary reconstruction of an ancient city (right).
Courtesy MoMA

Bringing together a series of Labrouste’s original drawings from archives throughout Paris, the exhibition will be particularly attractive to those interested in architectural drafting. Despite the inclusion of a bells-and-whistles “interactive computer kiosk,” it is the drawings that really stand out. The exhibition is divided into three sections: the first on Labrouste’s work as a student winner of the Prix d’Rome, largely measured drawings of antique ruins; the second on his two library projects; and the third on his influence. The student drawings are breathtaking, capturing in meticulous detail both the present day structural and material reality of ancient monuments such as Trajan’s Column, as well as their imagined ephemeral aspects including colored murals and temporary decorations, as seen in his reconstructions of the ancient city of Paestum. The section dedicated to the two libraries demonstrates how Labrouste brought his archaeological eye to the problem of inventing a new form for the library, one designed for use by everyday readers rather than wealthy book-collector connoisseurs. Arranged on specially designed wooden drafting tables modeled after furniture at Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, as if the viewer was a reader in the library, these drawings demonstrate the rigorous alignment between structure and ornament for which Labrouste is famous.

Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (1850).
Michel Nguyen / Courtesy MoMA

Focusing as they do on technical details, the library drawings tend to reinforce the reading of Labrouste as an architect dedicated to structural expressionism, and meticulously crafted cut away models reinforce this. However, contemporary photographs and newly-created computer animations illustrating the effect produced by gas lighting the interior of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, give us a different understanding of Labrouste, one in which he is concerned just as much with the quality of interior space produced by the structure as with the structure itself. Labrouste was one of the first architects to introduce gas lighting and the effect of the animations is to show us something of what he intended with this new technology: They turn our attention downward, away from the dramatic roof structure, toward the lower half of the room where readers were enveloped in warm, glowing, flickering gas light. Created using research by Martin Bressani and Marc Grignon, these animations are presented as a nineteenth-century paradigm for our present day fascination with the concept of “atmosphere” as a special mode of perception.

Besides this new analysis of Labrouste’s famous libraries, the exhibition also brings to light some lesser known examples of his work, including a series of drawings for utopian projects—prisons, asylums, and agricultural camps—projects which place Labrouste in the revolutionary tradition of Boullée and Ledoux. His drawings echo theirs in scale, simplicity, and geometric rigor. Though these projects might be seen as proto-functionalist in their dedication to the idea of architectural form as a shaper of social behavior, the exhibition also includes works that are much more nuanced in their understanding of the relationship between architecture and society, including fascinating images of civic celebrations that Labrouste helped coordinate in the wake of the revolution of 1830, most notably a procession designed to honor the repatriation of Emperor Napoleon’s body. Together, these projects illustrate the possibility of modern civic architecture that is both rationalist and at the same time evocative of the cultural memory residing in ancient mythological traditions.

Courtesy MoMA

It is testament to the primary aim of the exhibition that the immediacy of Labrouste’s work in the context of the social and political concerns of his own time seems fresher than its later influence on architectural modernism. Next to the riches of the first two sections of the exhibition, the third section on Labrouste’s legacy feels almost redundant. Here the promised focus on Labrouste as a modern architect in his own right yields to the simultaneously more familiar and perhaps less interesting story of Labrouste as a pioneer of modern design. However, there are some pleasant surprises here too, especially the startling Art Nouveau experiments in iron structure and ornament by Louis-Ernest Lheureux, and Auguste and Gustav Perret’s beautifully severe neoclassical interiors of the 1920s and 30s. Though it is intriguing to speculate on the relationship between Labrouste and Louis Sullivan, between French and American modernism, the show spends too little time on Labrouste’s influence in the United States to make a convincing argument.

Finally, viewers will draw their own conclusions about the relevance of this exhibition to the contemporary debate over the renovation of the New York Public Library at Bryant Park, which involves moving the library’s extensive stacks to a remote location in order to create more space for readers. Detractors might see this as an unwelcome evolution away from the Bibliothèque Nationale, with the sociability of the shared reading room being privileged over the introverted act of research. Those who approve could well argue that the mediating third space Labrouste created between readers and books might now exist in the digital realm, rendering physical proximity less necessary. Whatever your conclusion, this excellent exhibition will continue the conversation about libraries as exemplary modern spaces.