Poetry Grounded in Iron and Glass ; Labrouste Show Casts the 19th-Century Architect as a Spatial Provocateur

By Kimmelman, Michael | International Herald Tribune, March 15, 2013 | Go to article overview

Poetry Grounded in Iron and Glass ; Labrouste Show Casts the 19th-Century Architect as a Spatial Provocateur


Kimmelman, Michael, International Herald Tribune


The "Henri Labrouste" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art casts the 19th-century French architect as a radical reinventor of public spaces.

"Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light," at the Museum of Modern Art, is elegant and astringent, like Labrouste's work. The name may not ring a bell, but don't let that stop you from seeing the show. It is gorgeous.

Labrouste died in 1875 at 74, having left behind two of the great buildings of 19th-century Paris, the Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve and the Bibliotheque Nationale, miracles of stone, iron and glass construction. It was instructive to hear a historian, in a video accompanying the show, recall growing up like most French intellectuals in the 1950s and 1960s and lumping Labrouste in with all the other unfashionable detritus of 19th-century bourgeois culture. "Good" architectural taste skipped over the 1800s.

Fresh eyes were clearly required. Fortunately a generation of young Americans, among them the Harvard professor Neil Levine, who more than anyone else wrote Labrouste back into architectural history, landed in Paris by the late 1960s. They recognized Labrouste as a provocateur and poet with a pen and pencil whose influence reverberated across the centuries.

The exhibition's arrival here seems almost uncanny in the midst of the debate over the renovation of Carrere and Hastings' New York Public Library building at 42nd Street, whose iron book stacks derive from Labrouste's. Library officials have proposed removing the historic stacks, which support the main reading room, and replacing them with a circulating branch to be designed by Norman Foster. The stacks, they say, are too dilapidated and unsuited to be modernized.

But Labrouste's even-older stacks at the Bibliotheque Nationale have been outfitted with modern climate controls and fireproofing and will be opened to the reading public. The exhibition's last room greets visitors with a large photomural of that space -- a pointed rebuke to those New York library officials who have not justified their scheme and might now want to investigate more closely what Paris is doing.

The MoMA show is organized, with obvious love, by Barry Bergdoll, the museum's chief curator of architecture, with Corinne Belier of the Cite de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine, where the exhibition started in October and ran until Jan. 12, and Marc Le Coeur of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. For Mr. Bergdoll, a scholar of 19th- century architecture, it renews the Modern's commitment, dating at least to its groundbreaking Beaux-Arts survey nearly 40 years ago, to explore the roots of Modernism.

There are wonderful touches. Mr. Bergdoll has commissioned drafting tables, fashioned after Labrouste's furniture designs at Sainte-Genevieve, on which drawings are displayed. They're ideal for studying works on paper. The architectural models constructed for the show could be a little more instructive, but it is hard to picture a finer selection of drawings. Those in the opening gallery, from Labrouste's time in Italy, are a reminder of what great draftsmanship used to look like.

I'm sorry we don't see more in the way of buildings aside from the libraries. Labrouste designed private residences in various traditional styles. The implication of their absence -- that, forced to earn a living, he took on conventional commissions -- would belie his reputation for intransigence. A sober and proud man, he bowed to nobody. "He had absolute integrity and devotion to his art," is how Mr. Levine phrased it. "He never did a thing he didn't want to do."

So what we get at MoMA is pretty much the Labrouste whom the critic Sigfried Giedion identified the better part of a century ago as a proto-modernist engineer-architect, a pioneer of iron construction. While that resonates, Labrouste seems at least as interesting today for the complexity of his thinking. In our era of starchitects he makes a case for his unwillingness to compromise, dedication to function, decorative originality and hybrid aesthetic, which married industry to classicism. …

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