By Michael Webb
The Museum of Modern Art in New York was the first to embrace architecture as an art, and the exhibition Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light, is the latest in an 80-year succession of landmark exhibitions. It’s the first solo show in the US to celebrate the genius of a 19th-century French architect who created two extraordinary libraries in Paris: the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (1838-50) and the reading room of the Bibliothèque Nationale. Their soaring, light-filled volumes, daring structure and rich ornament, were a major influence on several generations of architects, and they still inspire awe—notably in a memorable scene from Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. That clip is shown in 3D, alongside the exquisite drawings that Labrouste created during his years at the French Academy in Rome and his long practice. They alone are reason to fly to New York: Masterpieces of draftsmanship that chart a decisive shift from classicism to modernism. The lightness of the roof vault and the slender cast-iron columns belong to a different word than the stone monuments of Greece and Rome. Strip the surface ornament and these reading rooms are models of functional engineering along with the great train sheds and the Eiffel Tower, Oddly, Labrouste (1801-75) seems to have realized no other buildings of note, but these two ensure his immortality.