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Redressing the balance

Labrouste’s oeuvre of libraries and pioneering iron constructions gets a long-overdue revisit in a new Parisian exhibition, later travelling to MoMA, NYC

Henri Labrouste (1801-75) was perhaps one of the 19th century’s most important yet, until recently, neglected architects. With very few exceptions, his small but exceptional body of work has been − remarkably − taken for granted. Brief mentions of his use of iron construction in the celebrated polemical essays of Sigfried Giedion, his drawings included in the 1975 Museum of Modern Art Beaux-Arts show, a short exhibition catalogue published by Pierre Saddy in 1976, and two long essays published by the American architectural historian Neil Levine in 1977 and 1980, remain almost the sole contributions to his memory. This, for an architect who during his life was celebrated by even so relentless a critic of contemporary architecture as Viollet-le-Duc, and whose work inspired architects in the United States from McKim, Mead & White to Frank Lloyd Wright.

The present exhibition at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, curated by Barry Bergdoll (of MoMA, New York), Corinne Bélier (Musée des Monuments Français, Paris) and Marc Le Coeur (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris) has finally redressed the balance. Housed in the stone-vaulted underbelly of the Cité, and accompanied by a magnificent and informative catalogue, this exhibition brings together a huge selection of Labrouste’s drawings, from his first student exercises at the Villa Medici to his last projects.

Here he is once and for all revealed, not as a sombre ‘Neo-Grec’, nor as an avant-garde pioneer of modern architecture, but as simply the best French architect of the 19th century. His drawings sent from Rome between 1824 and 1830 demonstrated an independence and a talent for relating structure and ornament, and his interest in utopian-social movements − he designed a colony for the Fourierists, and was a friend of César Daly, the founder of the first major professional review of architecture. Avant-garde he certainly was, as Barry Bergdoll points out in his elegant introduction − but in the sense that Henri de Saint-Simon, who coined the word meant it − and a functionalist, ready to use modern materials, but with a strong sense of the important symbolic role played by public architecture.

Beneath the iron vaults of Labrouste’s library, Walter Benjamin explored the arcades of Paris, enthusing over ‘Iron as revolutionary building material!’ while mourning the retention of historic forms

Beneath the iron vaults of Labrouste’s library, Walter Benjamin explored the arcades of Paris, enthusing over ‘Iron as revolutionary building material!’ while mourning the retention of historic forms

For public architecture was his first and last avocation; preoccupied throughout his career with the two great libraries of Paris − the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève and the Bibliothèque Nationale − he nevertheless found time and energy for a host of other public works: a competition for an insane asylum (at Lausanne, 1836-37); a competition for a prison near Turin (1839-40); a college (1840-41); a competition for slaughterhouses near Provins (1841); a project for the public theatre of Bucharest (1843-45); a built scheme for an agricultural colony at Saint-Firmin (1845-48); and a seminary at Rennes (1853-72).

There was even a period when Labrouste took administrative jobs, first in the offices of the Paris-Lyons-Marseilles railroad from 1862, and then as state inspector general for public works, from 1865 − a roster that would have delighted Michel Foucault in his study of institutional discourse. But it was the libraries that took all his attention between 1838 and 1873, developing two of the finest public spaces in the city, pushing iron construction to its expressive limits while maintaining the decorum required of ‘architecture’ with thin outer shells of stone cladding and intricate details.

Both spaces, vaulted in iron, play on architectural prototypes: the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève with its long double-vaulted aisle and central reading desk recalls the barrel-vaulted and amphitheatrical project by Etienne-Louis Boullée of 1785, while the Bibliothèque Nationale’s half-domes seem almost to hark back to Hagia-Sophia. But Labrouste, respectful of architectural conventions, was also a believer in progress; unwilling to submit to the apparently inevitable decline of architecture in the face of the printed book. He knew well Victor Hugo’s celebrated pronouncement in Notre-Dame de Paris, ‘This will kill that − the book will kill the building’, but he nevertheless restrained his own rhetoric in making the surfaces of his buildings ‘speak’ or rather ‘write’ like books, inscribing a mock catalogue in the panels of Sainte-Geneviève, and framing the glazed vaults of the Nationale as if they sheltered a delightful garden.

While he wrote little, his theory of architecture was from the start embedded in the mock funerary tablet he designed as the frontispiece of Daly’s Revue générale de l’architecture: beneath a table of contents that embraced science, art and history, a bas-relief tableau depicts the architect, his arm around the shoulders of a philosopher reading a book, while on either side, the builders work at their construction trades. The separation of the architect from building is complete, as is his dependence on knowledge.

The book has not killed the building, but rather transformed the nature of architectural practice for good. It was appropriate that here, in a space designed by an architect known as ‘melancholic’, the melancholic Walter Benjamin researched and wrote his fragmentary work on the arcades, as if ‘in the open air, under a blue sky without clouds that forms a vault above the foliage’. The hundreds of contemporary scholars who have forged their careers in the same space, can in this exhibition take stock of Labrouste’s full oeuvre,and of the library that, in the name of ‘modernity’, they have now lost.

Labrouste (1801-1875), Architecture. La Structure mise en Lumière

Venue: Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, Paris, to 7 January 2013; and MoMA, NY, from 10 March to 24 June 2013

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