New York

View of “Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light,” 2013. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.

View of “Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light,” 2013. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.

Henri Labrouste

View of “Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light,” 2013. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.

THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY FRENCH ARCHITECT Henri Labrouste is best known today for designing places of learning: libraries of unsurpassed beauty, clarity, and drama, structured by a tense but serene rationality. Indeed, to prepare himself for the task, he staged a “revolution on a few elephant folio sheets of paper,” as his compatriot Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc described the heterodox reimaginings of ancient structures Labrouste produced while still a student at the École des Beaux-Arts. But if Viollet-le-Duc tested the limits of architecture as a textural practice with his famous ten-volume historical dictionary of the field, Labrouste maintained a Carthusian silence; “he never wrote anything to speak of,” offers the historian Neil Levine. It is Labrouste’s drawings, instead, that constitute an entire discourse unto themselves. His thoughts on everything—form and substance, syntax and semantics, the past and future of architectural history—can be found in these drawings, subtly revealed in graphite, pen, ink, wash, and watercolor, and only later transfigured into iron and glass, encased in finely incised stone.

“Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light,” the Museum of Modern Art’s zenithally illuminating exhibition of Labrouste’s tightly focused career, explicitly juxtaposes his buildings and his pen. The show is conservative in the sense that historian of the book Roger Chartier suggests that writing—and here, arguably, drawing—is “conservative, durable, and fixed.” It leaves a trace. The practice of reading, by contrast, is ephemeral; it is the first step toward forgetting what one has read. The question posed by the exhibition’s curators, Barry Bergdoll, from MoMA; Corinne Bélier, from the Cité de l’Architecture & du Patrimoine; and Marc Le Cœur, from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, both in Paris, is whether we are now forgetting how to read. The answer is to be found by looking closely at the writing on the museum walls.

The corridor-like gallery that serves as the exhibition’s preface is devoted to Labrouste’s student work. Having earned the Grand Prix de Rome in 1824—his laurel wreath rests with reliquary stillness in a glass case alongside his box of drawing instruments, its lid decorated with signature Neo-Grec motifs—the twenty-three-year-old spent the next five years as a pensionnaire at the Villa Medici, seat of the French Academy in Rome. There he produced “masses of careful, encyclopedic relevés,” writes David Van Zanten in the exhibition’s scholarly companion volume. Labrouste’s analytic studies are truly spectacular; they make great demands on the eyes. In return, they demonstrate in unparalleled manner the role of drawing, the act and the thing, as a means of knowing and a form of knowledge. The drawings are models of evidence.

The incipit to the preface is Labrouste’s study of the order from the portico of the Pantheon in Rome, rendered in high relief and sharp detail, and flanked on either side by beguilingly faint sectional profiles of the column capital’s sculpted acanthus leaves. Labrouste’s annotation reveals that the latter were drawn at the level of the first row of “eyes,” referring to the shadowed voids in the stylized botanical motif. These drawings, the wall text suggests, display a new interest in the physical anatomy of monuments. Indeed, it was an anatomist turned historian of art, Labrouste’s contemporary Giovanni Morelli, who invented a science of the inductive analysis of overlooked forms that suggests the appropriate methodology for approaching Labrouste’s self-defining student work. For Morelli, it was the handling of earlobes, the shapes of fingers and toes, that betrayed the hand of a great painter. As the critic Henri Delaborde (cited in one of Le Cœur’s fine catalogue essays) wrote at the time, the Romantic pensionnaires (Labrouste, Louis Duc, Léon Vaudoyer, Félix Duban) were unified by an obsession with “neglected or unrecognized details,” specifically when seen as clues to important but fugitive social, political, and cultural facts.

Labrouste did not abandon the studious archaeological fidelity evidenced in his Pantheon study when staging his revolution on folio paper, which was mounted both in terms of and in mordant response to the Neoclassical ideals codified and transmitted by the very academy that had sent him to Rome. He simply rewrote the history of architecture based on circumstantial facts of his own observation or making. Viollet-le-Duc’s remark referred specifically to Labrouste’s 1829 fourth-year envoi, or submission to the academy. In these drawings, prominently displayed in the exhibition’s first gallery, Labrouste proposed a provocative restoration of the temples at Paestum, a Greek colony in southern Italy. In the précis historique that accompanied his drawings, Labrouste (erringly) argued that the Temples of Neptune and Ceres, whose regular geometry was presumably nearer to a received and unchanging ideal, preceded the more autochthonous Temple of Hera. With this act of retrospective archaeological prophecy Labrouste documented “the formation of a new architecture,” as scholar Martin Bressani writes in the catalogue, by insisting that structure and form were modified not only by climatic, historical, and social conditions but just as crucially by the attendant accumulation of meaningful signs of custom and use.

Based on its unusual plan—with a central spine of columns, as opposed to a cella to house the cult statue of Hera—Labrouste concluded that the structure ostensibly devoted to the goddess was actually a portique, or civic basilica, intended for secular rituals. He imagined its walls, which were lost to time, hung with ornaments, trophies, and shields as if following the celebration of a triumph. A visionary master of the sectional cut, Labrouste delivered the coup de grâce in the form of a perspective view, drawing the eye to the writing (graffiti) on the walls. The foremost column of the portique’s spine, “the most conspicuous place of all,” was covered with painted inscriptions regulating gatherings. Labrouste conceived of the building as an “album,” a term he invoked as an erudite reference to the mural inscriptions described in the Byzantine encyclopedia known as the Suda. Yet the term was not without contemporary resonance; Levine has pointed out that the album could also be construed as Parisian advertising poles, so-called colonnes Morris, avant la lettre.

