on books, buildings, and new narratives

i recently read neil levine’s “the book and the building: hugo’s theory of architecture and labrouste’s bibliotheque ste-genevieve,” a text i should have read a while ago and that i recommend to anyone interested in the multiple links between books and buildings. levine tells us that hugo actually consulted with labrouste when writing the more architecture-relevant chapters of the hunchback of notre dame, in particular the well-known ceci tuera cela.

as the title suggests, the essay is divided in two parts (moreover, the same two parts as hugo’s dictum). the first one (ceci, the book) is an analysis of hugo’s thoughts on architecture in the context of the ecole des beaux-arts in paris and the predominance of composition as the multiple iterations of layouts within a set of established rules (levine dwells more on hugo than i will). the second one (cela, the building!) is a description of the literary qualities of labrouste’s bibliotheque ste-genevieve (1843-61). the building is considered part of the neo-grec movement, a reaction against the beaux-arts system: opposing the closed vocabulary of classicism championed by the beaux-arts system, labrouste made the function and program of the library ‘readable’ in literal and metaphorical ways (for example, he went printed the names of the authors on the facade according to their placement on the shelves on the other side of those walls). a readable building as reaction to the printing press, the library was labrouste’s response to the crisis victor hugo had announced.

levine takes care to distinguish labrouste’s readable architecture from ledoux’s architecture parlante: this is not architecture that speaks, it does not loudly announce. instead it asks to be read, it draws you in and requires attention—different episodes are carefully linked into a chain that must be reconstructed. it does not operate through a pre-established formal language (classicism), but attempts a more universal approach—or at least a specifically french approach, citing authors and works known to french culture.

because levine’s essay was published in 1982, i can’t help but associating such claims of readability with peter eisenman’s proposal of architecture as text, in “the end of the classical: the end of the beginning, the end of the end” (perspecta 1984), and venturi, izenour, and scott brown’s earlier learning from las vegas (1972). strange bedfellows, for sure, and there is apparently a great distance between them. labrouste’s bibliotheque tautologically writes its own meaning onto itself, and requires careful exploration to exhaust its references. eisenman’s architectural texts fabricate fictions of their own, not so much meant to be read as deciphered by the chosen few. v&sb’s building-billboards playfully opened the door to pre-existing codes, but the inclusion of historicist references soon undermined their claims to modernity. however, there are some shortcuts that bring them closer.

while the semiological wave would take postmodernism into different directions, it is interesting to read the catalog of one of the exhibitions that jump-started it all—arthur drexler’s beaux-arts exhibition at moma in 1975. the catalog includes an essay by levine which precedes the one on the library (both related to his phd dissertation at yale, 1975), and more relevantly, a piece by drexler, which hints at paths not taken in the study of beaux-arts strategies, less as a model of classicist form, and more as a compositional strategy of iterative design (for an insightful analysis of drexler’s thought, see the felicity scott essay cited below). while writers in the catalog levine and david van zanten strive to separate the neo-grec from the ecole des beaux-arts, drexler sees both as a unified whole that dominated 19th century french architecture, and whose insights—he claims—have been lost in the confrontation between complexity as goal (obviously, a reference to venturi, or the grays) and engineering and modernity as extreme abstention (the whites, and the followers of mies, a bit arbitrarily dumped into one group). drexler argues that the beaux-arts model can be used for an alternative path, in which free play and necessity are balanced, hierarchy mediates between inclusion and exclusion, and scenography plays a role between image and diagram. in trying to find a path between grays and whites, drexler reminds us that both groups had more in common than they cared to admit, with different interpretations of architecture as language, as something to be read (both as building and text).

finally, levine’s essay on hugo and labrouste is particularly fascinating because of its complete out-datedness. in a moment when the end of the printed book has become old news before actually happening, the essay brings up a russian doll-like problem-within-a-problem. if the book destroyed architecture, what happens to architecture now that the book is being destroyed? (is it?) if the printing press destroyed architecture, it provided it with a program: with more books being printed, libraries became available to the public. with the book being replaced by its digital counterpart, the architectural program seems to evaporate into hardware and software, disseminate into our individual cocoons of preferred reading devices, only tenuously held together by the precious wifi signals that we depend so much on. perhaps this condition of dispersion has come to define us, and prompts some of the most intriguing architecture research going on, focusing either on similarly expanded territories (scroll down to sheppard and white’s panel): environments, weather, and so on… or on the intimate scale of the object: the iphone as architectural device.

perhaps this is where nicolas negroponte’s piece is useful: it is the narrative that takes precedence, the content over the form, or as mimi zeiger put it more recently, the message over the medium. no more architecture as text. but can we recover a narrative for architecture?

ps. i just googled architecture narrative and found this. go ahead, laugh.


the bibliotheque ste-genevieve in googlemaps—i recommend the street view although some scaffolding is currently obstructing the facade.

arthur drexler, museum of modern art, the architecture of the ecole des beaux-arts (new york, cambridge: museum of modern art, mit press 1977).

anne friedberg, “place, ubiquity, and the thing,” in networked publics.

neil levine, “the book and the building: hugo’s theory of architecture and labrouste’s bibliotheque ste-genevieve,” in robin middleton, the beaux-arts and nineteenth-century french architecture (cambridge: mit press 1982).

nicolas negroponte, “the paper book is dead, long live the narrative” (thanks to namanand henderson for pointing this out!)

felicity scott, “when systems fail” in perspecta 35 (2004).

mimi zeiger, “discontented, or the pursuit of content in a format age,” in mas context information.

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