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Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light

Museum of Modern Art
New York City
Through June 24, 2013

Does the work of Henri Labrouste, best known for the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Bibliothèque Ste.-Geneviève — two of the most breathtaking public spaces in Paris — merit particular reexamination at this moment? This thorough and thoughtful exhibition makes a solid argument that it does.

Architecture shows can be dull — limited to sketches; models; and the occasional, slightly desperate inclusion of some object of resonance: eyeglasses, a pencil case. Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light avoids that trap, in part because of its well-supported thesis. The challenges architects face today — incorporating new materials and technologies into an aesthetic plan, redefining public spaces, political turmoil — would feel familiar to Labrouste, who survived six regime changes in France and was an early adopter of steel construction and gas lighting.

Another reason the show succeeds is the number, quality, and variety of the items on display and the thoughtfulness of their presentation. From his achingly precise watercolor studies during five years in Rome to designs and models by Labrouste’s students and others influenced by his work late in his life and after his death, the show is exhaustively complete — yet so well organized that its thesis seems inarguable by the final gallery.