French architect Henri Labrouste (1801–1875) may not be an instantly recognizable name, yet he is one of the most influential precursors of modern architecture. Most well known for two luminous library reading rooms built in Paris in the 1800s, the Bibliothèque nationale de France (1838–50) and the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (1859–75), Labrouste has been long admired by both modernists and postmodernists for his innovative embrace of then-new technologies, like cast iron and gas lighting.
For the first time ever in the United States, and the first in nearly 40 years worldwide, an exhibition devoted entirely to Labrouste is currently on view at MoMA through June 24. The cover of the accompanying catalogue—the result of four years of research and collaboration between MoMA, the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France—features an interior shot of the domed roof of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The image captures what it must feel like to stand underneath one of Labrouste’s greatest achievements, taking in the exquisite geometry of the glass skylights that diffuse natural sunlight onto lustrous ceramic panels, slender iron columns, and the library patrons below.
Labrouste once remarked that architecture was a marriage of “precision and liberty,” and his work is often as poetic as it is rational. As the exhibition curators explain in the introduction to the catalogue, “Labrouste created a very personal architectural language and means of conception, combining a deeply classical culture and sentiment with a strong inclination for boldness and innovation.” Indeed, his architecture maintains a timeless aesthetic while embracing new materials and technologies. An example of this approach can be seen in the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, perhaps recognizable to some moviegoers as the fictional Film Academy Library in Martin Scorcese’s 2011 film Hugo. Labrouste experimented with indoor gas lighting in the archetypal library setting of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève.
The catalogue is richly illustrated with intricately detailed drawings and watercolors that showcase Labrouste’s technical expertise as a draftsman and his sublime imagination, along with documentary photographs that transport readers to historical spaces as well as those designed by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Pier Luigi Nervi that demonstrate Labrouste’s influence. Essays by a range of international scholars explore various aspects of the architect’s career, including his relationship to materials, his departure from received ideas, his desire to use architecture as a catalyst for the betterment of society, and much more.