More Elusive Than Words: Ambiguity of Meaning through Precision of Form in Henri Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève

The discussion of Labrouste’s first major architectural commission in the years following its construction up till now can be neatly divided into two camps: the first is the modernist appropriation, epitomized by Sigfried Giedion’s celebration of Labrouste as the proto-Modern champion of rational functionalism. In this narrative, Labrouste rebels against the dogmatic doctrines of the École des Beaux Arts and makes “the first attempt to use cast- and wrought-iron construction in an important public building”.[1] The second comprises a whole host of more recent (or “postmodern”[2]) criticism that seeks to “go beyond” Giedion’s analysis to analyze the ways in which the library is anti-positivistic, or at least supremely romantic. This band is led by Neil Levine, and is specifically guided by his detailed (to the point that it becomes too strained) linking of the building to Victor Hugo’s thoughts on architecture as expressed in the 19th century bestselling novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, a book whose very protagonist is architecture. This body of analysis focuses not on the slender iron columns of the library’s reading room but instead on such things as the text on the building’s façade, the creation of an ambulatory promenade through the painted vestibule, and the choice and positioning of symbolic paintings and busts. They argue, generally speaking, that Labrouste has acknowledged the death of architecture as announced by Hugo. In this narrative, the building succumbs to the power of the book, taking on the very characteristics of the books it holds.

Figure 1
Hugo’s proclamation is simple: “Let there be no mistake, architecture is dead, dead beyond recall, killed by the printed book.”[3] He is drawn to the gothic (“accessible to every soul…as easily understood as nature”[4]) but views Renaissance as the beginning of architecture’s decline (“opaque”, “profane”, “murky books that initiates alone can decipher”[5]). Architecture, once primary expression of human artistic will, is now “dethroned”, and reduced to the status of just one among many arts.[6] According to Hugo, architecture is merely durable but the book, owing to its ability to be mechanically reproduced, is immortal.[7] Whereas a building makes thought substantial by giving it physical form, he argues, the book is fleeting: “in its printed form, thought is volatile, elusive…words are not things…. Henceforth the elusive will reign supreme.”[8]

It is at this point that I tear myself away from the seductive words of Victor Hugo to think about the immensity of his claim, through the lens of Antoine Picon’s course on 19th century architecture, and through the lens of the rest of my architectural education. I am reminded that, after all, the book is fiction and its power lies in its ability to summon all the techniques and traditions of the literary discipline to produce a magical effect that captivates the reader. Hugo’s claim, however dramatic and compelling at first, is flawed. Sure the book is elusive in its physical form and sure its reproducibility ensures its durability or even immortality. When it comes to meaning, however, the book is rigid. Hugo’s words have definite meaning and his claims are unequivocal and explicit. They are set in stone and, once read, are dead. The language of the building is more complex and more volatile. It is read differently by different people, and it is interpreted differently over time. The substance of built form holds volatile and fleeting meaning and is therefore perhaps the only medium that can reconcile the Classical, the Romantic, and the Modern. In Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, architecture stands its ground. It does so not by mimicking books but by drawing on a tradition of architectural language and employing the techniques and language of the architectural discipline in a sophisticated manner. Because it is conceived rigorously first as architecture, the building is able to take on other literary associations that romantic writers such as Levine and Grignon would like it to possess. Because its built form is exquisite and orderly, the mysterious and magical narratives that many construct within it are made possible.

I will argue this claim not by attempting to align Labrouste with any specific architectural style, but instead by establishing that his work on the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève draws heavily from his earlier study of the Greek temples at Paestum, original publication of which I was able to find in the GSD’s Loeb Library. I will compare his documentation of the temples along with his proposed restoration design proposal with his sketches, plans and sectional elevations for the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. I will thus establish that the success of the Bibliothèque is a result of a thorough understanding of, but not excessive reverence for, architecture’s history. This historical understanding, coupled with his skill as an excellent student of the Beaux Arts School, I argue, was ideal in conceiving a building that is rooted in Classical tradition, that embraces new building materials in a forward-looking manner, and that still leaves room for the magic of romanticism to take place within its walls. Hopefully I will prove my conviction that the too literal readings of the building by Levine and others, and of architecture as a whole by Victor Hugo, are limited and that architecture, in fact, is not dead.

My comparison of Labrouste’s Paestum Restoration project[9] is not comprehensive; it selectively addresses three specific links between the historical analysis of the temples at Paestum and the creative work that went into the production of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (henceforth referred to as Ste-Geneviève).

1.     Restraint and order:

The first point of comparison stems from the idea of restraint and order, seen both in the organization of the temples Labrouste studied and in his plans for Ste-Geneviève. Figure 1 shows the plan for the Temple de Neptune, which is also known as the Temple of Hera II. A regular Peristyle colonnade of Doric columns exists on a rectangular Stylobate. Walls enclose a Cella, inside of which two lines of columns run longitudinally, leaving a corridor in between. This gives the temple a longitudinal axis, and creates a centralized space of occupation within the temple. The even number of columns on the short ends of the temple, along with the porch and twin inner columns, reinforce this longitudinal axis and welcome the visitor to a central destination. The temple has a regular grid of squares organizing its spatial composition. This fine grid of compositional order is seen clearly in the plans of Ste-Geneviève (Figure 2, 3). It is also seen as a central organizational device in early sketches done by Labrouste for Ste-Geneviève (Figures 4, 5), where a rectangular plan holds a modular grid in tight composition.

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5
The Temple of Hera I, referred to by Labrouste as Paestum-Portique (Figure 6), is even more strikingly similar to Ste-Geneviève. In it, the number of columns on the ends of the rectangular plan is odd (nine), which means that there is a column in the exact center of the short façade. This placement of columns denies the visitor a grand, central entry. The number of columns on the long facades is even, which means one could enter the building on a short central axis through the long façade. The building’s orientation, like that of Ste-Geneviève, rotates 90˚, so one now enters on the long façade into what, in Ste-Geneviève, is a small vestibule with two long wings on either side. This reading is compromised by Labrouste’s addition of long walls reiterating the longitudinal axis in his restoration plan for Hera I, but my analysis does not claim a direct or intentional transposition of ideas between the two buildings. Its goal is to merely point out some parallels.

