The Spirit of Your Block

Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris (1854-1875).Photo: © Georges Fessy/Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Henri Labrouste was a glum and scholarly man, a nineteenth-century French architect who competed, often unsuccessfully, for state commissions, built a couple of libraries, and rarely ventured far from France, except for a five-year stay at the French Academy in Rome. And yet, indirectly, he reshaped New York.

With a fine sense of posterity and an appreciation of his own gifts, Labrouste would not be surprised to learn that MoMA is devoting an exhibition to him (“Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light” opens March 10), though he might be annoyed to learn that it is America’s first. He would, however, be astonished at how many forms his influence has taken. You could see him as a rationalist engineer and trace the evolution from his delicate iron trusses to the I-beam austerity of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building and the steel honeycomb of Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower. Or you could follow another clear stream from his cool neoclassical surfaces to Beaux-Arts monuments like the New York Public Library and on to the postmodernists like Robert A.M. Stern. And then there’s Labrouste the romantic, whose moody, metaphor-rich spaces share some DNA with the glass ghost that Frank Gehry designed for IAC. A building can look nothing like a Labrouste and still have his spirit in its bones.

To see where all these threads converge, it’s best to begin in Paris, facing a long, quiet library that guidebooks barely mention: the Bibliothèque Ste.-Geneviève, completed in 1850 after a dozen years’ work. The pale stone façade, with its plain arcade of windows and modest garlands, is understated to the point of severity. But inside is one of the nineteenth century’s most sublime public interiors, a reading room as distinctly modern as the exterior is antique. The vast shed, roofed with a double-barrel vault, evokes a train station of the same period. In the mid-nineteenth century, mind and body had acquired new kinds of mobility, and their wanderings required structures that were grand and advanced.

In the reading room, carved stone piers sprout slender iron columns that branch out at the top into vinelike ribs. Old technology yields to new, massive rock giving way to the lean efficiency of metal. Labrouste didn’t just staple together industrial techniques and classical motifs; he merged the two in an approach that looked simultaneously back and ahead. You can see that same tension buzz through twentieth-century architecture: in the way Louis Sullivan ramped up Renaissance mannerisms for the skyscraper age, or Louis Kahn repurposed the massive brick walls and glassless openings of Roman ruins. Labrouste’s refined integration of antique craftsmanship and the modern factory could also be knocked off in a commercial context—in Soho, for instance, where cast-iron classical façades fronted plain factory floors.

Labrouste was a reluctant rebel. Trained at the École des Beaux-Arts (which the cream of New York’s architects later attended), he duly went off to study Roman antiquity at the government’s expense. From Rome, he sent back exquisite but radical drawings in which he reconstructed ancient cities not as examples of timeless principles, all freshly buffed and gleaming, but as messy places bearing the scars of use. His teachers were appalled, as only nineteenth-century French academicians could be. To them, the whole point of classicism was that it didn’t change. In 1830, he returned from his studies of Roman monuments ready to build Parisian monuments, but since no young architect could do much without official approval, he had to wait. Fortunately, he was patient. To avoid displeasing his mother, he postponed his wedding for nearly two decades; only after the old lady’s death did he finally marry the mother of his five children. His first commission came more quickly. He waited eight years.

Maybe it was all that contemplation of ruins or the slow burn of his life and career that sensitized Labrouste to the architectural implications of time. In his library, the drama of its passage is reenacted each day, as the sun moves from one wall of arched windows to another, delaying as long as possible the moment when the lights come on. Ste.-Geneviève was the first library to open in the evening, and Labrouste honored that innovation symbolically in the carved torches that flank the entrance and with allegorical reliefs of “Night” and “Day.” More practically, he added gaslights.

Extending the library’s hours was meant to keep the Latin Quarter’s students out of trouble after dark—the same rationale for building basketball courts and community centers today—but it was not a uniformly popular move. The writer Paul Lacroix called it a “hostile and pernicious invention” that would only “popularize reading and dilapidate libraries.” Lacroix’s distaste for too many users—or the wrong kind—resonates in the complaint that the historian Edmund Morris made last year about the New York Public Library’s main building: “The marble floor nowadays is loud with the squeak of Reeboks.” Labrouste’s bibliothèque and Carrère & Hastings’s Fifth Avenue library share an aesthetic incubated in the École des Beaux-Arts, but they also share a belief in the social value of refined architecture. Even people who live in joyless garrets should be able to gather in grandeur.

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.

The Spirit of Your Block