Henri Labrouste is not among nineteenth century architects best known by the general public. He is, however, one of architects’ favorite architects of the period. Last week an exhibition dedicated to Labrouste opened at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine. An opportunity, hopefully, to bring Labrouste to his rightful prominence.
The exhibition opens with an area dedicated to Labrouste’s work from the five years he spent in Italy as winner of the Grand Prix de Rome, from 1824 to 1830. It displays his iconoclastic rethinking of important sites of classical antiquity and especially the breathtaking renderings he sent back to Paris.
The second section of the exhibition is dedicated to Labrouste as a builder, and therefore mainly to his two masterpieces, both libraries : the Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève and the Bibliothèque Nationale. These two works are shown through a collection of drawings and models that alone warrant considerable efforts to make it to Paris (or New York) to see the show.
The Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève, located on the Montagne Sainte Geneviève just across from the Panthéon, was built from 1843 to 1850. One of the very finest buildings to be seen in Paris, it is notable for its formal purity, for its intelligent constructive use of masonry in combination with metal, and for its extremely refined detailling.
The Bibliothèque Nationale – at the time of the project the Bibliothèque Impériale – was a larger and more complex commission in which Labrouste reinterpreted the same program. He also returned to metal as a structural material, developing the fine fluted columns supporting a system of domes that allows the daylight to flow down into the library’s reading spaces.
It is extremely striking to go directly from the « envois » full of archaeological research and reflections to the built works, with their metal structures of extraordinary modernity. What one sees at once is that all this output is animated by the same rigour of thought and graphic expression. Labrouste’s handling of contemporary challenges is the illustration of the very best that could be achieved thrugh the Beaux-Arts education system of the first half of the nineteenth century.
In both libraries one sees an uncompromising approach to programmatic functionality, an intelligent and innovative approach to structural challenges, and an organic link between aspects of the building, for example internal spaces and façade or aesthetics and the infrastructure of modern comfort. These everpresent characteristics keeps reminding us how terribly close in ethos Labrouste was to the functionalist architects of the early twentieth century and give him a contemporary edge that other great architects of his era, like Duc, Hittorff and even Garnier, lack.
Labrouste’s two libraries are lovingly described in every account of the prehistory of modern architecture, not least the classic of the genre, Siegfried Giedion’s Space Time and Architecture. It was therefore surprising how little generally-accessible material there was on Labrouste : no monography of his work; only obscure studies, such as an unpublished thesis, effectively restricting deeper knowledge of this architect to scholars.
Unfortunately this year’ exhibition only partially closes thsee gaps. Its great weakness is to shed little new light on the built work outside the two libraries – even accepting that these are limited in number and in interest compared to the two masterpieces. There is a little bit on the Seminary in Rennes, but almost nothing on the hôtels particuliers Labrouste designed, and about which we would like to know more.
Quite a bit of attention is given to Labrouste’s posterity. The link is evident – and compelling – in works such as the Boston Public Library, whose authors knew Labrouste intimately. But the curators seem to have gotten a bit carried away, stretching to what they call “affinities,” in other words projects that are somewhow reminiscent of Labrouste, whether or not there is evidence of a specific connection. Some examples are interesting, but by the time we get to Pierluigi Nervi’s Palazzo del Lavoro we have strayed way too far. This is a pity, because, as the leader of a studio from 1830 to 1856 and a major figure in the architectural institutions, Labrouste had considerable influence on the architectural debate of the time. Unfortunately, this section seems less analytical, trapped in the approximations of an exclusively iconographic approach.
The great virtue of the exhibition remains that it masterfuly shows how Labrouste reconciled the two major architecture tendencies of his time. On one hand he was a revolutionary, embracing the use of modern materials and technologies like lighting and central heating and convinced of the need for an architectural expression in tune with one’s era – in summary the architectural paradigm of an anti-establishment figure like Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. But his work remains infused with a rigor, a sureness of composition, a sobriety, and an intelligence, that represent the finest of the tradition rooted in the veneration of classical Antiquity. By holding itself to uncompromising standards in both respects, Labrouste’s work aligns itself with what is highest in each tradition.