Tuesday, September 9, 2008
St. Geneviève Library , Paris, France
The St. Geneviève Library in the place du Panthéon, Paris, was designed in 1843 by Henri Labrouste (1801–1875) and built between 1844 and 1851. It is the first public building to have a frankly exposed structural iron frame. Wrought iron and cast iron, used to great structural and esthetic effect in engineering works since the late eighteenth century, were still widely regarded as unsuitable for legitimate architecture (except for decorative details like balustrades or ornamental hardware), simply because the classical and medieval styles that informed contemporary design provided no precedent for the manner of their use. That was despite their many advantages: they were incredibly strong in compression, noncombustible, and inexpensive; moreover, they could be prefabricated and mechanically fixed, thus avoiding “wet work” and minimizing the labor involved in making good, which represented—and continues to represent—a major cost in building. Besides all this, their properties allowed the combination of visual lightness and natural illumination.
The library held the collection of books and documents, covering all aspects of theology, the arts, and science, from the former Abbeye de Sainte-Geneviève, founded in the sixth century. The Augustine monastery had been reformed by Abbot Suger in 1148, after which it had maintained a library and a school for copyists. The library was reestablished in 1624 and by the mid–nineteenth century it held manuscripts and about 120,000 books. In February 1842, it was decided to relocate the collection, which since before the French Revolution had been housed on the top floor of former abbey buildings, to the former Collège de Montaigu. It was moved in October when appropriate alterations had been made to the college and would remain there for eight years while a new building, approved by the Chamber of Deputies in 1843, was completed.
The new library was to be part of an urban renewal scheme around the Panthéon, which before the Revolution had been the Church of Sainte-Geneviève (1758–1789), designed by Jacques Germain Soufflot and completed by J. P. Rondelet. In 1844, planning regulations provided for the creation of the broad rue Soufflot and the erection of a town hall that would face the library across the place du Panthéon and echo Soufflot’s Law Building of the University of Paris. Labrouste was immediately given the commission, and his designs, also sympathetic with the proportions of Soufflot’s building, were accepted late in 1843. A Parisian, Labrouste had studied architecture at L’École des Beaux-Arts from 1819 to 1824. After winning the Grand Prix, he continued at the French Academy in Rome until 1830, developing notions of “romantic rationalism” before returning to Paris to set up his own atelier. The foundation stone of the Library of St. Geneviève was laid in August 1844, and the main construction work was completed in 1847. The building was officially opened on 4 February 1851.
The St. Geneviève Library hybridizes neo-Renaissance and rationalist architecture, the first through its composition and decorative details, the second by the refreshing expression of internal organization and function in the design of the facades. The two-story rectangular building, measuring 278 by 69 feet (85 by 21 meters), follows a straightforward architectural program: a comparted ground floor houses library stacks and rare book storage areas that flank a central foyer. A stair leads to a vast reading room that occupies the entire upper story. That airy space is lit by forty-six huge high-level, arched windows, nineteen on each long side and four at each end. Across its width, it is divided by a central spine of elegantly slender cast-iron Ionic columns standing on short piers. The columns, braced longitudinally with filigree arches, support decorative openwork cast-iron round arches, carefully designed by Labrouste in consultation with one Calla, of the Val d’Osne foundry in Paris. The transverse arches in turn directly carry barrel vaults formed by plaster reinforced by iron mesh on a network of joists. Originally a flat ceiling had been intended, but Labrouste’s inventiveness and the flexibility of the General Council of Civil Buildings made possible, after prototypes were built and tested, this first and beautiful expression of an iron structure in “serious” architecture. However, it would be a long time before the architectural profession came to terms with the new material.
Rather a disappointment in the light of the reading room, the library’s relatively modest facades incorporate Renaissance elements, such as the virtual arcade of almost continuous windows on the upper level. The narrowness of the pilasters between them indicates the iron columns within and contrasts with the massive masonry piers that define the corners of the structure. A frieze of swags below the prominent string course that marks the upper floor level is almost the only applied decoration. Initially, Labrouste proposed a garden along the place du Panthéon facade “to distance the noise of the public thoroughfare” and prepare visitors to his library “for due reverence.” Lack of space prevented its realization.
The architect’s estimation of future space needs, questioned by the client during construction, quickly proved insufficient. Much-delayed major renovations were made in the early and mid–twentieth century. In 1930, the reading room was redisposed to increase the number of places from 400 to over 700; a small extension was built in 1954, followed by a larger one in 1961. Although Labrouste’s library did not sit well with other buildings on the site, its planning made it possible to add urgently needed public spaces, offices, and stores. The Library of St. Geneviève again demands general reorganization, as technology and usage patterns change.