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The Spirit of Your Block

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Labrouste’s second masterpiece, the Bibliothèque Nationale, contains an even more breathtaking room, illuminated by nine light-filled domes resting on a cage of thin iron columns. In plan, the reading room looks like a detail from a Chuck Close portrait, a grid of circles inside squares. The stacks have their own space, lit from above by a sawtooth roof that Labrouste copied from a textile mill. “Form in architecture must always be fit to the function it will serve,” he declared (a motto that others later compressed into “form follows function”), and so he erected a knowledge factory.

At Sainte-Geneviève, he had found a way to harmonize iron and stone; in the Bibliothèque Nationale, he invented a music that was completely new but seemed familiar. Traditional forms and ornaments, he pointed out, had their origins in stone and wood and should not be cast in iron. Instead he developed a delicate counterpoint of choiring trusses, joints, rivet heads, and wires. For 150 years, architects have tried to match the poetics of his engineering. The most Labroustian structure in New York (until it was torn down in 1963) was probably McKim, Mead & White’s Penn Station, with its colonnaded granite shell around a steel-and-glass lattice. In a few years, the title will pass to Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center transit hub, a sunlit vault made of white steel instead of gilded iron. But maybe the essence of Labrouste’s lyricism is not the skeleton but the skin. The Bibliothèque Nationale’s nine domes consist of thin sheets of white enamel stretched across iron frames, and neither critics nor caricaturists missed the similarity to fashion: The cupolas looked like crinolines draped over a wire shell. Today, Gehry’s IAC Building façade sways and billows like a gauzy dress.

Labrouste did more than design containers for books; he constructed buildings that were books. Thirty years ago, in a virtuoso exercise of architectural analysis, the historian Neil Levine (who also contributed an essay to the MoMA catalogue) demonstrated that the Bibliothèque Ste.-Genèvieve is legible architecture, as replete with symbols as a Gothic cathedral. The building is the message: a rousing defense of architecture in the face of Victor Hugo’s announcement that it had died. In The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, published the year after Labrouste opened his Paris practice, Hugo takes the reader on a detour, jumping off from a cryptic line of dialogue: “Ceci tuera cela,” or “This will kill that.” Architecture, Hugo is proclaiming, has been murdered by print. The medieval cathedral contained within it every possible burst of human imagination: leering gargoyles, whimsical column capitals of drunken monks, biblical stories cartooned in colored glass, manuscripts, sculptures, tombs—a collective clamor of expressions, enshrined in the most durable of the arts. Then came Gutenberg, and by the nineteenth century it was clear that literature could transmit a range of expression that no contemporary building could.

What does all this have to do with Labrouste? In his two great cathedrals of reading, as luminous and soaring as a Gothic nave, the book and the building aren’t enemies but partners. The book gives the building meaning in exchange for shelter. Printed volumes become part of the architecture, paneling the walls.

We are once again in a moment when ceci is threatening cela, only now print is the victim. Gehry’s IAC Building houses an online-and-gaming company, and architects everywhere are struggling to integrate screens, digital memory, and interactive surfaces in physical spaces, just as Labrouste worked with iron, stone, and paper. The tension between old and new media is particularly agonizing for the New York Public Library, where Norman Foster has come up with a promising but (so far) generic design for a renovation that many critics say shouldn’t happen. If Foster were to devote an eighth of the care that Labrouste did to creating a space in which to commune with words, the troubles that dog the library’s plan would dissipate overnight.

Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light
Museum of Modern Art.
March 10 through June 24.


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