SAH News



Joanna Merwood Salisbury reviews Bergdoll's Labrouste Exhibition At MoMA

by Joanna Merwood Salisbury | Jun 07, 2013

The name Labrouste is synonymous with two libraries in Paris, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (1850) and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (1868), both of which feature astonishing reading rooms created by the unprecedented meeting of an elegant cast-iron structure with an austere neo-classical masonry envelope. The current Museum of Modern Art exhibition, Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light, offers detailed and original analysis of these two libraries, as well as fascinating material related to the architect’s lesser-known works, most of which were never built. Organized in association with the Bibliothèque Nationale and originally mounted last year at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris, the show is presented in New York by MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design under the direction of Barry Bergdoll. As with all of Bergdoll’s exhibitions, it is grounded in the highest level of scholarship, but is also accessible to non-specialists, allowing us to see material we thought we knew in an entirely new light.

The initial question of appropriateness (is a show of architectural works dating back to the 1820s and 30s really “modern”?) is convincingly answered. The curators argue that the work of this nineteenth-century French master was a direct response to modern times, in particular his redefinition of the library as a form of democratic public space. The show promises and delivers an image of Labrouste as an “avant-garde” architect, a contemporary of Eugène Delacroix and Victor Hugo, “committed to experimentation and the creation of new forms for art in response to new social, economic, and cultural conditions.” In this regard, it makes a provocative pairing with the exhibition 9 + 1 Ways of Being Political: 50 Years of Political Stances in Architecture and Urban Design in an adjacent gallery, which features neo-avant-garde works from the European revolutionary moment of the late 1960s and early 70s.

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