“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 the 19th century, the Bibliothèque Ste.-Geneviève and the Bibliothèque Nationale, miracles of stone, iron and glass construction. I found it instructive to hear a historian, in a video accompanying the show, recall growing up like most French intellectuals during the 1950s and ’60s 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, had landed in Paris by the late ’60s. These Americans recognized Labrouste as a provocateur and poet with a pen and pencil whose influence reverberated across the centuries.
The exhibition’s arrival seems almost uncanny in the midst of the debate over the renovation of Carrère and Hastings’ New York Public Library building at 42nd Street, whose iron book stacks derive from Labrouste’s. Library officials have proposed removing those 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 Bibliothèque Nationale have recently 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 haven’t adequately 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, along with Corinne Bélier of the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine and Marc Le Coeur of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, where the exhibition started. For Mr. Bergdoll, a scholar of 19th-century architecture, it renews the Modern’s commitment, dating back 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 Ste.-Geneviève, 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’s 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 in a recent conversation. “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 an instructive case for his unwillingness to compromise, his dedication to function, his decorative originality and his unorthodox hybrid aesthetic, which married industry to classicism.
Dominique Perrault, the designer of France’s new, little-loved national library in eastern Paris, calls him a “conceptual” architect, “furiously contemporary.” With the Ste.-Geneviève library, he notes, Labrouste hewed to a strategy “of outside and inside, of roof, and of light” that redefined essential parts of a building. In the strict separation between the library’s severe stone facade and its airy, light-filled reading room, Mr. Perrault sees an “absolutely radical” mentality.
It’s a compelling thought. The gravity of Ste.-Geneviève’s exterior, as Mr. Levine has pointed out, comes from the minimalism of its design: unbroken ledges run the length of the long facade at the cornice and between the two floors, with simple stone garlands seemingly strung from the lower ledge over iron roundels, or knobs. Unadorned arched windows make the only breaks in the wall along the ground floor, save for the front door.
The facade’s upper story, predicting the architecture of the reading room that it encloses, presents a shallow arcade of arches containing a grid of plaques inscribed with the names of 810 writers. They are listed in rows beneath the large lunette windows, the reading room’s clerestories. Like those among the garlands below, the roundels in the spandrels between the windows are bolts and tie rods for the floor trusses and the vaults of the iron structure inside. Labrouste, in effect, makes the structural skeleton of the building its decorative motif, inside and out.
You could say the library facade acts as a billboard whose embellishments announce the building’s content and material construction: a “decorated shed,” as Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown defined those sign-covered casinos along the strip in Las Vegas, which flipped the bird at conventional high taste.
At the same time Labrouste was reinventing civic space as a citizens’ palace where people could read and meet. He spent a dozen years, from 1838 to 1850, cooking up the language. In lieu of the frescoes and biblical scenes fashioned in stained glass or carved into statues and column capitals that dominated public architecture he used books and iron as decorative instruments.
Achille Hermant, a young French architect, spoke for many others when he found the results cold. “The character of a building is not measured only by the use for which it is intended,” he wrote. “Everything that is true is not necessarily beautiful.”
That is true. But the place is beautiful. Its long double bay — divided by a central row of slender iron columns that sprout from stone pillars, with bookshelves all around — feels austere and mysterious. The approach involves a procession, from the square outside through the downstairs vestibule, its ceiling painted sky blue, faux Pompeiian landscapes on the walls and a grid of square stone piers supporting iron arches that anticipate what’s above. Then comes the reading room, as exalted and democratic as the city’s then-new train stations, but reticent, hushed.
After Ste.-Geneviève, Labrouste labored for the last 21 years of his life on the Bibliothèque Nationale, its square reading room a light-bathed hive of nine domes hovering atop a forest of 33-foot-high thin iron columns. Where windows don’t pierce the upper walls, painted landscapes elaborate on the pastoral theme, with the iron vault of the book stacks, also skylighted, visible to readers through a tall glass wall and separated by a monumental archway.
Labrouste dedicated most of his working life, on a government wage, to works of public architecture. He transcended materials to arrive at functional buildings of an ethereal delicacy. Nothing was too small for his attention. After 12 years Ste.-Geneviève came in under budget. Labrouste told the minister in charge the news and won permission to switch out the cast-iron front door for a bronze one. A perfectionist to the last.