Mark Lamster | Essays

Inventing the Modern Library

With the future of the New York Public Library the subject of so much public contention, there could not be a better time for MoMA's new exhibition on Henri Labrouste, the 19th-century French architect who invented the modern library as we know it. His two great projects — he built little else — are a pair of touchstone Parisian libraries, the Bibliotheque St. Genevieve and the Bibliotheque Nationale, that remain landmarks for their inventive structure, functional planning, and edifying design.

As curator Barry Bergdoll notes, Labrouste (1801-1875) worked through a period of extraordinary political and technological transformation. His were the first truly public libraries on a grand scale; that status reflecting the shift in power dynamics in Republican France. (The Bibliotheque Nationale was actually first conceived as the Royal library.) Architectural historians know him best for his introduction of iron work, heretofore the province of industrial typologies, as a design element in works of grand public architecture. His application of new iron technology allowed him to create broad, limpid spaces that would not otherwise have been possible. Their detailing, as the drawings and models in the show demonstrate, was extraordinary. 

Labrouste was a draftsman of exceptional — mindboggling, really — ability. Today, the large-scale beaux-arts drawings of the type presented in this show are a thing completely of the past. Labrouste used them to chart the future. A pivotal moment in his life came during his travels through Italy as a winner of the Prix de Rome. In 1824, while visiting the three temples of Paestum, he came to see architecture as a discipline in the grip of perpetual development. This was a dramatic challenge to conventional wisdom, which then posited Classical architecture as an ideal frozen in time. 

This philosophy, of an architecture of great generosity that constantly pushes technological boundaries, is just the kind of thinking we need today, especially as we reinvent libraries for a future that is as exciting as it is uncertain.


Posted in: Architecture, History

Comments [11]

Yes, though I believe the "great generosity" we need at this moment is a much broader question than architecture alone can answer.

And, to the degree that we throw valuable capital resources into constructing overwrought physical spaces instead of changing copyrights and improving broadband access such that almost any volume one could want could be borrowed electronically, architecture is in fact a problem.

Its not clear when (5 years? 10? 20?) but it will soon be the case that our present attachment to material methods of data transmission (books, LPs, CDs, DVDs, celluloid film, what have you) will be a memory for only those of a certain age, while the youngsters will view these trinkets as moth-eaten nostalgia at best, and at worst relics of a time of god-forsaken damage to the environment akin to cars with tailfins and 3,000sf ranch homes.

None of which is to say we should dispense with the beautiful libraries and books that are still with us, but to simply note they are dead as a form of mass consumption (as public libraries were expressly created to be) and that we'd better get on with a means of literary engagement that can compete with streaming netflix or we will have failed to prepare for the coming generation.
Mr. Downer

Grand, ennobling architecture is the best way to keep a library relevant and in use today.
Mike Lowe

Thanks for the comments. I just wanted to note that even as the way we consume information is changing, the library remains a vital typology, and for a variety of reasons, some shifting and others constant. I wrote about this at some length here:


Mark Lamster

I'd like to comment about the choice of the library vs. google books or digital libraries. Here is a prime case of our societies movement from architecture to the computer... but what is lost when we abandon the 3D for the 2D screen? The reality is that I bookmark pages on google books but I can't say I've ever sat down and read anything longer then a few pages there. A library is built for slower contemplation, whereas our society now is moving towards the quick, shallow.
Another thing to think of: many libraries in the US where built during the 60s, a hit or miss time for architecture. Seems like much of their lasting success is due to quality of space.


Also, Labrouste exhibition is okay, but along with the Le Corbusier expo it would seem like the architecture department at the MoMA is getting pretty stale.


I agree with Pablo and Mark, their comments are true to reality where Mr. Downer is just that "a Downer." To bad these comments are so droll and lack any factual basis as the facts by the ALA are that library use is up. Ironically "More Americans than ever turn to their libraries for access to essential technology services, with 62 percent of libraries reporting that they are the only provider of free computer and Internet access in their community." (ALA research) So to use the web folks need to find a library, oh my. Space affects perception and grand spaces reveal transcendent thoughts and little perspective can be found hiding in an office or reading two pages on "Google ad words" and thinking you know something.
Ryan Thuftedal AIA

I do love books, and very much appreciate ennobling architecture, but the recent spasm of opulent libraries (think moshe safdie & crew) smacks of so many baroque houses of burlesque just as movies arrived, or the grand passenger train sheds of the 1930s just as they all went bankrupt, or any other moment in time when the rationale for the space was dying and, in an effort to hang onto the past, vast sums were spent in a losing game - for every Grand Central, there are hundreds, thousands of Detroits across the country, crumbling witness to an infrastructure abandoned by technological change (for better or, for far worse...).

The point here is to question the project of providing grand spaces for the collection of books vs. other ways we might choose to educate the masses of citizens who do not have the capacity or wherewithal to pursue a literary culture on their own.

And if we want to call a collection of publicly accessible internet browsers a library, ok, but that is, to my view, a different project, and one that should be, in fairness, presented with a new taxonomy. To my mind, its akin to a room full of phone booths in an age when people of all incomes carry cell phones - there may be value in it for some people, but what is the larger point?

And, yes, it IS a downer, and hell, its why I live in NYC. And, yes, despite having a couple thousand printed books in my own library, I find, if I'm honest, I now do almost all of my reading on a screen - don't you?

Mr. Downer

If I were only so lucky to have a Moshe Safdie library. Or a Labrouste one.

I believe the stat about 62% of people using libraries for internet. My local library is mostly poorer people using the computers to look for jobs, which scares away most of the other people who look down on them. Not saying i'm complaining--just an effect of bringing in computers.



You wrote, "This was a dramatic challenge to conventional wisdom, which then posited Classical architecture as an ideal frozen in time."

I've seen the same idea in other reviews of the show, so I'm guessing Barry said something like this in the show. Do you know the specifics? Are you specifically talking about that particular time in French architecture?

I know a lot about the later history of the Ecole des Beaux Arts and the philosophies of its American graduates. They were not interested in "an ideal frozen in time." Neither were earlier Classicists in the Baroque, Rococo and Mannerist periods, or amateur but important architects like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

I've also studied the architectural coding of Paris, which went through different phases. I'm interested in what made the Labrouste's time freeze.

Ste. Genevieve is a great building.

john massengale

i am perhaps (well, definitely) oversimplifying Bergdoll's argument, which in any case you can investigate fully in his essay "labrouste and italy," in the catalog, which is a must.
Mark Lamster

Libraries don't just hold books, they hold archives as well. And the drawings collected in the Bibliotheque Ste.-Genevieve are not to be believed! Dating from 1846, all-cotton rag paper, immaculate, fresh, breathtaking. Mr. Labrouste was very fortunate to have designed the building into which he stashed his working drawings, which are indescribably beautiful. His journal of the construction of the building reveals his immaculate penmanship (not an inkblot to be found), his Prix de Rome drawings are incredibly compelling (Etruscan tomb paintings rendered in minute and spectacular detail...he must have had three bristles in some of those brushes!). This show reveals the meeting place between the 19th century and the challenges we face today in shaping a meaningful environment. SEE THIS SHOW FOR YOURSELF! You will be astonished and delighted.
Russell Flinchum

Jobs | July 15