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Who was Henri Labrouste and, why is he famous?


Itika Atri, Falak Vora, Garima Agarwal, History of Modernism, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, History, Modernism, Modernist, Modern, Movement, Zeyka, Zeyka India

A provocateur and poet with a pen and pencil, Henri Labrouste's influence reverberated across centuries. He entered the world of architecture as a young student at the École des Beaux-Arts. France then had undergone the revolution. This led to seminal changes and uprising in belief, practice, and society. So, while the world was changing, there is an important question that remains to be asked,

What was so unconventional about Labrouste that warrants an entire article to himself in the narrative of Modernism?

Itika Atri, Falak Vora, Garima Agarwal, History of Modernism, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, History, Modernism, Modernist, Modern, Movement, Zeyka, Zeyka India

Until now, we have been looking at the social and political climate of the past. We explored the influences that shaped architecture and traced the rise and fall of movements like Baroque and Neoclassicism. Later, we found ourselves at a threshold so seemingly removed from what we know of Modernism that it is difficult to weave the two together. With Schinkel, rationalist thought entered the architectural discourse. But the question remains unanswered.

How did we cross the chasm between monumental Neoclassicism and functionalist Modernism?

This is where Labrouste finds himself positioned in architectural history today.

With Labrouste, we trace the evolution of architecture through his libraries. We see the emergence of not just modern thought but that of an iconic praxis.

In fact, "form follows function," a quote attributed to American architect Louis Sullivan (who also spent 1875 in Paris). However, it is derivative of Labrouste and his pedagogy. He said, "Form in architecture must always be fit to the function it will serve."

But before we get ahead of ourselves, first, a little more about Henri Labrouste?

A student at École des Beaux-Arts, Labrouste won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1824. This scholarship sent students to Rome to research the antiquity of Greek Architecture for five years.

Two significant developments took place during Labrouste's time at Villa Medici.


Itika Atri, Falak Vora, Garima Agarwal, History of Modernism, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, History, Modernism, Modernist, Modern, Movement, Zeyka, Zeyka India

The first was his exploration into a notion of architecture as an expression of social meaning. He started looking at buildings, not as static, isolated structures. He rather saw them as layers of history superimposed on an evolving society. Perhaps, this is where his strong inclination towards utopian ideas of social movements evolved. These ideals were functionalist and rooted in relativism and progress. However, they were respectful of the symbolic nature of public architecture. The drawings of his famous libraries reflect his affinity towards understanding the evolution of forms. Then, there is his understanding of changing materials and construction methods. These shaped his designs greatly. This is constant in the sensitive use of iron in the structural elements of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. Bibliothèque Nationale's roof, too, is made with nine decorated metal domes on slender cast-iron columns. Both of these are evidence of his expertise and evolving thought process.

Itika Atri, Falak Vora, Garima Agarwal, History of Modernism, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, History, Modernism, Modernist, Modern, Movement, Zeyka, Zeyka India

The second was his explosive study on the restoration of the Greek temples of Paestum. In the Neo-Classical quest to trace the origins of architecture, these temples were seen as its beginning. 'Discovered' in the 1800s, they gained importance in the thought about origins and 'true' ideas of Beauty. There were many contradictory opinions about the restoration of these temples. Amongst them, Labrouste's ideas were nothing short of revolutionary. The reason was his empirical archaeological research. The findings of which led him to conclude that classical Beauty was part of an adaptive process. Until then, Beauty had been considered a static quality. In fact, imitation of antiquity was believed to be as close to perfection as one could get in primitivism. But Labrouste's beliefs shook this ideology and proposed another one. He argued that if Beauty was dynamic, then it made sense that it lay not in the duplication of a style. Still, the rational development of it was to suit the present social and technological context.

A 27-year-old refuting the whole perception of primitivism. And instead, suggesting artistic flexibility in the achievement of perfection? It was controversial, to say the least.

The result was a bold innovation that finds its expression through a classical culture. It promoted an emerging new thought, not by discarding the old but by adapting it to new needs.

Building on this idea, Labrouste went back to France and began experimenting with new materials. He started teaching these emerging technologies and the evolution of design, all according to its functionality. Thus, his architectural expression was 'space' and not form. The style of construction was rethought for the age of iron, accommodating technological advancements like mechanical heating & electrical lighting. He prepared for a new social order after the French Revolution. (As in Public buildings were a thing)

Itika Atri, Falak Vora, Garima Agarwal, History of Modernism, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, History, Modernism, Modernist, Modern, Movement, Zeyka, Zeyka India

Two of his most revered projects are the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève and an expansion to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Both are considered the touchstones for modern libraries. In fact, the elements became associated with libraries- the reading rooms with high vaulted ceilings, almost cavernous sanctuaries. What is truly genius is in his ability to perceive space as transformable.

Barry Bergdoll, MoMA's chief curator of architecture and design, sums it up best-

"It's not that he invented the library, but he was the first person to think [of] what happens when you open the doors of the library to the public–how to create a place that's large and open but where you can go and concentrate and be by yourself."

This timeless quality is a result of functionality built with the understanding of the ties between architecture and the shared social values. He did not transform moulding iron to a definitive form. Instead, he reconsidered the structure and ornamentation of the building altogether. Large metal frameworks were developed, made of parts proportional to their roles. This individualisation of elements greatly furthered the critical debate around construction technologies. And both his libraries became catalysts to this. Yes, these two structures are remarkable achievements and brought him great recognition. Yet, the primary focus remains - creating a knowledge centre—the generation of a space that allows for individual study in a group setting. Humans Juxtaposing the monumental scale, in turn, shaped the perception of space.

His were not just new buildings- instead, it was a new practice of building.

As an architect, he is famous for his 'invention' of modern libraries; as an engineer, for his iron frame construction. But, both of these were just tangible design manifestations of a rationalist culture that would allow for a new thought. And to credit him for just the elements produced from this rationalist thought- that would be a great dishonour.



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About the Writer

Garima Agarwal is an architect, writer, photographer and researcher. A graduate from the School of Planning and Architecture Bhopal, her praxis is situated at the intersection of space and experience. Gender studies, Sustainability and Art form the tangents along which her architectural thought progresses.


About the Editor

Falak Vora is an architect, architectural historian, writer and essayist. She is a graduate of the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London (UCL), UK and Sarvajanik College of Engineering and Technology (VNSGU), Surat. She has experience working at Aangan Architects, Eternity Architects, Wall Space Architects, Studio i!, Guallart Architects and The Universidad Politécnica de Cartagena (UPCT).


About the Illustrator

Itika Atri is an undergraduate architecture student at the Deenbandhu Chhotu Ram University of Science and Technology (DCRUST), Murthal (Sonepat). She is a writer, illustrator and graphic designer. She has experience working as an Architectural Journalism Intern at Rethinking The Future (RTF).

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