Technically Speaking And Speaking Technically Cultural Studies Essay

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This paper examines Henri Labrouste's Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (1839-52), in terms which refuse to share commonality with its late 19th century archi-technical counterparts. Maintaining a theoretical proximity closer to the French Revolution than the Second Industrial Revolution, Labrouste's project is situated plainly within architecture's perpetual epistemological debate, as opposed to the engagement/rejection of technological issues which dominated architectural discourse in the second half of the nineteenth century. Labrouste's appeal to the rational - as opposed to the 'eternal truths' of the academy - is a rhetorical strategy developed to pry open a broader range of fictional possibilities for architecture. While imparting specific tendencies which would be taken up by the engineer's rationalism (engineer's aesthetic), of the later 19th century Labrouste's rationalism is more closely aligned with politics and the word, a paradigmatic model of the romantic search for truth.

Labrouste's architecture must be identified against a social and cultural interpretation of the early 19th century, rather than a technological one. Central to this claim is to understand the view of history which emerged in the early nineteenth century. Dependent on the acknowledgement of a rupture with continuous tradition forced by political and sociological developments, there surfaced a need, in the early 1800s, to obtain a meaning from an analysis of the past, rather than inheriting its meaning a priori. Therefore, historicism oscillated between a view of the past as a series of changes, a succession of styles which were the products of past ways of life and therefore outmoded, and the desire to find a cumulative meaning or law in this development of history. Thus, a series of recurrent oppositions emerged in critical theory, just as Labrouste is entering the academy: subject vs. object, analysis vs. synthesis, particular vs. general, art vs. science, and imagination vs. reason. In Labrouste's case, the conflict of archaeology vs. ideal began to divide his own architectural preoccupations from that of the École des Beaux-Arts, the architect's conferring institution.

Manifest in the architectural treatises of the eighteenth century, was a persistent fascination with the technical virtuosity of Gothic architecture. As Frampton in his discussion of the Greco-Gothic ideal says: "The problem was how to combine the Platonic formal order of antique classical architecture with the sublime spatial peristylar purity of the Gothic nave."1 All structural debate took place under the controlling agency of the French Academy2, a forum for theoretical speculation since its inception in the mid-seventeenth century. The agent of Labrouste's contention was part of the school's own educational apparatus. A competition system was organized in which a grand prize of four years' study in Rome was awarded to one student each year. The recipient during that time would undertake a study of antique models culminating in a restoration project and a fifth-year design that would exhibit all that had been learnt in Italy. The opportunity for archaeological study within the neo-classical curriculum, although initiated as an elaboration of the upheld ideal, actually furnished information for its analysis and criticism.

Labrouste won the Grand Prix in 1824. During his four years at the Temples of Paestum, he amassed enough archaeological evidence to convince himself that the immobile vision of the classical ideal was untenable. He informed the École of his findings:

"Labrouste proposed that the Greek architects had built the temple in response to local conditions, and not as an exemplification of the universal principles of architecture….The provincial Greek examples, Labrouste argued, were more informative because they shared a cultural world with architects at Paestum, whereas the Roman examples did not. For Labrouste, buildings were an expression of a culture as much as the exemplification of true and eternal principles of beauty."3

Labrouste defined, in his controversial restorations, the degeneration from "a primitive state of purity to that of conventional representation"4 by the replacement of sculptural form with the written word. Linking this phenomenon to the replacement of a religious programme with a secular one, he considered the Temples to be a kind of "public notice board…whose walls functioned like the pages of an album, receiving the transient inscriptions of the town's citizens. The building was beholden to the painted word for its meaning." 5

In addition to producing new theories about polychromy and inscription, Labrouste interpreted multiple temples done in the same "order" as being functionally different, and thereby saw use, function, and plan as more important than the Orders themselves, which was sacrilege in the face of the École's canons. These findings and continued divergence from the Reactionary École, left Labrouste searching for an expression of contemporary thought within a material and architectural symbol which might be "legible to everyone".6

