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.

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