Henri Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, 1838-1850. Paris. View of the reading room.
Credit: Michel Nguyen Henri Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, 1838-1850. Paris. View of the reading room.

If you're wandering around the third floor of New York's Museum of Modern Art sometime between now and June 24, you may see something surprising: an arch. Don't be alarmed! It's not some misguided corrective to MoMA's colossally banal 2004 renovation, nor some time-travel portal taking you to "La Strada Novissima" at the Venice Architecture Biennale of 1980. The mischievous semicircle is instead a flourish of stagecraft in drywall, announcing the museum's exhibit, "Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light." The exhibit surveys the French proto-modernist architect whose lifetime (1801–1875) saw extraordinary social, political, and technological revolutions, and bridged—seemingly impossibly—between the monumentally neoclassical era of Antoine Vaudoyer (who taught Labrouste at the École des Beaux-Arts) and the modern age of Louis Sullivan (who spent 1875 studying in Paris ).

"We've been here before," said Barry Bergdoll, the museum's chief curator of architecture and design, at a recent preview, confessing some trepidation at bringing Labrouste back to Midtown. Labrouste's last visit was in 1975, courtesy of then–MoMA curator Arthur Drexler, whose "Architecture of the École des Beaux-Arts" exhibit, as today's wall text puts it, "sent shock waves through the world of modernist architecture. It seemed that the museum that had advocated a rejection of history and of ornament in favor of the International Style since [...] 1932 had now embraced the academy that was the veritable nemesis of so many architects of the modern movement." With tacit and explicit references to architects of the then-nascent postmodern moment, Drexler's earlier show highlighted the charismatic classicism of Labrouste's erudite façades.

But it's an earlier revival of Labrouste that the present exhibit revives, going deeper into the past to make a case for his future relevance. In the same display case that houses Drexler's catalog, Bergdoll places books by the modernist historian Sigfried Gideon (known best for his 1941 classic, Space, Time, and Architecture), which make the case for Labrouste as a modern pioneer. Gideon's 1928 Bauen in Frankreich, Bauen in Eisen, Bauen in Eisenbeton juxtaposes a photograph of a tubular steel column from Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye with an identically unadorned structural iron cylinder in the rare book reading room of Labrouste's Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, from a century earlier.

It was the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (1838–50), along with the development of similar ideas in an extension and renovation to the nearby Bibliothèque Nationale (1859–75), that are Labrouste's defining projects. Both buildings feature central reading rooms structured by slender iron columns—at Sainte-Geneviève, two parallel vaulted bays; at the Nationale, a nine-square array of shallow ceramic-vaulted domes supported by a grove of 33-foot-tall skinny iron columns. Sainte-Geneviève is wrapped by a traditional masonry perimeter wall, whose arched exterior features super-graphical inscriptions (beloved by those who would claim him for Team Venturi) of 810 of the august writers and philosophers whose works could be found within—features directly adopted by Charles McKim for his well-known 1888 design for the Boston Public Library, and by many lesser imitators.

Both of Labrouste's libraries embodied something of the dramatic social and technological developments of their day. Sainte-Geneviève was an early major public building illuminated by gas lighting, and the first civic library of its kind to remain open to the reading public after dark. Labrouste's intricate layouts for that building's basement heating tubes, in their laconic ductile geometries and graphic play of radiused angles have a perennially futurist look that resembles the visionary post-1960s work of Archigram's celebrated pop-tech draftsman, Michael Webb. (The show displays these layouts, part of a gratifyingly complete presentation set of the entire building, in elegantly angled cases that evoke the drawing boards on which they must have been originally produced.) The Bibliothèque Nationale, analogous to the United States' Library of Congress in its mission of accumulating every published document in the nation, presented complex time–space problems of information storage and retrieval—solved in part by a system of pneumatic tubes that would assist in the delivery of books from stacks to reading room, a system visible through the large glass wall between the two spaces.