• Henri Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, 1838-1850. Paris. View of the reading room.

    Credit: Michel Nguyen

    Henri Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, 1838-1850. Paris. View of the reading room.

Launch Slideshow

Henri Labrouste at MoMA

Henri Labrouste at MoMA

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    Georges Fessy

    Henri Labrouste, Bibliothèque nationale, 1854-1875. Paris. View of the reading room.

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    Georges Fessy

    Bibliothèque nationale, column and cupulas.

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    Georges Fessy

    Bibliothèque nationale.

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    Académie d’Architecture, Paris

    Henri Labrouste, Projet de concours pour la construction d’une prison centrale à Alessandria (Piémont), coupe perspective, 1839.

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    Académie d’Architecture

    Henri Labrouste, imaginary reconstruction of an ancient city, date unknown.

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    Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine, Centre d’archives d’architecture du XXe siècle

    Julien Guadet, New Central Post Office (today Central Post Office) of the rue du Louvre, 1880-1886. Paris.

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    Michel Nguyen

    Henri Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, 1838-1850. Paris. View of the reading room.

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    Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève

    Henri Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, plan du sous-sol, avec coupes, et détail de la première pierre, 1850.

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    Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève

    Henri Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, 1838-1850, southwest corner: elevation and section, 1850.

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    Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève

    Henri Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, coupe transversale sur la salle de lecture, 1850.

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    Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève

    Henri Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, étude pour les fermes en fonte du premier étage et le comble en fer, 1846.

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    Priscille Leroy

    Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, steel trusses of the reading room.

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    Académie d’Architecture

    Henri Labrouste, project for a cenotaph in memory of La Pérouse, 1829. Main elevation.

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    Académie d’Architecture

    Henri Labrouste, tomb of Caecilia Metella on the Appian Way, 1825-1830. Rome.

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    Académie d’Architecture

    Henri Labrouste, the Pantheon, capital and base of a column of the portico, 1825-1830. Rome.

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    Académie d’Architecture

    Henri Labrouste, Le Panthéon à Rome, élévation latérale du portique et profil d’un pilastre, 1825-1830. Rome.

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    Cliché Bibliothèque nationale de France

    Henri Labrouste, Etruscan tomb, known as delle Bighe, Corneto, 1829.

In a handsome cutaway reconstruction model that is one of the exhibit's centerpieces, those stacks appear startlingly contemporary: six dense stories of shelves poised on a seemingly lightweight metal superstructure, accessed by meshlike metal grille walkways, skylit from above like a great 19th-century train station by vast glass panels. As revealed in the model's cutaway, those stacks could easily be taken for a contemporary addition by the likes of, say, SANAA or SHoP.

And yet this isn't—entirely—a story of decorated stage and functional backstage: Labrouste left the proto-Miesian metal-and-glass box of those stacks clearly visible through a giant arch (framed by caryatids, no less) opening into the reading room, which also featured thin iron columns, albeit with vaguely Corinthian capitals. If successive generations of historians sought to align Labrouste to either modern or postmodern, to the avant-garde or historicist, Labrouste's juxtapositions present a complexity in which there is, at least for him, no contradiction: steel cylinder and stone caryatid, together in startling immediacy.

For Gideon and his contemporaries, these juxtapositions were an expression of Labrouste's heroism, his romantic and prophetic status as a designer ahead of his times. But the current exhibit tells a richer and more subtle story, situating Labrouste among a constellation of contemporaries at work on similar encounters between historical formalisms and emergent technologies. While Labrouste established a radical adjacency between classically formalist masonry and proto-modernist metal and glass, his contemporary Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879) attempted an awkwardly sincere structural and formal integration of iron and stone in a kind of idiosyncratic neo-gothic—most famously in his much-published 1864 project for a vaulted assembly hall with iron vaults and masonry infill. Peers and pupils of both men, such as Anatole de Baudot (1834–1915), with his church of Saint-Jean-de-Montmartre in Paris, developed their research toward innovative applications of steel and reinforced concrete, and attempts at a formal rationalism expressive of those innovations. One could draw a credible line through this work into the designs and desires of Auguste Perret (1974–1954), and the subsequent work of Perret's star employee, Le Corbusier. 

But if this elegant, erudite show situates Labrouste into a great sweep of architectural history, whose remarkable social and political reversals (from republic to kingdom to empire and back) were reflected in his polyvalent work (especially in unbuilt projects for emerging social institutions such as prisons and clinics), it also establishes a more intimate view. A long corridor back to that library model is lined by the laborious analytical drawings and preparatory sketches that Labrouste produced in Rome in the 1820s. And, in the shadow of that entrance arch, a case featuring all the well-worn tools—triangles, leadholders, erasers, quills, plumb bobs, sketchbooks—used to make them. The tools look alive and, especially in today's industrial-artisanal age, completely modern, and like the silk Prix de Rome laurel wreath next to them, like all the work nearby, are ever new, ever strange, ever green.