While the New York Public Library is reconsidering their architecture through a luminous, yet radical, Norman Foster proposal that would modernize the Schwarzman Building and reconfigure its stacks into reading areas, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is unearthing the architect who popularized those sun-dappled reading rooms in the first place. Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light at MoMA might sound like a rather dry design exhibition, but it’s really a quite compelling in-depth look at a 19th century architect whose own radical ideas have an influence too often forgotten.
Henri Labrouste (1801–1875) spent six years studying architecture in Rome, looking not just at ancient stunning structures, but the way they reflected their local use and culture. When he returned to his hometown of Paris in 1830, it was a tumultuous place. That year, the July Revolution broiled into the streets of Paris, overthrowing King Charles X, one of the stuttering returns of the monarchy in the wake of the French Revolution. Labrouste had his own ideas about overthrowing the expected ideas of architecture, with deconstructions of classical ideas through a use-oriented rationalism.
It seems like complete common sense that you would design buildings based on how they would be used, but Labrouste was especially adamant in the design details having some sort of function. This is, more or less, documented in about 200 pieces, most brought over from France to MoMA (most of the material fixates on his big ideas and time in Rome, less on his equally interesting civic and residential work). The exhibition is most engaging with his dimensional drawings and watercolors, although displaying such materials with Labrouste’s subtle shading and delicate pencil marks is challenging. The best presentation is when they come off the walls, as in a room dedicated mostly to the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève where you can gaze over the drawings on tables that feel a little like reading desks. Otherwise, the highlight of the exhibition is really in the story of Labrouste, and how this architect you’ve probably never heard of, and whose buildings now seem like beautiful relics, was seen as such a radical.
The two big legacies of Labrouste are a couple of libraries in Paris: the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (finished in 1850) and the Bibliothèque nationale (finished in 1875). Each is centered on soaring reading rooms designed to let in plenty of light, both to illuminate the texts and also, supposedly, the brains of their readers. Labrouste was a huge proponent of architecture being a way to influence the dispositions of the people inside of it, ideas also expressed in more directly therapeutic designs for a mental hospital, prison, and agricultural camp for orphans. Labrouste is said to have described the architect as a “doctor” or “healer.” In the libraries as well as the institutions, he was inspired by the layouts of ancient communal buildings (like a Naples almshouse and monastery near Florence), as well as the theories of medicine and well-being of the day. He also worked in modern design ideas like the setting a metal structure into a stone frame, even while it all looked very classical.
Civic architecture was Labrouste’s showcase, and still is, as his two libraries continue to function beautifully with most of the original layout intact within Paris. The atelier he started on that return in 1830 also had a lasting influence, with its around 400 students immersed in an intellectually radical rationalism that was apparently so extreme that not one of them ever got the prestigious Grand Prix de Rome, even while they had their own influences on the world. While the contemporary echo showed in the exhibition is short, even with a whole gallery devoted to his devotees, it would be great to hear what some of the Labrouste scholars speaking in the exhibition videos think of the changes to libraries like the 1911 New York Public Library Schwarzman Building that continues to embody his rationalism, even while his initial radical ideas on reading spaces and embedded stacks are now in conflict with their new digital use.
Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light is at MoMA (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through June 24, 2013.