Figure 6
In the same plan (Figure 6), we note that the Cella has a singular line of columns running along its central longitudinal axis. This again denies the visitor a central destination inside the building, and sets up an endless ambulatory promenade that we find also in the reading room of Ste-Geneviève:

Split into two in its most fundamental aspects, with a double nave, and two very different materials (stone/iron), the reading room is an oblong hall in which every position is hopelessly ‘in between’, as in a frontier space. The central colonnade, together with the iron vaulting, traces a compelling giratory movement within the stable mass of stone, with books occupying the central spine as well as the whole perimeter.[10]

These fundamental devices of spatial organization create a space that is rich and diverse in its possible interpretations. Bressani and Grignon go on to describe how this endless circular movement is related to the patient student’s endless quest for knowledge. The decision to organize the library in a calibrated, Classical order produces for Labrouste countless opportunities to maximize its architectural effect through the subsequent placement in its space of such things as gas lighting and a replica of Raphael’s paitning of the School of Athens.

2.     Contrast

My argument is not that Labrouste employed the architecture of the temples at Paestum in his project for Ste-Geneviève. In fact, his work at Paestum was not of passive copying; his interpretation of what he found there is original and refreshing. He engages with Greek architecture critically and using the most contemporary means of representation. For example, the interior sectional perspectives reveal the space of the Temple of Hera I (Figures 7, 8) like no other drawing had previously done. In them we see the ambulatory passage of the viewer from exterior into the portico, and from there into the small porch, followed by a long interior room. This modulation of spatial scale is one of two kinds of contrasts evident both in the Paestum project and in Ste-Geneviève. We see it in the sectional perspectives for Ste-Geneviève, drawn in exactly the same style of representation (Figures 9, 10). We note in Figure 9 that the entrance leads the visitor into a low vestibule of heavy Doric columns, with a grand stair at its end. The stair is a space of further compression that leads, dramatically, to the large double-height space of the reading room above, where the ceiling seems to be floating over a flood of light, supported by slender wrought-iron columns.

Figure 7

Figure 8

Figure 9
The second articulation of the architectural concept of contrast occurs on a much more intricate scale and at the level of building material. The annotation on the sketch in Figure 11 clearly expresses this intention for a stark material contrast: it occurs right next to a detail of a steel column rising from the capital of a masonry column, and it reads “…dorics en plein comme contraste au….” Labrouste highlights the intricate detail and strength of steel against the massive gravitas of the stone, accentuating the drama of both materials. This unusual placement of a smaller column over a larger one to create a taller, lighter space above can be seen in the Temple of Hera I in figures 7 and 8.

Figure 10

Figure 11
Architectural contrast, both in the scale and quality of space, and in the way it accentuates physical material, is different from literary contrast. It is simply there, open to interpretation and operative throughout its history. Its frozen, physical form comes alive with meaning for every new interpretation drawn from it. Hugo’s use of contrast in his novels, for example when he praises the gothic and derides the Classical, has a fixed meaning and is therefore static. It leaves no room, for example, for Manfredo Tafuri’s later discourse on the originality and relevance of the Renaissance. Architectural contrast, therefore, is another way in which the building is able to sustain multiple readings in a way the book cannot.

3.     Tectonic relationship of parts to whole

For this third and last comparison between Labrouste’s study of the temples at Paestum and his design for Ste-Geneviève, I would like to point out the attention to tectonic detail – to how small parts fit together to give form to a cohesive, unified whole – seen in Figures 11B, 12 and 13. At Paestum we see Labrouste’s obsession to document everything from the smallest of moldings, triglyphs, and metopes, to the largest of architectural problems, such as how, when it is all put together, the building will elegantly turn the corner. This obsession to create a cohesive architecture is similar to the creation of a unified plot with believable characters in a novel. It is less relevant what the characters do so long as they are articulated with a clear intent and in the most skillful way. Architecture too draws from its own disciplinary body of knowledge – and not from literature – to produce buildings that exhibit a clear intent. It is on this abstract level, rather than on the level of literally speaking to the people, that we can establish a more rigorous link between the book and the building. And here too the building stands its ground.

Figure 11b

Figure 12

Figure 13
In Labrouste’s drawings, we see a most exquisite articulation of how parts come together in Ste-Geneviève. Figure 14 shows how all the elements align in perfect harmony to create a pleasing unity composed of contrasting parts: the bookshelves, the lamp posts, the mullions of the windows, and the pilasters on the wall all line up perfectly. This is reminiscent of the drawings of Paestum where, similarly, each and every part of the temples fits into a cohesive whole.

Figure 14

Figure 15
Figure 15 is perhaps the most astounding image of all, and the final image I will use to bolster my claim that the architectural concerns – in this case the tectonic detailing of the steel columns – and not literary ones give the building an integrity that allows for multiple readings. By making the form definite, Labrouste frees its meaning and is able to make it volatile and alive. In Figure 15 we see the detailing of the structural steel arches down to the very fasteners, nuts and bolts. They dance around the page in a poetic way and tell the story of how they will fall into place. Boileau writes in his Histoire critique about the “length of the system of iron construction that sustained those vaults that had no outward thrust – they were no more than curved ceilings, as it were. The stasis of the system was what he admired.”[11] This structural elegance is comparable to the gothic but the regularity and clarity with which it is employed is very Classical indeed. This is the kind of architectural clarity that enables a literary ambiguity about meaning; it makes architecture – in a different way than the book – truly immortal.


