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CS 2120 Architecture and Culture II

Instructor: Alex Maymind

Fondle the Details

2GA Fall 2015

The use of cast iron in architecture spurred the advancement of the second half of eighteenth century architecture. This new material challenged the contemporary idea of space—in particular, the idea of space in the urban context.  Henri Labrouste’s Bibliotheque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris and Joseph Paxton’s The Crystal Palace in London introduced innovative and novel ways in employing iron in the composition of their respective buildings. Both works of architecture served the public as the first public library and the later the first exhibition space for the World’s fair.














As an archetype of the first public library, Labrouste’s design of Bibliotheque Sainte-Geneviève, built from 1838-1850, has influenced the symbolism and implications of what a public library is and the ideas he developed remain a poignant precedent in the design of libraries. A product of his Romanticist era, Labrouste approached his design of the building as a monument for books. Labrouste said himself that books, “were truly the only real decoration,” of his building. Mitigating his background as a student of the École des Beaux-Art, Labrouste omits the typical Beaux-Art flourishes on the exterior. Opting for a more modest façade with no attention to hierarchy, Labrouste expresses the exterior as a giant block massing.


The building achieves the look of a rectangular container volume in stark contrast to the adjacent neoclassical building the Panthéon by Jaques-Germain Soufflot. This is in keeping with his idea of the library as a type of enclosed volume; a tomb protecting books. Labrouste is turning away from the French canon of classical types as evidenced by the simple, austere mass of the façade that departs from the typical French classical compositional rules expected of a civic building.           


The exterior has no hint of the unprecedented exposed thin cast iron columns and iron trusses housed in the interior, allowing for a spectacular open double barrel vaulted reading room. The reading room on the second floor is flooded with natural light in the day. With the advent of gas lighting the library, for the first time in history, is able to stay open in the evening.  The motivation for an open and free plan led Labrouste to employ iron as a solution to maximizing the space on the narrow site.


The Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton, built for the first World’s Fair in London in 1851, was the first all glass and cast iron exhibition building. It was a mass-produced modular building spanning four times the size of St. Peter’s that was erected in a record breaking six months. This building was designed to be a temporary fixture in London for the World’s Fair, but was later relocated to a permanent site at Sydenham in 1854 (where it tragically burned down in 1936). Like the Bibliotheque Sainte-Geneviéve the Crystal Palace is much like a simple rectangular volume, but rather than exuding a tomb like exterior guarding books, it is an open glass jewel box exposing treasures. Both are public venues but one serves a quiet and more private public space while the other is a loud fair offering pageantry and a spectacle. Despite these juxtapositions of seemingly similar and seemingly dissimilar purposes both works were using new materials to create a new kind of space and advance the modern idea of space.


Both buildings successfully express their purpose and intent; the library as a tomb protecting books; and the exhibition space as a jewel box showcasing its treasures. While visitors marveled at the crystal palace, visitors were absorbed by the severity and simplicity of the library’s façade. Labrouste is still a bit weary of the tectonic properties of iron, thus explaining his reliance still on masonry to support the iron columns and vaults, while Paxton is celebrating and exposing what the iron and glass are doing for his building.

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