Labrouste Brought to Light
by Michael J. Crosbie
Henri Labrouste is not exactly a household name, even in most architects' households. But an exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art through June 24 should help change that.
The French architect (1801-1875) was educated at the French Academy in Rome, trained in classical architecture, and spent his early career in Paris designing public spectacles, such as the return of Napoleon's ashes to the capital in 1841. Labrouste even designed a tomb for Bonaparte's remains.
The first part of this exhibit, Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light — curated by MoMA's architecture and design curator Barry Bergdoll; Corinne Bélier, chief curator of the Cité de l'architecture & du patrimoine; and Marc Le Coeur, art historian at the Bibliothèque nationale de France — displays the talents that made Labrouste piviotal to the changes in architecture in the latter half of the 19th century.
The young architecture student's exquisite drawings are humbling to us today, particularly as products of the rudimentary drafting tools on display. The exhibit allows one to look closely at Labrouste's drawings of extant monuments, such as Rome's Pantheon, which reveal his attention to detail and a visceral sense of architecture's fabric.
The pen and ink and wash drawings, along the with his tiny pencil sketches, show an architect fascinated with the stuff of which architecture is made.
The bulk of the exhibit is dedicated to Labrouste's two crowning achievements: the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (1838—50) and the Bibliothèque nationale de France (1859—75), both in Paris.
Sainte-Geneviève is the more austere of the two, while the nationale is richer in its three-dimensional expression and decoration. Architectural historians such as Siegfried Gideon have lauded Labrouste as a precursor of Modern architecture, and Sainte-Geneviève has an abstract quality.
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