Bressani, Martin, and Marc Grignon. 2005. Henri labrouste and the lure of the real: Romanticism, rationalism and the bibliothèque sainte-geneviève. Art History 28 (5) (11): 712-51.
Drexler, Arthur, Richard Chafee, des beaux École nationale supérieure, and Modern Art Museum of. 1977. The architecture of the école des beaux-arts. New York :Cambridge, Mass.: Museum of Modern Art ;distributed by MIT Press.
Giedion, S. (S. 1967. Space, time and architecture : The growth of a new tradition. Charles eliot norton lectures ; 1938-1939. Vol. 1938-1939. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Hugo, Victor, 1802-1885. 1939. The hunchback of notre-dame. New York: Dodd, Mead.
Labrouste, Henri, 1801-1875. 1884. Les temples de paestum. restauration exécutée en 1829. Restauration des monuments antiques par les architectes... de l'académie de france à rome ; livr. 3. Vol. livr. 3. Paris,: Firmin-Didot et cie.
Leniaud, Jean-Michel. 2002. Des palais pour les livres : Labrouste, sainte-geneviève et les bibliothèques. Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose :Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève.
Levine, Neil, 1941-. 1975. Architectural reasoning in the age of positivism : The neo-grec idea of henri labrouste's bibliothèque sainte-geneviève. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms.
———. The romantic idea of architectural legibility : Henri labrouste and the neo-grec.
Middleton, Robin. 1982. The beaux-arts and nineteenth-century french architecture. 1st MIT Press ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
———. 1999. The iron structure of the bibliothèque sainte-geneviève as the basis of a civic décor. AA Files(40) (Winter): 33-52.
Van Zanten, David, 1943-. 1987. Designing paris : The architecture of duban, labrouste, duc, and vaudoyer. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Vidler, Anthony. 1993. Books in space: Tradition and transparency in the bibliothèque de france. Representations(42, Special Issue: Future Libraries) (Spring): pp. 115-134.

[1] Giedion, S., 1967. Space, time and architecture : The growth of a new tradition. Charles eliot norton lectures ; 1938-1939. Vol. 1938-1939. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 220.
[2] Bressani, Martin, and Marc Grignon. 2005. Henri labrouste and the lure of the real: Romanticism, rationalism and the bibliothèque sainte-geneviève. Art History 28 (5) (11), 713.
[3] Levine, Neil, “The book and the building: Hugo’s theory of Architecture and Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève” in: Middleton, Robin. 1982. The beaux-arts and nineteenth-century french architecture. 1st MIT Press ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press,  152.
[4] ———, 150
[5] ———, 150
[6] ———, 150
[7] ———, 151
[8] ———, 151
[9] Labrouste, Henri, 1801-1875. 1884. Les temples de paestum. restauration exécutée en 1829. Restauration des monuments antiques par les architectes... de l'académie de france à rome ; livr. 3. Vol. livr. 3. Paris,: Firmin-Didot et cie. Images attached at the end of this paper.
[10] Bressani, Martin, and Marc Grignon. 2005. Henri labrouste and the lure of the real: Romanticism, rationalism and the bibliothèque sainte-geneviève. Art History 28 (5) (11): 744.
[11] Middleton, Robin. 1999. The iron structure of the bibliothèque sainte-geneviève as the basis of a civic décor. AA Files(40) (Winter): 34.


The 25 Gates of Harvard Yard

This Christmas, I walked along the fence that surrounds Harvard Yard and photographed each gate. All except two were locked. And though an ID is no longer required for entrance to the Yard, security guards still maintain their stations. They are ominous, defiant against the icy winds of Boston, keeping watch twenty-four hours a day.

Harvard Yard has remained locked and open only to those with a Harvard ID since the Occupy Harvard protesters pitched their tents in front of John Harvard's statue on November 9th, 2011. Recently, after an agreement with the University, the "Occupiers" removed all tents and only the geodesic dome (supplied by MIT students) remains. As a result of the agreement, Harvard has opened the Yard to the public during the day time.

You can view all images on my Flickr account.


Thoughts on the GSD

I have thus far been supremely critical of the GSD. I want to share this now to express that I have missed the school very much this summer and I'm looking forward to being back. It started off as a capricious reply to an email but ended with quite a nice note, I think.

I'd love to hear about your experience at the GSD so far (though I know you're on a different track): do you think you picked the right program? Are you happy at the GSD? If you did, why did you choose the GSD over [the Princeton] SoA?

The Harvard Design School has been phenomenal. I think that in the quality of academic discourse with regard to the discipline of Architecture as well as the focus on thorough and comprehensive professional education that allows one to enter the profession, Harvard is by far the best school to study Architecture at graduate level. I did not attend Princeton because I went there for undergraduate and wanted to go somewhere different. Also I was not admitted because, according to rumors (and I always take rumors as seriously as facts), Princeton doesn't accept it's own undergrads unless they go out and get other experience first. I was applying in my senior year of college.

Am I happy? I don't believe that happiness is the ultimate goal in life; perhaps a feeling of fulfillment or the knowledge that something has been worth it is more important. Would we ever be able to appreciate the brilliance of the light in a Caravaggio painting without the equally dark shadows that accompany it? I have seen the strongest of people break down and cry at the GSD. I have also experienced some of the best parties and met some of the most genuinely kind, talented, and quirky people. It has been worth it.


The Last Horcrux

We may get the impression that the world around us is crumbling. There is an apocalyptic sense of shock and awe at the series of horrific events in the news. Organized religion likes this because in times of distress people turn to God. This is dangerous, however, as different groups turn to different Gods and find a kind of guidance that may lead to further war and xenophobia. The truth is the world has always been a brutal place: politicians have been corrupt, the economy has slumped, and even xenophobia, slavery, and genocide have occurred. If anything, things have been much worse in the past than they are now. We stand at the front-most brink of the entire history of everything that has ever existed: the present. As Gandalf would say, "all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."

Watching the last Harry Potter movie reminded me of the striking parallels between our world and the magical world of Hogwarts. The hero of the movie was Snape. The books in general and this last part in particular are so powerful because, while narrating an epic battle between good and evil, they constantly undermine this black-and-white construct of good vs. evil. The most loathsome character rises at the end to a position even more noble than Dumbledore! Others like Luna, Neville, Mrs. Weasley, even Mrs. Malfoy, and, of course, Harry all rise to break free of their already pretty thorough characterization. Ah! Beautiful. And it was so well-done. The first scene with Snape observing from the castle and the Gringotts roller-coaster scene were (dare I use the word!) beautiful.