The writing’s intramural significance was meant to be interpreted by that sovereign reader Quatremère de Quincy, secrétaire perpétuel of the academy. With his restoration of Paestum, Labrouste engendered an architecture of time and place, a contemporary architecture the likes of which he himself felt called to produce when he returned to France, as if via the imagined frontier bridge that he submitted for his culminating fifth-year envoi—a subtly subversive design at once densely autobiographical and conspicuously structurally sound. His studies complete, Labrouste returned to a Paris that was both at an end and at a beginning. On August 1, 1830, three days after the July Revolution, Labrouste opened his own atelier to protest official teaching that had become “exclusive, blind, and fatal.”

At the end of the prefatory gallery is a partition with Étienne-Louis Boullée’s perspective for the reconstruction of the Bibliothèque Royale (1785–88). Boullée writes of the design that he was “profoundly moved by the sublime conception of Raphael’s School of Athens.” This fresco from the Stanza della Segnatura is reproduced in the stairwell of Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, where it occupies a key place in the carefully scripted sequence that leads through a dim vestibule opening along its sides to an illusionistic garden, culminating, by turns, in the “double-barrel-vaulted reading room.” The curators perhaps meant to evoke this memorable space in the exhibit’s next section, which is arranged as a veritable salle de lecture devoted to Labrouste’s conception of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. A trove of his drawings for the project, from its constricted site plan on the place du Panthéon to details for the fasteners of its elaborate iron shelves, are presented on substantial slanted desks, implying that the work now to be done on them is careful study. One of the many lessons Labrouste offers here is that architecture, like the institutions it embodies and instills, does not merely emerge from, nor is it reducible to, what appears on the sheet, but is rather the composite and concrete fictive reality that results from seeing through drawing.

Labrouste’s other major work, the Bibliothèque Nationale (originally Royale, later Impériale) in Paris, is featured in the next room in the show as a built and inhabited setting. The historical photographs of Louis-Émile Durandelle provide an albuminoid sense of the vast but intimate interior’s billowing cupolas, which are supported on sixteen elegantly slender cast-iron columns. Labrouste draws out a language of expressive ornament from the construction itself. The rivet heads of the iron vaults, intertwined by spirals of foliage, are accented in gold foil, seemingly a reference to the once-voided eyes of the Pantheon’s acanthus leaf, now enlivened by noble metal. Labrouste thus made lofty the burden of history even as he invented the space of Parisian nineteenth-century modernity. Appropriately, then, the visitor’s eye is inevitably drawn to the quasi-sacred hemicycle, the entrance to the unseen industrial structure of the central stacks, the “most mysterious and also most inventive of the new installations,” as Le Cœur describes it, flanked by two imposing caryatids.

The final section of the exhibition, “Posterity and Affinities,” aims at exhaustiveness as opposed to the rewarding exhaustion brought on by the preliminary exercise in close looking. Labrouste is posed as the source of several gathering currents of modern architecture, supporting Bergdoll’s salutary attempt to reclaim the “avant-garde” as a particular artistic stance emerging from the utopian socialist milieu of Paris circa 1830. Thus we find the work of Hector Horeau, Anatole de Baudot, Jules Saulnier, and the American architect Henry Hornbostel. Yet the clarity of curatorial vision is somewhat obscured rather than enhanced by the array of citations, especially when presented on the two large-format touch screens set up like the desks in “Spaces of Knowledge.” One “tab” provides examples of architectural “media wall[s]”—the reference is to the facade of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, inscribed with the names of 810 enlightened worthies, from the lawgiver Moses to the Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius. But was it Labrouste who made the wall into a (retinal) screen?

The pervading paradox of the exhibition is that the typology of the library that Labrouste magisterially imagined is now threatened with its own overthrow: Once jealously guarded repositories of irreplaceable stores of knowledge, libraries are forced to both promulgate and be subject to radically amended terms and means of access. The label for Labrouste’s Construction Site Journal, kept during the building of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (August 1843–December 1850) and here displayed under glass, provides a hypertext address for the Internet Archive, where the manuscript can be consulted. According to Marie-Hélène de La Mure, the Bibliothèque Sainte- Geneviève’s rare-book curator, the journal is part of a bound series of “exercise books filled with handwritten recto and verso pages in thick penmanship on which the ink often runs out.” The language of descriptive bibliography preserves the vulnerable materiality of books as such, especially friable, acid-bitten nineteenth-century books. “This volume is a treasure for architectural historians,” she writes. Yet while insisting that the manuscript “cannot be understood outside of its context,” La Mure simultaneously refers to current efforts to construct a “virtual Henri Labrouste library,” an “e-corpus.” This contradiction calls to mind the undecided fate of another beloved civic basilica, John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings’s beaux arts masterpiece, the New York Public Library, which is currently slated for a myopically conceived renovation that takes for granted the notion that physical modes of information storage (books) are no longer compatible with public space in a digital age.

By the exit, again under glass, are displayed books by Julien Guadet, Auguste Perret, Sigfried Giedion, and Arthur Drexler’s catalogue for The Architecture of the École des Beaux-Arts, in which Labrouste’s legacy was successively reconsidered. “Henri Labrouste is without doubt the mid-nineteenth-century architect whose work was the most important for the future,” Giedion wrote. The question today might no longer be how to make use of the past, but rather how to contend with a future that will have less and less use for printed matter and, it would seem, for history itself.

Edward Eigen is an associate professor of landscape architecture and architecture at Harvard University’s graduate school of design in Cambridge, MA.