May 11: Reclaiming ‘Rationality’

2016/05/11 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1801 Henri Labrouste was born.

Labrouste (d. 1875) is another in that chain of French architects who have been the focus of historians and critics who have skewed his legacy to represent the values of the zeitgeist (Ledoux is another victim).  Their general approach is to exaggerate his “modern” tendencies and downplay the traditional parts of his training: he was a great success at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, won the Grand Prix, spent five years in Rome on the government’s franc, returned to Paris and designed a bunch of buildings in the Beaux-Arts mode.  They are Classically styled, express the functional divisions in their treatment of exterior massing, and have clean, clear plans organized around axes and cross axes.  That’s exactly what he did, you can see it all at his most famous project, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (1842-50).  The way he would have put it: it’s up to Ecole snuff, and happens to make use of this interesting new material, iron–dans l’intérieur.

Somehow the structural element is usually extracted, highlighted, and otherwise lionized  (while the achievement of the rest is sheepishly swept under the carpet, like so many baguette crumbs) as part of that vein of “rational” French design.  It comes from the same impulse that looks at William Le Baron Jenney and yearns for him to give up the stone colonettes and just turn into Mies already.  (Clio suspects that these critics are the same people who play in utero Mozart make their infants read Chinese flash cards.)

The achievement of  la bibliothèque is not that an old-fashioned French guy came two steps closer to finally letting architecture be all metallic; the achievement is the beauty of a wonderful reading room that allows more light to infuse the space without the danger of lighting a flame.  It is rational in that Labrouste took advantage of structural materials to make his building work well.  But that’s what the ancients did too: inventing the truss when they first needed big roofed rooms clear of columns or developing pozzolana concrete for necessarily large structures that were subject to moist conditions.  Classicism is inherently rational, although the Moderns have been very successful in hijacking that word (among so many others): the mere suggestion that metallic structure is “rational” implies that other structural systems must be irrational.  This is poppycock, especially in light of Labrouste’s application of the material into highly decorated arched forms.  A much more “rational” and contemporaneous application of this elastic, tensile-happy material is the trussed roof structure over the wings of the Capitol in Washington, where the material is as skinny and light and simple as possible.  But it’s also boring, and thus architect Thomas U. Walter wisely hid these oh-so-rational elements behind a supra-ornamented ceiling.

With Labrouste and Walter we have very different approaches to a similar problem: the need for a wide, open, fireproof area that is also beautiful.  Labrouste exposed the material and bent it into a historic form.  Walter designed it to be as industrial as possible and then hid it.  Are any of those choices more or less rational or irrational?  More important a question: since when does rationality take the place of beauty as a virtue in architecture?  Would Labrouste (or Walter) care?  Should we?

Image: interior of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève by photographer Franck Bohbot (from this source)

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