Then there is the treatment of death, which a friend at OMA found ambiguous or not fully resolved: "Harry should have died." But Dumbledore himself speaks of the nebulous quality of death: "It’s the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more." It was important for Harry to not die and fulfill the prophecy, because an important idea in the series is that we can change what is "written" in our fate by making different decisions when faced with choices in life. That is why Harry tells his son at the end that the Sorting Hat takes your preference into account. Harry, by using the strength of his will and integrity, resists the darkness that is in him and that makes him the last horcrux. And so he is able to defeat Voldemort, both the real Tom Riddle and the part of Voldemort that is within himself.

The last scenes were cheesy and I didn't like seeing older versions of the characters. Perhaps it should have ended at the bridge after Harry destroys the Elder Wand. The movie, however, had to follow the books closely, so I suppose they really needed all those scenes. If you think about the whole thing as a cultural/political project, the tying up of all the knots in the end is important. If Harry had died, the message would be that we can do nothing to alter our fate. Also, in refusing to "sacrifice" Harry for the cause, and in giving him a real, physical, and mortal "happily ever after", Rowling breaks precedent with other heroic figures (such as Jesus). Interestingly, all ideas of an eternal life, and of sacrifice, repentance, and expiation, are ascribed to Voldemort and his servants, the Death Eaters (for example, when Wormtail sacrifices his arm to resurrect Voldemort in Goblet of Fire).

I must confess that, as naturally distressed and horrified as I was with the recent deaths in Norway, there was a strange sense of relief when I found that the killer was not a terrorist trained in my country, Pakistan, as so often has been the case. I feel a strange anguish and pain every time there is a terrorist attack. It is partly because I have been conditioned to feel this way by the visual and information culture of the United States, where I attend school, even though I know I am not personally responsible for these attacks. It's like having the last horcrux within your very being. The reason that J.K.Rowling's story is so relevant, however, is that it correctly points out that in order to coexist and flourish, we have to value people for who they are and what they do instead of judging them for where they came from or what they look like. It is a hopeful story and it is a story about resilience.



Below is my entry for the "Home-for-all" project initiated by Toyo Ito and other Japanese architects. The prompt was to design a 30-sq.-meter "living room" for people who have been displaced by the earthquake and tsunami, and who find little privacy in the relief camps that have been set up. Although the setting is specific in this case, the problem of emergency shelter is almost universal.

It is surprising that I was able to put together something while interning at OMA. And I suppose the low-tech aesthetic is something that is unavoidable, both because this design needs to be affordable, and because it was created on my computer here in the Rotterdam office, where asking dumb questions is sometimes the key to good design, according to Rienier de Graaf, head of AMO, in a recent interview.



In the aftermath of disaster and loss, we experience immaterial and effervescent ideals such as beauty, truth, and love more profoundly than before. This house is a container for these things, and a preserver of the inhabitant’s dignity.

It is fortunate that, owing to the spectacular contributions of contemporary Japanese architects, empty space now represents luxury. And yet, to be truly dignified, space needs to be carefully detailed and meticulously calibrated. Clutter diminishes spirituality. This house is an apparently empty room, 6.9m long and 4.3m wide. The space of the room is carefully divided, however, not by walls, but by reveals in the floor. This method of distinction provides a subtle hint about the various activities that can take place within each island, without dictating a permanent program. This gives the inhabitant a sense of openness and luxury even in a limited space.

Simple furniture and storage units can be arranged within the space of the room without looking cluttered or messy. Each island can be cleaned and arranged independently. By providing a sense of order within the space of the room, the architecture provides the inhabitant with privacy, freedom, and dignity. This architecture strives for a balance between mathematical, proportional order and a sense of free serendipity.

It aspires to give its inhabitants something more than shelter from the rain: as Le Corbusier said, “Space and light and order… are the things that [people] need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.”



Harvard was preceded by many what-ifs, possible paths that may have led me elsewhere. First, there was OMA. I would have started in the Rotterdam office in September 2010 on a six-month contract. If they liked me in those six months, I might get to work there for another year. Rotterdam to me has a poetic value. It is like being in Peter Berhens's atelier in the early 20th century (Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe both worked there...) or even in Bramante's studio in 15th century Rome or Florence. Next year I would reapply to graduate schools and would have a better chance of getting back into Princeton. I might have returned to that academic wonderland and might have been seduced by its poisonous fruit, staying on for a PhD, serving as resident grad student, writing a book, perhaps. Or I might have considered the AA, or stayed on at OMA, never needing a Masters degree. Or I might have been back in Karachi after my six-month internship.

Then there was my "internship" in Karachi. For two months that summer, I worked at one of the most prominent architecture firms of the country, Arshad Shahid Abdulla Architects. In Pakistani elite circles they are celebrities. I knew it would be tough and it was. It was a dream and it was a nightmare: here I was in my country serving the mission of the arts, giving physical form to my country's identity and culture, to fight off all that was bad and imperfect with thought-provoking, inspiring, uplifting work. Shahid sahab, the head architect of the firm asked me to join him for prayers one Friday. How could I say no to that? I know how to pray and we prayed among a big crowd out on the hot street because the mosque was full and the rows had spilled out, orderly, all facing the kaaba in Mecca. My mind wandered. Later he called me to his office and said I should stay at ASA instead of enrolling at Harvard. He said I did not need a Masters degree to build in Pakistan, and that I would be wasting my time and some of the most intense years of my life training for something that is best learned in the field. You will never regain the energy you have right now, he told me. He told me to reject Harvard's offer and that he would make me an architect at his firm. Architecture at ASA's world of gritty reality was rudimentary compared to the sophisticated software and building techniques I was familiar with. There were more material catalogs here and less conversation. People were getting the job done, building rich people's homes, all exquisite work, but it all looked the same. The same interior courtyard, the same water pond, the same ostentatious materials. They were doing only half of what I consider architecture is capable of doing. I look young and so people did not take me seriously. I needed to get out and return with my Masters degree.... Had I stayed I might have worked my way up the ladder at ASA over several years, working on real projects and seeing real buildings being built. It would always hurt me to know that the real buildings will never attain the perfection of the concept, the idea, but I would be achieving something spectacular. I would have ended the preparation phase of my life and started the serving phase. Yet I decided to stay in school. I decided to start at Harvard in Fall 2010.


From my wonderful entryway of Harvard freshmen

Is Palladio, then, more Greek than Roman?

