Labrouste’s Libraries: Impact & Transformation

Henri Labrouste. Bibliothèque nationale, Paris. 1854–75. View of the reading room. © Georges Fessy

Fostering the tradition

Focusing on the innovative Bibliothèque Nationale and Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève, MoMA exhibition looks at what Labrouste did to become the architect he was. The exhibition clearly shows how he was responding to the institutional needs of architecture rather than pursuing a noble one.

In the timeline and works of Labrouste, it is possible to see this approach fostered when he experienced a controversy against Beaux-Arts by opening a new perspective to the past architecture at Paestum -in his fourth-year final graduation project.

He was a romantic architect who focused on the history, ideas, and context. Although he got very familiar with the neo-classical style in his studies in Italy, he did not take them directly, yet he developed his own ideas without any direct repetition of the formal shapes. He focused on understanding the spatial characteristics and the meaning of the past and thus combining his background of classical tradition with the industrial modernism of the 19th century -where stylistic debates were performed under the roof of industrialization and capitalism- rather than phenomena of form. However, he did not use the industrial materials and systems in a utilitarian manner, but in a more artistic manner which helped him use the structural system as a part of the aesthetic of his building as well as an integral part of the urban life of the city.

Worldwide impact

Labrouste’s thoughts and creations transformed the architectural debate and practice of their day. His main influence was on French architecture; however, his impact was not limited to the borders of his own culture. He influenced many discussions on form, material, and culture. Even his libraries influenced Boston Public Library by Mckim and Mead&White. These architects took Labrouste’s approach of “speaking” and “timeless” architecture where he emphasizes the names of authors whose books are located inside the library on the façade of Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève.

Bibliothèque Nationale interior(1), Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève interior(2)

“Structure Brought to Light”

Moreover, his innovative and clever use of new materials transformed the vision of architecture. He had met with cast iron while he designed cast iron lightnings as the architect of Napoleon in Paris. Even in these designs in small scale, it was obvious that he was aware of the material and context of the city. He was quite eager to use the iron in his buildings, too. He used a hybrid structure of steel and stone in his libraries. However, he used it in a heterogeneous way so to keep the identities of the material. He used the iron as a structural system very elegantly inside and partially showed its existence on the façade, so used the structural system as an elegant tool for façade decoration. Especially on the very modest and volumetric façade of Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, the structural system is not explicit on the façade, yet it feels its existence inside delightfully.

“Light Brought to Structure”

Labrouste implemented gas lightning in the library composition in a very artistic and senseful manner, as well. By this implementation, the libraries could be open till night. In Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, the use of the light creates quite a warm interior in contrast to the attracting dome. In Bibliothèque Nationale, on the other hand, we see a play of light created by oculus-like openings on top which increases the comfort of readers. This play of light even emphasizes the material quality of very thin columns of iron inside the library.

An obliged end

To come to an end, it is essential to state that Labrouste was an artist-architect who reinterpreted his precedents under the light of 19th century by introducing innovative hybrid structures and materials. He transformed his environment as well as the architects all over the world. And there is no doubt that his influence is kept alive via discussions, debates and exhibitions like of MoMa.


- A Poetry Grounded in Gravity and Air (2013). Retrieved 9 April 2021, from

- Armstrong, Christopher D. “Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light”, Journal of Architectural Education, Volume 67, 2013 — Issue 2, pp.328–330.

- Brownlee, David B. “Review: Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light”, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 72 №4, December 2013, pp.601–603.

- Merwood-Salisbury, J. “Exhibition: ‘Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light’”, The Journal of Architecture, Volume 19, 2014 — Issue 1, pp.156–159.

- Levine, Neil, (eds.) Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light. MOMA, 2013.

- Peter Clericuzio, exhibition review of “Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 12, no. 2 (Autumn 2013)



ODTÜ // Instagram: @meltemsahin11 @oncekahvem

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