A definitive invitation to this reaction against classicism, then, can be found in Labrouste's first commission, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris (1839-52). In this library, ideal nature is literally replaced by real history as the names of 810 authors are inscribed chronologically upon the building's façade. Within Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève there exists a new literary syntax of expression, which answered the nineteenth century's paradigmatic realization that it was no longer possible to embody ideas in eternally meaningful forms. The systematic view of history replaces the mythological; legibility replaces eloquence. The rhetorical form of classical architecture is replaced by a more literal and descriptive syntax, yet classicism is maintained as the backdrop for which this new syntax appears. It becomes then "a strange mixture of a portentous modernism clothed in retrogressively historical forms."7

For Labrouste, the solution of architectural style did not lie in short-circuiting history; that would merely have compounded the erroneous classical belief in ideal and eternal truths. The answer instead lay in the synthesis of truly fictitious forms. Forms inherited from the past while admitted to being stripped of significance. We may understand Labrouste's library as one of the first building essays, whose form(s) (integral and applied) describe its meaning and constitute its legible character. As Neil Levine says of the historical and Labrouste's library, "We must begin to read history in, not out."8

The Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève has often been viewed as a "plain" and "rational" iron structure, concealed in a stone shell. 9 This "basicness" stems from the fact that it is a "long, unrelieved, narrow box of a building," and this "utilitarian blandness" contrasts sharply with Soufflot's Pantheon which it flanks. 10 Beyond its layers of decorative elements, one might view the library box as the prototypical warehouse, a strange precursor to Venturi's decorated shed. Yet, as Levine explains, the library's true priority was meant to be a "readable" architecture, rather than being simply an example of technical progress or stylistically insolvent. Levine argues that in the library's form, arrangement, and decoration, it "conveys the manner and meaning of its use."11 This seems to align well with Labrouste's own architectural preoccupation. Exposing his concern with the articulation of construction, he voiced to the students of his atelier:

"As soon as they know the first principles of construction I tell them that they must derive from the construction itself a reasoned expressive ornamentation."12

All of the decorative elements of the library are controlled within clearly defined outlines, and these outlines delineate the predominant framework of the building. The library does not "conceal its bareness with superfluous pediments, porticoes, pilasters, and cartouches." Instead, the décor is limited to a printed relief, never disguising the pure empty block which acts as its backdrop, the text's paper.

The decorative programme for the infill panels between the structural piers, takes its theme from the interior function of the building and consists of an external projection of the building's interior elevations, translated, says Levine, with "absolute fidelity."13 The bookcase module is represented by a line bisecting the panels between which, incised in red, are lists of the names of the authors contained in the library-a chronological catalog of the growth of knowledge beginning with the Figure of Moses and ending with that of Berzelius, the contemporary Swiss chemist. This seemingly impassive accumulation of names unites the elevation with the internal garden allegory where movement proceeds from the dark vestibule garden to the bright garden of the first-floor reading-room. Both are chronological accounts of man's progress to enlightenment through knowledge. The inset panels of the upper arcade signify the backsides of bookshelves. Horizontal friezes and tightly packed windows describe the poche wall construction, which contains passages lit by the same windows. Lower friezes mark where the floor of the gallery abuts the wall, and upper friezes grade the tops of gallery level bookcases. The "columns and lentils" of names and friezes list the contents of the building. The building, then, becomes a "functional form of packaging."14

This curious architectural package is one disembodied and surpassed by its program, in this case, the book. For this reason, the library was received immediately as "the work of a reformist."15 Levine notes, "It never received from architects and critics the same unanimity of approval accorded Garnier's later Opera. Ironically, just that which was felt by many observers at the time to be lacking in its conception, a classical gravity and pomp, was just what most twentieth-century historians have seen as compromising its modernism."16 Levine offers a very fitting commentary from an 1850 issue of The Builder, which, for our purposes, reveals Labrouste's somehow stylistically connected but discontinuous architectural product, an architecture's program leading its form:

"It is a curiosity of its kind, being quite original in design, and not to be compared to any other building that we are acquainted with. The façade is simple- we would say plain- having little ornament and less variety, and is relieved almost solely by the multitude of names of celebrated authors, of all times and countries, which are cut in tablets let into the walls on every side, and nearly covering them….Above and below…are festoons of flowers…beyond this nothing can exceed the severe plainness and originality of the building.