Andrea Palladio, Villa Capra, Vicenza, 1566-1571

The non-linear connections between ideas in architectural history and theory that we have seen last semester and in Erika’s more recent discussion of Tafuri return when Etlin draws a convincing connection between Greek architecture, as epitomized by the Parthenon but as exemplified also by the 19th century discovery of the Temple at Paestum by Labrouste, and Le Corbusier.

Etlin describes Viollet-le-Duc’s euphoric discovery of Greek architectural merit. Whereas early in his career he had only advocated for the study of Roman precedents, Viollet-le-Duc later embraces the Greek which aligned more closely with his and French Hellenists’ idea that “everything in architecture had to be submitted to reason, ‘not to the dry and pedantic reason of the geometrician, but rather to reason guided by the senses and by the observation of natural laws” (271).

Greek architecture was already known to be strictly mathematical, but the Hellenists now discovered that it was also more attuned to the landscape and more sensitive to aesthetic concerns than Roman architecture was: it “[reflected] an indissoluble union between reason and poetry, with the most exacting application of reason being employed to create the most beautiful example of poetry in architectural art” (268). This discovery redeems architecture as both an art and as a serious calibrated discipline invested in solving pragmatic problems such as that of spatial configuration and circulation.

It is not surprising that this idea appealed to Le Corbusier who was a painter by day and an architect / architectural theorist by night. He was invested in both the poetry of such things as the ribbon window and in architecture’s role in mediating society and literally solving its problems: the last chapter of Vers une Architecture is titled “Architecture or Revolution”.

And so, I would argue, was Palladio. Although there is no real evidence of Palladio’s architecture as being in some way intentionally poetic or political (perhaps Tafuri has written about it, I don’t know), Colin Rowe has drawn a clear formal connection between the ratios of mathematical order in Palladio and in Le Corbusier. Palladio’s Villa Capra is decidedly more Greek than Roman because it was rotated 45 degrees to the cardinal points on the compass. Although many write that this was done so that sunlight could better reach all the rooms, the Villa Capra is situated on a hill and I would argue that, like the Parthenon, the rotation gives it an oblique view and access. It is therefore able to combine the effects of Roman frontality and the Greek relation to the landscape and approach. And it is through looking at Choissy’s work and that of Le Corbusier (and Etlin) that we are able to draw this very striking and non-chronological connection between Capra and the Parthenon.

Would you agree with Higgonet that, “in trying to solve [old problems, Haussmann may have] instead helped to render them insoluble”?

Gustave Caillebotte, Le Pont de l’Europe, 1876

Haussmann’s grand “restoration” of Paris gave birth to the modern-day banlieue as the site to which many Parisians (mostly from the working class) were forced to relocate.

Victor Hugo evokes the pre-1860 faubourg as the limit of the city of Paris, beyond which even the barefooted gamin (street urchin) will not go:
They can no more escape from the Parisian atmosphere than fish can escape from the water. For them, nothing exists two leagues beyond the barriers: Ivry, Gentilly, Arcueil, Belleville, Aubervilliers, Menilmontant, Choisy-le-Roi, Billancourt, Meudon, Issy, Vanves, Sevres, Puteaux, Neuilly, Gennevilliers, Colombes, Romainville, Chatou, Asnieres, Bougival, Nanterre, Enghien, Noisy-le-Sec, Nogent, Gournay, Drancy, Gonesse; the universe ends there. (Les Miserables)
After 1860, the old faubourg is annexed and everything outside of the new boundary of Paris is dead. People forced to relocate there are like fish thrown out of the water. Relocating to the banlieue is more shameful than moving up the floors (and down the social ladder) in pre-Haussmannian Paris. It represents a stepping down on the grand escalier of social class. The city center gains an unprecedented importance and the post-1860 banlieue becomes even more of a space with a secondary status. This increases people’s feeling of loss: there is an intensified feeling of belonging to and nostalgia of the urban entity that is Paris.

Paris, too, loses something essential. Higgonet writes about the “mixing rather than the separation of people of different conditions” in old Paris: “‘Unique city,’ Louis-Sébastien Mercier exclaimed in his Tableau de Paris, ‘in which a simple dividing wall finds a pious choir of devout and austere Carmelites living on one side and wild and libertine scenes of a joyous seraglio on the other.’” This richness and serendipity is no longer to be found in the new Paris of straight lines.

While the destroyed homes of many Parisians in the city-center were permanent and invested spaces, the banlieue is an open, neutral space. It lacks the dense architecture of the city that acts as an anchor and foil for social traditions and provides a sense of shared history. The banlieue forces the inhabitant to relocate constantly and is marked by a sense of placelessness. This helplessness can be seen in the representations by Honoré Daumier (below) and other artists at the time, in some more obvious than in others. The worker whose home Paris once used to be is now seen in Caillebotte’s painting (above) wistfully gazing out at a city which he can no longer call home, and from where, even today, each day, he takes the RER train out to the banlieue.

Honoré Daumier, “Haussmann”

Honoré Daumier, “Locataires et propriétaires obligés de déménager pour cause d'expropriation” 
(“Tenants and owners have to move due to expropriation”)

Would you agree that architecture does both things?

Map of the British Empire, 1886
Engels was graphically describing the slums of industrial cities; only two years had elapsed since the second great cholera epidemic; Chadwick’s and his Commissioners’ unprecedented and terrifying Report on public health was only nine years old; and Dickens was starting to address the conflict between human nature and the industrial city. Clearly the machine was in urgent need of defence for too much was at stake. (Markus 227)
Markus does not even come close to the horrific social implications of a building such as the Crystal Palace. I cannot think of the Crystal Palace without feeling disgusted about the almost 200 years of British colonial rule over the place I was born in. Long before the British “Raj” was officially established in India in 1858, the British East India Company, a trading group, had established a hold there, served over the years as mercenaries for Princes as part of a “divide and rule” scheme, beheaded the last Mughal emperor’s sons and exiled him to Burma, and taken possession of very cultural products that were displayed at the Crystal Palace. The building was a symbol in built form of the power of the empire on which “the sun never set”. The British gave India colonial architecture and “clubs” (which still exist today for the elite) that at the time had signs that said “No dogs or Indians allowed”. The very architecture was employed to enclose, limit, exclude, and subdue. But in response to the mutiny in 1857, the British made their telegraph and rail systems better. Modernity came to India.

