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?]