SAH News

Barry Bergdoll: Inventing the Modern Library Exhibition

by Mark Lamster | Mar 08, 2013
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.

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