As far as the Crystal Palace is concerned I am ambivalent. I think that this change in architecture can be viewed as a positive sign. Both the railway lines of India and the architecture of the Crystal Palace signify a shift in the tide. By their very nature, these products of industry enable mobility and transparency. They are inclusive and empowering. They invite the street urchin of London and the token Indian and the Queen all into the same repetitive/democratic space.

Architecture has the ability to straddle politics. Meant for one purpose, it can activate another at the same time. This gives architects a lot of agency. While fulfilling the demands of the patron, the architect can create a space that serves a larger constituency and that addresses the concerns of a marginalized people. I am not saying that Paxton intended this—intention is not necessary for architecture to operate like this. But isn’t it interesting that he was a mere “gardener boy”?


Should we strive for an awareness of the past or its imitation?

Bauakademie, Berlin, Karl Schinkel, 1836 and Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Renzo Piano & Richard Rogers, 1977

Alex Potts describes Schinkel’s approach to history and interest in the “continued development of mankind” as being reminiscent of Hegel’s. Schinkel believed that “perfection in architecture could not be limited to the particular forms of architecture evolved by one nation but rather that ‘the perfection of architecture as a whole may well be precipitated in the endless succession of time’” (51). According to this understanding of history, therefore, good architecture is necessarily different from its precedents. It engages them by being different. It internalizes history and expresses its respect for history by departing from a tedious repetition of its forms. An imitation, said Schinkel, “marked the end of history, rather than a proper awareness of the historical past” (51). He was more interested in advancing history by “introducing in some way an extra, a new element, into the world” (51).

The Centre Pompidou does this very effectively. It uses new materials and a new language to evoke proportions reminiscent of a Greek temple façade, or perhaps Schinkel’s own Bauakademie. Both buildings are to a certain extent “dishonest” because they use a tectonic language that differs from the materials they employ: the Bauakademie uses masonry in the style of industrial materials, and the Centre Pompidou exaggerates its technological expression.

Supposing we accept Schinkel’s idea of history (which, by the way, is very similar to Venturi’s idea of an awareness of historical context), how far does a building need to go before it has stopped engaging with history, and who decides?

Consider the following building by Zaha Hadid Architects. Does its fragmented interior not evoke Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie? Does the lighting not remind you of Le Corbusier’s Ferminy Church?


Berlin Philharmonie, Hans Scharoun, 1960-63, and Ferminy Church, Le Corbusier, 1971-2006

Can we categorize the Beaux Arts tradition as a period of decline in architecture?

“‘If you want my advice, Peter,’ he said at last, ‘you've made a mistake already. By asking me. By asking anyone. Never ask people. Not about your work. Don't you know what you want? How can you stand it, not to know?’”

This is Howard Roark’s response to Peter Keating in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, when asked whether Keating should accept a scholarship to the prominent Ecole des Beaux Arts.

It seems that Roark shares the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan’s frustration with the Beaux Arts school, which he attended only for a year, hoping to study Michelangelo and the Renaissance. Sullivan was interested in the spirit of creation rather than replication. The Beaux Arts school was the wrong place for this quest.
The ateliers, portfolios, and “problem-solving” of the Beaux Arts School mark a period of decline in Architecture. The idea of decline is linked to transition, and has as its characteristics doubt, crisis, paranoia, a loss of authorship, and an unoriginal repetition and combination of what has already been canonized.

Durand’s introduction helps to illustrate this argument that the Beaux Arts School was unoriginal and, as Antoine keeps repeating, “boring”. Beatriz Colomina spoke today in Sanford Kwinter’s class and she said that architects work in many mediums. She said the building is just one of those mediums, even though to the lay person it may appear to be the only medium. The Renaissance architects understood the importance of the representation of an architectural idea, both in drawings and in built form. So did the Modernists.

Durand has forgotten it. He is clearly only interested in building. He recycles Vitruvius and, with an air of great authority, sets out to describe what is “dangerous” and “strictly forbidden”: representation and decoration. He is interested in the basic demands of a building: cost, use-value, and a “composition” of “elements”. He praises only Palladio but we must remember that Palladio’s work would have been impossible without the likes of Brunelleschi and Michelangelo.

How could Durand appreciate Architecture’s symbolic value? He was at the top of a very hierarchal institution and there was nothing to react against; architecture’s role was reduced to reaffirming and reiterating the status quo.

He says architecture should not “please” and that “imitation is not a means proper to architecture”. But that is exactly what he is doing by reducing architecture to a set of rules and regulations. Just like Philip Johnson and others killed Modernism by declaring it the International Style (Eric Owen Moss said this in the winter 2011 issue of Log), the Beaux Arts kills everything before it by over-canonizing it and reducing it to a set of rules (right and wrong) that students must follow.


I include the image of Labrouste’s library’s interior (conspicuously missing from Antoine Picon's lecture slides!) to point out that there is a positive. The Beaux Arts school was so archaic that it produced reactions from people like Labrouste and Sullivan (and Roark). It created the conditions for the Modernists to declare a revolution in the way we think about architecture—which was of course much needed!

If Palladio’s desire for an order based on mathematical proportions is expressed best in plan and if a similar desire in Le Corbusier’s work is expressed most prominently on the façade, then how can we think of a mathematical proportions as an ordering system in our contemporary (cultural and technological) context?

Both Palladio and Le Corbusier present structural reasons for a mathematical spatial order in their architecture: “Solid wall structures, Palladio declares, demand absolute symmetry; a frame building, Le Corbusier announces, requires a free arrangement” (6). Rowe rightly questions this as the only reason for applying mathematical proportions to architectural design.

He instead focuses on the respective structural systems’ ability to allow for and deny certain applications of a mathematical ordering system: “If Le Corbusier’s façades are for him the primary demonstrations of the virtues of a mathematical discipline, with Palladio it would seem that the ultimate proof of his theory lies in his plans” (9). Both structure and the need for using “‘customary’ materials” restrain Palladio’s most precise mathematical proportions to the plan but allow him to express variation in what Rowe calls a “free section” (11).

