The Writing Is On The Walls

This is the fourth post of seven, each a response to Kate Shrewsday’s request for an itinerary of MTM’s Seven Architectural Wonders. Each text post has a corollary visual post; the text and image posts will alternate between the blogs of Kate Shrewsday and the Andra Watkins. Since I (MTM) am no longer a paid pedant, I will try to make these as entertaining and enlightening as possible in 600 words or less. One ground rule: I cannot include a work of architecture I have not experienced directly and personally, just as one’s list of Great Books should not include a book one hasn’t yet read.

To see the images of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève for this fourth post please click here!

You might think that graffiti would be the bane of architects, that to have one’s work be defaced in such a profane manner would be the deepest insult. Taggers see graffiti as its own art form, and the application of graffiti to a work of architecture as a challenging dialogue that improves the building.

Imagine then to have one work of art debase the entire art form of architecture. Victor Hugo, in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” includes exactly that when his character Claude Frollo makes the assertion “Ceci tuera cela” (This will kill that). Frollo’s gesture is to link the book that is in his hand with the Cathedral of Notre Dame in view in the distance.

His was making the point that literature—or more specifically the printing press—would soon supplant the building as the preeminent art. Hugo then has Frollo go off on a greedy discourse about architecture. Like most writing about architecture, it gets progressively more boring here, until the reader is forced by will to skip to the next chapter, thus sealing the sarcophagus of architecture.

Ironically, one of Hugo’s resources for this chapter was one of France’s leading architects of the day, Henri Labrouste. We may never know how the conversations went between them in a café or salon in Paris, but we do know how Labrouste responded: he designed the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève.

The building is both a confirmation and a refutation of Hugo’s thesis. It may seem Neo-Classical, and it certainly has classicism in its genetic code. Yet the building is also violently inventive, incorporating cutting edge technology like cast iron and gas lighting. But it is the writing that covers the buildings surfaces like so much graffiti that is at the core of Labrouste’s retort.

Here, across the Place du Pantheon from that tremendous mausoleum of French history, Labrouste has inscribed the entire façade of his library with an alphabetical listing of history’s greatest thinkers, as if the building were one giant card catalog. Was Labrouste willing his building to be a book, covering it with graffiti like a vaccine against the virus of architectural illiteracy?

It is clear that Hugo won the day. This will kill that has been asserted repeatedly since: you are reading this on a blog after all, not in a book, and most certainly not through the ornamental motifs of a building. Nevertheless, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève has always been a reassurance to me that even in this media-saturated world, a timeless and intelligent work of architecture still has something poignant and pertinent to say.

[It must be said here that I am unable to fully communicate the intellectual and experiential pleasure of this building in a 500-word post and the eight pictures that are on The Accidental Cootchie Mama’s blog—field trip to Paris, anyone?]


39 thoughts on “The Writing Is On The Walls

  1. Officially in love with this building, MTM. It is daring, and intelligent, and cutting edge: and embraces the future with a reverence for detail that is classical. I tell you this now: within a year I shall be standing there looking at this.

    Your posts come with an attachment: an insane desire for a plane ticket.

    1. You can take the train….arriving into one of Paris’ old iron train stations will prepare you for this wondrous interior.

    1. I can always be hired as a Paris Architecture tour guide…I could show you seven wonders within the Peripherique….all expenses paid, of course.

  2. I read 1,2,3 with interest, this one with something more… fascination, desire ? You and Andra have made me want to stand in this building. Also, waiting for 5,6,7!

  3. Once again, you’ve introduced me to a building that I knew nothing about. My education I see is so sadly lacking. The “graffiti” is an astounding idea to me. All these names incised in stone and then the books right behind them, inside. I can see what you mean about the latest innovations just be looking at that lacy ironwork. Thank you for this tour you are taking us on and for introducing me to such provocative ideas as sculpted in architecture. Peace.

  4. MTM, I’ll have to echo several comments as my first thoughts were what a fascinating series and did I hear a call for a *Road Trip*.

    But just a thought, perhaps you could start a blog, nothing as ambitious or time consuming as Andra’s “post a day” but maybe once a week about architecture in both Charleston and around the world.

  5. Ceci ne tuera pas cela . . .
    This Will NOT Kill That.

    How do I know? Today, I read the words, but didn’t feel compelled to comment until I allowed the thing to speak for itself. Res Ipsa Loquitar!

    Another fascinating pair of posts, MTM! And perfect title!

    I echo the comments HERE and THERE . . . an Encore Blog is JUST the thing.

  6. A lovely, restrained Beaux Arts building! The laurel wreaths, the arches, the rhythm is wonderful. It feels like a wonderful French Art song to me– une belle chanson lyrique. And I’m reminded of the beauty of the poemes of Paul Verlaine set as Debussy’s Fêtes Galantes.

    This library reminds me of the feeling I’ve always had listening to the chanson “En Sourdine” (Muted) from the song cycle. Those lovely pillars could be the tree trunks and the arches the branches which Verlaine writes of and the vocalist sings to Debussy’s gently modulating and delicate melody. Thank you for reminding me of this gorgeous song cycle which I’ve not thought about in ages.

    “Muted” / “En Sourdine” The English translation:

    Calm in the half-day
    That the high branches make,
    Let us soak well our love
    In this profound silence.

    Let us mingle our souls, our hearts
    And our ecstatic senses
    Among the vague langours
    Of the pines and the bushes.

    Close your eyes halfway,
    Cross your arms on your breast,
    And from your sleeping heart
    Chase away forever all plans.

    Let us abandon ourselves
    To the breeze, rocking and soft,
    Which comes to your feet to wrinkle
    The waves of auburn lawns.

    And when, solemnly, the evening
    From the black oaks falls,
    The voice of our despair,
    The nightingale, will sing.

  7. Love the photos and the story behind Victor Hugo’s character, Claude Frollo, in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
    “Ceci tuera cela” (This will kill that). He might not be correct. As long as there is a fascination with older structures, and a longing to know more of their back story, architecture will live on as long or longer than what some have written.
    Your words, however, are delightful. Thank you for this story.

  8. I love wonderful buildings with interesting histories. That’s one of the reasons I miss living in England and being able to travel to Europe frequently. Thanks for sharing this place, its past, and the photos!

  9. I really enjoyed the inclusion of Victor Hugo’s admonition. My first instincts tend to go in the same direction. I hold a little too tight to what has been pleasant to me in the past, and then perhaps miss the beauty in something new because I don’t really look at it with clear intentions. What a thought-provoking post centered around such a beautiful library. Debra

  10. “This will kill that” could well have been a modern day admonition of someone waving a Kindle or other tablet at a library building. But in truth they don’t die, they just evolve and transform.

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