Recently I visited MoMA to see the “Henry Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light” show. Labrouste, an architect, combined innovative construction methods with a creative vision to develop iconic nineteenth-century structures. His inventive contributions, best exemplified by the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, continue to influence architects to this day.
The show is divided into three sections. The first covers Labrouste’s early career when, as a young architectural student, he challenged the accepted understanding of how and when ancient architectural styles developed. Today this would be standard fare but when Labrouste developed his thesis, this was an audacious path to take. This formative moment laid the groundwork for Labrouste’s lifelong interest in understanding how ancient and existing architectural styles could be evolved into new styles rather than simply combining known and accepted forms.
The second section covers Labrouste’s mature work, focusing primarily on his two masterworks, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève and the Bibliothèque nationale. His design innovations are explored (cast iron, skylights, gas lighting, fire safety) as is his philosophy for how architecture could help to heal and restore society. He explored this through his work on hospitals, orphanages and libraries.
Nineteenth-century libraries, previously the private domain of aristocracy, came to be seen as democratic institutions for education and betterment of the public. This thinking reflected the social changes brought by the industrial revolution, and Labrouste championed a new civic architecture for this new era. For example, as one of the only public buildings with gas lighting, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève was able to extend its hours into the evenings. This meant that members of the public could visit after their work hours were complete, and enabled students to further their studies by providing them with a safe, well-lit place to go in the evenings.
The final section of the show demonstrates the many ways that Labrouste’s work has continued to influence architecture, even now. This is illustrated through models, drawings, photographs and an informative interactive kiosk.
Bringing the exhibition to life
For non-architects, exhibitions about architecture can be difficult to understand. Architectural drawings are nice to look at, but understanding them requires practice and a mind that can work in three dimensions. In this show flat screens are wall mounted alongside LaBrouste’s drawings, and are used to interpret his thinking and his work in a more tangible way. An animation demonstrates the rationale behind his graduate thesis; elsewhere a short video shows what the inside of an original model building looks like. Videos run from overhead projectors, showing the interiors of the two libraries, and an interactive kiosk in the last room lets visitors explore and see for themselves the many ways LaBrouste influenced other architects and designers.
The design of the exhibition, a hallway and three rooms, uses the arched doorways found in Labrouste’s work and employs the reading room metaphor to great effect in the room devoted to Bibliothèque St Genevieve. In this room drawing are displayed on two long drafting tables. I appreciated how these table displays created a varied experience in my visit. The reading space was uncharacteristically generous; chairs were well-spaced and each reading station also had a table mounted flat screen running interviews with contemporary architects about Labrouste and his buildings. The videos were captioned so that even if someone was seated and listening already, other visitors could stand and follow along.
Room for improvement
It’s unfortunate that such an interesting show starts off so badly. The show starts in a vestibule, which serves as a passageway to and from at least two other shows. It feels like a train station at rush hour. I found it hard to concentrate on the introductory text and get into the “zone” of Labrouste. The entry leads into a cramped hallway covering the first section of the exhibit. When I exited the final room of the exhibit, I had to walk through four rooms of another exhibition to reach the same vestibule to properly leave the show. I don’t know much about MoMA’s space constraints (this controversy not withstanding) but this unfortunate footprint made it seem that this show was an afterthought; belatedly added to an already full exhibition roster.
Finally, while I enjoyed the drafting table display, it was sometimes difficult to read the white text against the wood surface due to reflective glare from the overhead lights. A matte finish would remedy this legibility issue.
While this show is no longer on view, the catalog is well worth browsing. Thanks to what I learned about Labrouste from both the show and catalogue, my interest is piqued and I plan to visit the Bibliothèque nationale next time I am in Paris.
This post is part of a series on the visitor experience in museums; read about it here.