Rowe calls this a “freedom” that the horizontal floor planes and horizontal roof at Garches do not allow (11). I would question that and propose that each system (Palladio’s orderly plans and free section, and Le Corbusier’s orderly façade and free plan) comes with its own set of freedoms provided by structural constraints and cultural “customary” desires. In fact, Le Corbusier’s architecture is an advancement of the idea because his column grid does imply a mathematical order in plan as well as in the facade.

Given all this and considering OMA’s library project (shown above) where there are neither load-bearing walls nor horizontal floor plates, we have arrived at a new level of “freedom”. If mathematical order does represent a “natural beauty” (2) (and I believe it does) how do we employ mathematics to bring order to a complex system like OMA’s library?

James Ackerman and the Villa Savoye

Ackerman refers to the ideology/myth of the villa as “a concept or myth so firmly rooted in the unconscious that it is held as an incontrovertible truth.” For Marxists, he says, this kind of ideology is a “means by which the dominant class reinforces and justifies the social and economic structure and its privileged position within it while obscuring its motivation from itself and others”.

The Villa Savoye does not reinforce the power and wealth of the rich but challenges or radically repositions it. The house is neither integrated with nature nor placed on a podium to symbolize stability and power. It is lifted off the ground on piloti, and it floats in the air like a sailing ship. Its ties to the land it sits on are questioned. The land it takes up is reproduced atop its flat roof. The horizontal window abstracts the landscape: instead of providing a continued picture frame from land to horizon to sky, it reveals a widescreen slit of the distant horizon. It uses industrial material, and the only forms of luxury its ascetic lifestyle contains are bread, milk, fish, etc. There is still a servant’s lodge and there is still the eternal program that intends to facilitate “enjoyment and relaxation”. But the Villa Savoye is made not just for its patron. It serves to advance a political and cultural idea through architecture and thus to impact society as well as the client who pays for it.

Tafuri's Construction of Impossible Alliances

Manfredo Tafuri narrates a theatrical story of the Renaissance, a story of grandeur, power and intrigue in which architecture is implicated as a key protagonist. He employs formal analysis to explain how architecture plays a role in creating what Peter Burke described as a “theater-state” (102). After the execution of Girolamo Savonarola in 1498, the Medici began to carefully construct a new beginning for Florence, equipped with money and connections but with little tangible power. It was important to construct an image of power, clemency, and hope.

Architecture is systematically employed to create temporary (as in the celebrations of 1513) and permanent structures that reiterate a myth until it becomes reality. This new reality articulates a resolution of two opposing ideas: (1) religious devotion (and Savonarola’s more extreme ascetic version of this) and (2) a loyalty to the progress of the state and to the ideals of secular (and what Ruskin would call pagan and sinful) humanism.

Only in the grand and permanent forms of architecture can such a complex new reality be constructed. Architecture is the setting of this theater against which the drama unfolds. To a large extent, argues Tafuri, the Medici were successful:
No other prophets emerged to proclaim Florence the center of a new Golden Age. The Medici were victorious. They understood quite clearly the visions of religious renovation were intimately connected with dreams of civil liberty…. With unbending determination the Medici eradicated, in the decades that followed, the myth of Savonarola, offering in its place a new ‘Florentine idea.’ (154)
Of course, Leo X’s efforts to construct an idea of state and religion as one and the same culminated in his infamous sale of indulgences that elicited the Protestant Reformation, but not before it had achieved the creation of St. Peter’s. This, along with other Medici projects, left, or had the potential to leave “a lasting imprint on the collective imagination” (154).

Tafuri offers as a result an enormously positive and idealistic view of Architecture’s ability to shape politics and history, and to realize impossible social alliances, alliances that cannot be envisioned in our world unless an architectural intervention reforms the very backdrop against which we play out our daily lives.

It makes me think of Israel and Palestine.

A New Age

In the chapter “Seeing Through Paper” of The Projective Cast, Robin Evans argues that “buildings… are mightily influenced by [the means of their production].” He gives a fascinating account of how architects designed buildings in the Classical period (base line, center line, processional axis, and so forth) and he claims that the Classical order was a “tendency, not an imperative”. In other words, buildings were orthogonal, symmetrical, planar, frontal, and axial because those were the characteristics that the means of their design facilitated. To design otherwise would be impractical and probably not even possible.

Today, we attend tedious conferences on computational design where the eternal dilemma is to figure out whether we are in the information age and, if yes, how to we deal with it as architects. The advent of three-dimensional computer modeling—in the design process more than merely as a representational device—has taken architecture to a whole new level. If Modernism was an ideological revolution in architecture (in which projective drawing remained the means of design and representation) then where we are now –let us call it the information age—is even more radical. This is because it comes with a cultural/ideological as well as a technological shift.

The technological part is obvious. The ideological shift is hard to pin down because its defining feature is dispersion. If Modernism was about industrialization and mass production and categorizing and labeling, this, here, now is about infinite variability. No one person can proclaim an International Style because we no longer live in a colonial world. We embrace cultural diversity and everyone has a voice, on mass media and on the internet. This is also manifest in an infinitely variable architectural expression, and in an architecture that is highly attuned to its geographical/environmental and cultural/political context.

There is no question about it. People will talk about the 2010s in the same way we talk about the Modernisms of the 1920s.