We might find fault- who cannot? Who has not? But so long as there is no glaring impropriety of style, so long as proportion is not absolutely outraged,…we feel that we ought to be pleased at the effort. The edifice in particular, is original, and we like it for that. It will not please everybody, how can it? - When one is enamored with the Gothic, another with the Grecian, a third with the Roman or Italian…! We would rather see [as here] a little more originality than that interminable system of copying, which, by enforcing strict rule, and limiting within certain bounds, what is boundless and ever varying, drags genius always in the mire of imitation…. It is time to be tolerant in all things, in order to be more perfect, more exact, and more capable."17

In Labrouste's library, we begin to see the emergence of an architecture whose virtuosity and originality consists even more in the use than in the creation of forms. The appropriation of forms becomes now a system, in addition to first principles, to Vitruvius et al.

In the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève we see a rational concern couple to a romantic openness to all of history (How appropriate that this conflation materialize to form a library!). This rationality, of careful systemization, itemizing the decoration as a catalog, a unique taxonomy of decoration, is what elevates Labrouste's work above eighteenth century eclecticism. The functional application of the applied forms, and the form's legibility as such, unite its Romantic expressions with its very reasoned purpose. What Levine calls a "hermeticism of expression" is the profound reduction of Orders to poetry. That in Labrouste's library, we read whatever classical iconographies as a fiction, and yet this fiction is so self-conscious, literally wearing the cloak of names and busts which represent a natural history (incomparable with mythological classical orders). For Labrouste, this fiction of decorated construction produces the essence of the architecture, "a post-classical act of reattribution of meaning."18 As Labrouste himself said, the principal exterior decoration of the library became the word, not the Order, its interior decoration, the books.19

As I have hoped to show, to call Labrouste a structural rationalist, as much modern historiography has, is simply too reductive. Yet, even within the sources used (those which characterize Labrouste's work as an extension of the Neo-Renaissance) there maintains a sympathy to understand his work as Revolutionary, having the character of a clean break with tradition, "against the academy", etc. Yet, it seems the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève might be better understood (and possibly intended) as a transition, both out of the eighteenth century's crisis of architectural style, and the entire history of architecture itself (this dual notion gives it the appearance of a paradigmatic shift). Rather than maintaining anti-classical tendencies, I see the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève as certainly anti-neo-classical (literally rubbing shoulders with the Pantheon), but somehow intimately united with classicism proper, in self-reflection of the dialectic with classicism, rather than its sheer antithesis. The library reactuates Classicism, but as the permanent paragon of architecture's fiction.

1 Frampton, Kenneth. "Notes on Classical and Modern Themes in the Architetcture of Mies van der Rohe and Auguste Perrt," from: Salokopi, ed., "Classical Tradition and the Modern Movement." 1985, p.32. 2 Here, French Academy is understood as the precursor to the École des Beaux-Arts. 3 Rabinow, Paul. The Crisis of Representations, from Man to Milieux, MIT Press, 1989, p. 52. 4 Levine, Neil. "The book and the building: Hugo's theory of architecture and Labrouste's Biblioteque Ste- Genevieve. in Robin Middleton, Ed., The Beaux Arts and Nineteenth Century French Architecture. Thames and Hudson, 1982, p. 147. 5 Ibid. 6 Ibid., p. 150. 7 Levine, Neil. "The Romantic Idea of Architectural Legibility: Henri Labrouste and the Neo-Grec." in Arthur Drexler, Ed. Architecture of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. 1977, p. 333. 8 Ibid, p. 340. 9 Gideon, Sigfried. Space, Time, and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition. Harvard University Press, 1967, p.218-225. 10 Levine in "The book", op. cit., p.155. 11 Levine in "The Romantic", op. cit., p.346. 12 Labrouste, letter to brother, Theodore, Nov. 20, 1830, from "Souvenirs d' Henri Labrouste, architect, member de l'Institute: notes receuillies et classes par ses enfants," p.24, quoted in: Levine, 'The Romantic Idea of Architectural Legibility: Henri Labrouste and the Neo-Grec," p. 325. 13 Levine in "The book", op. cit., p.155. 14 Ibid. 15 Levine in "The Romantic", op. cit., p.346 16 Ibid. 17 Ibid. 18 Ibid., p.349. 19 Ibid., p.353.