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Newsmaker: Barry Bergdoll

RECORD speaks with the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art about an exhibition devoted to the 19th-century French architect Henri Labrouste (1801-1875).

By Suzanne Stephens
March 6, 2013
Photo by Michel Nguyen © Bibliothèque Sainte‐Geneviève/Michel Nguyen
Bibliothèque Sainte‐Geneviève, Paris, 1838‐1850. View of the reading room.

Barry Bergdoll, the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), opens a major exhibition devoted to the 19th-century French architect Henri Labrouste (1801-1875) on March 10. The show, Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light, on view until June 24, 2013, looks at the major accomplishments of this progenitor of modern architecture, particularly his two significant works, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (1838 to 1850) and the Bibliothèque nationale de France (1859 to 1875) in a display of over 200 works, including drawings, watercolors, architectural models, vintage and modern photographs. Bergdoll organized the show, which represents the first solo exhibition of Labrouste’s work in the U.S., with Corinne Bélier, chief curator of the Cité de l’architecture & du patrimoine in Paris, and Marc Le Coeur, art historian at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, département des Estampes and de la photographie. The exhibition initially opened at the Cité de l’Architecture (October 11, 2012 to January 7, 2013) and is presented by MoMA, the Cité de l’Architecture, and the Bibliothèque nationale, with the participation of the Académie d’architecture and the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. A 235-page catalogue of the same name includes essays by Neil Levine, David van Zanten, and Martin Bressani.

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Since his arrival at MoMA in January 2007, Bergdoll, a professor of architectural history in the department of art history and archeology at Columbia University, has organized exhibitions of varied topical and historical interest, ranging from Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity in 2009, to Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream with Reinhold Martin, in 2012. Bergdoll’s interest in 19th century French architecture was early manifested in his Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia on Léon Vaudoyer, which became the book “Léon Vaudoyer: Historicism in the Age of Industry” (1994), and his exhibitions, Les Vaudoyer: Une Dynastie d’Architectes at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris (1991) and Ste. Geneviève/Panthéon: Symbol of Revolutions at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal (1989). On a recent day, RECORD discussed the show’s timing with Bergdoll.

Why is the Museum of Modern Art interested in an architectural exhibition devoted to Henri Labrouste now? Is it due in part to the reduced attention given by the media and museums to architectural history since the heyday of Postmodernism in the 1980s?

While not every look at history needs to be justified by an argument related to the present, it’s an interesting moment to reflect on Labrouste. He’s an Architect’s Architect. Early modern theorists such as Sigfried Giedion were interested in his rational use of iron structures; Postmodernist architects were drawn to his stone inscriptions and symbolic iconography. Now we see him as the forefather of assembling a building from discrete interlocking systems, as shown by the construction drawings in the exhibition. Any number of issues are activated by rethinking Labrouste.

The Museum of Modern Art created a stir when Arthur Drexler mounted The Architecture of the École des Beaux Arts exhibition in 1975. Do you expect the same effect?

At the time Arthur was fighting a modernist orthodoxy, well seen in its reliance on chipboard models. When he began to do research at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, he was stunned by the drawings—as representations of architecture, they were more palpable than chipboard models. While the show was Arthur’s critique of modernism, he probably didn’t mean it to be interpreted by the new generation of classicists as a validation of its own efforts.

Now there is no orthodoxy to oppose or applaud. Today you cannot pull off this succès de scandale. And if it seems as if we’re not actively studying history, it is because it has been absorbed into the culture of architecture—you have Peter Eisenman teaching Palladio and Serlio at Yale. Bringing history to the Museum of Modern Art is not shocking. It is relevant. So why not Henri Labrouste? As his first solo exhibition in the U.S., it is valuable to see how an architect pushes experimentation but keeps control over it. Self-criticism is a crucial part of Labrouste’s work.

Labrouste’ most famous buildings were two libraries—a seemingly outdated building type in the age of digital information. What should we value now in his design for these buildings?

The Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève and the Bibliothèque nationale de France represent two library buildings concerned both about the public environment and the storing of information: they were designed at a seminal moment. Now we are confronting a tectonic shift in how knowledge is stored. Surprisingly, the emptying of libraries because of the digital revolution hasn’t taken place. Even though a new Bibliothèque nationale opened in 1996 in eastern Paris designed by Dominique Perrault, Labrouste’s original library is under restoration and is scheduled to open in 2015 as the national art history library.

What about his use of ornament? Does that have relevance today?

In the last ten years we have seen a fascination with the production of ornament and pattern coming out of the digital parametric movement and algorithmic automatism. But all too often this research takes on a life of its own, divorced from architecture. There is only so much the computer—and algorithms—can do. Labrouste’s use of technology and ornament was essential to the structural integrity of his buildings. Look at the way the ornamental iron work of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève is based on natural form, and the way he tests and hones a meaningful relationship between new technologies and his larger architectural project. Because the building uses cast iron, the lace-like truss is doing work without looking heavy. In his architecture, Labrouste achieved a real integration of program, means, structure, and space.

Drawing was important in the 19th century—as you vividly demonstrate by installing the stunning drawings Labrouste executed as a Prix de Rome winner at the French Academy in Rome (1825-1830) at the entrance hall to in the exhibition. Does drawing have any significance at this moment?

We are not saying architects should draw again. It’s just that the computer takes away the slow eye-to-hand struggle. Without rejecting digital tools, it would be good to recapture the analytic rigor of drawing. The computer erodes individuality in research.

How did the Labrouste show come about? It opened at the Cité de l’architecture & du patrimoine in Paris last fall.

Initially we had planned a Labrouste show at the Musée d’Orsay, but the Musée decided against it. So MoMA joined up with the Cité as a partner on a tighter, more focused exhibition. I worked with Cité’s Corinne Bélier, chief curator at the Paris museum, and with Marc Le Coeur, art historian at the Bibliothèque nationale. The three of us conceived the exhibition as a co-production.

The Paris and New York exhibitions share the same content but different installations, correct?

The Cité, which has no in-house exhibition department, wanted it to be installed by an architect, Manuelle Gautrand. The Paris show had its own zooty beauty. MoMA felt that since Labrouste is master of space, whose buildings are simultaneously diagrammatic in plan but experientially rich, we had to convey that. In the area devoted to the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève we try to combine the intimacy of reading alone at a table within an overall space of the architecture by emulating Labrouste’s reading tables, and placed most of the material on table. We also tried to recapture Labrouste’s layering of space by carving out openings in partitions so you can see from one area to another.

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