We More Than Build

Spring 2011 Core Studio
Instructor: Cameron Wu
Studio Coordinator: Inge Rocker
Thank you: Andy Chen, Isaac Smith


Quixotic Ambitions

[This is an account of my thesis writing process at Princeton. It was recently published in Princeton University's annual publication called The Thesis: Quintessentially Princeton]
During my Princeton career, I visited Paris three times. In the summer following my sophomore year, I explored the city with a sketchbook as part of a project funded by the Martin A. Dale ’53 Summer Award. The next summer, I interned at a Parisian architecture firm. Finally, in the winter of my senior year, I visited Paris for thesis research. 
I began to read the city like a text. When re-read, the story of Paris was dissonant. I was struck by stark changes in the landscape as I took the RER train beyond the ring road that surrounds the small city. The dense Baroque façades gave way to scaleless block housing projects situated in empty space, with names such as Les 3000s. There live the poor and immigrant populations of Paris. Every night, they return to its desolation when the city is no longer open to them. And in 2005, the Paris banlieues—outlying towns—burst into violent riots. The rest of the country followed suit.
French social housing has quixotic ambition. Its architecture is idealistic because it seeks to house and “integrate” outsiders. In its successes and failures, it augurs the direction of social housing projects around the world. This is why Paris was a good case study: The volatile nature of the social fabric in this great metropolis was troubling and worth investigating. I visited Clichy-sous-bois, where the riots had begun, and Drancy, the site of a Nazi camp for Jewish prisoners taken to Auschwitz during the Second World War. The housing projects there are now homes for immigrants mostly from former French colonies in North Africa. 
My thesis argued that architecture can mediate the urban and social fabric of the Parisbanlieue. I wanted to take a long-range view and put these peripheral spaces of exclusion in the context of Paris’s social and urban history. As an example, in 1923, the great Modernist architect Le Corbusier predicted that mass-produced architecture would stave off revolution: “The various classes of workers in society to-day no longer have dwellings adapted to their needs. … It is a question of building which is at the root of the social unrest of to-day; architecture or revolution.” Today, the mass-produced house—which he described as “a machine for living in”—has become a machine for social unrest and revolution. Architects have repeatedly introduced formulaic interventions in existing projects but have failed to curtail rising social dissent. It is more valuable, I argued, to study the banlieue architecture in relation to its urban context and to situate it within the longue durée of Paris’s social and political history. My first three chapters identified a challenge and set up a model for what is demanded of low-cost housing architecture. My final chapter analyzed a range of projects to identify specific ways in which architecture had achieved these goals. In other words, I argued that architects should learn from the successes and failures of the past.
At the beginning of the thesis process, I was paranoid. I had heard that the thesis is supposed to be the culmination of a student’s Princeton career. It had to be perfect—the best thing I had ever written. That was a paralyzing thought. To overcome this paralysis, I tried to focus instead on what made me study architecture in the first place: the notion that architecture as an art has the ability to give expression to emergent social and political ideas. It gives these ideas a tangible expression when they can find no other confirmation in reality and, by so doing, it can mediate society.
My thesis adviser was Professor Esther da Costa Meyer. Though she is in the art and archaeology department, I knew I wanted to ask her to advise me as far back as my sophomore year, when I took her class on modernism in architecture. Her lectures were spellbinding. Her enthusiasm for architecture was remarkable and contagious. The energy her lectures exuded inspired me to study architecture and to travel to places like the Dessau Bauhaus and the Athenian Acropolis. Later, I took her seminar on 19th-century Paris, which gave me a strong background for my thesis project. Her thorough critiques and insights helped me to find a specific direction and enabled me to have faith in my own abilities. 
Professors in the architecture department inspired me as well. Professor M. Christine Boyer, who graciously accepted my request to serve as my second reader, taught a class on cities of the 21st century. The class gave me an appreciation of the challenges that we as architects have a responsibility to address in our work. I took a seminar with Professor Edward Eigen on architectural theory, which introduced juniors to the joy of learning for learning’s sake. In his class, I could afford to indulge in deep study without looking for catch-all solutions for the world’s problems. This allowed me to situate my work within the context of the field of architecture.
I began writing early. By the winter of senior year, I had 20 pages of coherent text, and pages and pages of related ideas. Those 20 pages were probably the best-written part of my thesis. They also allowed me to step back, reflect, and return to it regularly. But the winter was a time of stasis. While wandering Paris’s narrow streets and over hot dark chocolate crêpes at the Beaubourg, I discussed my thesis with Andy Chen ’09, who visited the city with me. Over the course of those weeks, I realized that explaining my thesis to someone outside the discipline actually helped me understand it better. I returned to Princeton revitalized, but still unsure of how to proceed. After much consternation, I realized that my thesis was essentially four 20-page papers that were coherently linked, and that each of these constituted a chapter. This was a great relief.
The weeks flew by. I was running out of time. I tackled this by working every night. Some nights, I would just do more research or write a preface. I would walk down Nassau Street or McCosh Walk muttering details to myself. I would put chapters in my adviser’s box and would get them back promptly with detailed notes. I could tell that she was genuinely interested in my work. Professor da Costa Meyer was critical, and her questions were challenging. She appreciated my interest in historicity and wanted me to develop the work on 19th century and early 20th century further. But I wanted to press ahead and look at recent developments: After all, my starting point was the rioting of 2005. 
We ultimately agreed that it was important to connect theory and history with architectural practice in a way that would address both academic and pragmatic concerns. So I left the computer cluster and buried myself in architectural journals from the decade leading up to the winter of 2005. I was astonished and happy to see how Michel de Certeau’s theories of the individual’s agency in designed space began to manifest themselves in the technical drawings from the projects I uncovered. I also included a film from 2008 (Entre les murs) to the two canonical mid-century films I already was analyzing. All this added a new dimension to my work, which answered Professor Jeffrey Kipnis’s question about my earlier research: So what?
If I could give one piece of advice to a future thesis writer, it would be this: The thesis is an opportunity to live the experience of your academic work, obsess over it, and make it the focus of your life. You will think about it in the shower and in that nebulous zone between sleep and waking. You will begin to see all kinds of connections and leads from the unlikeliest sources. In the last few weeks of writing my thesis, I realized that I needed an example of successful early modern social housing architecture outside of the trodden path. On a whim, I took New Jersey Transit to visit the Avery Library at Columbia University. I was surprised to find that they had a whole collection on Sadrach Woods, an American student of Le Corbusier, who also had built in thebanlieues
As an architecture student, I was allowed to design the layout and cover of my thesis. I spent the last few days making sure that the tone of the typography and the starkness of the cover reiterated my message. Finally, it was done. After a year of research and contemplation, months of obsession, weeks of painful writing, and several nights without sleep, three copies of the book arrived from Allegra Print (freshly baked) at 2:30 p.m. on Monday, April 12, 2010.