Henri Labrouste: exhibition + catalogue + conference

On 11 October opened in the Cité de l’Architecture in Paris the exhibition ‘Henri Labrouste (1801-1875): La structure mise en lumière’. I helped the curators, Corinne Bélier, Barry Bergdoll and Marc le Coeur, with the selection of material on Dutch architects who studied in Labrouste’s atelier. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, for which I wrote an article, and by an international conference.


At this conference I will present a paper on Labrouste’s preoccupation with the ancient Greek temples at Paestum. The title of my paper is ‘Progress towards the Primitive: Labrouste’s Paestum Account in Perspective’. I will talk about how Henri Labrouste’s mémoire on the Greek Doric temples at Paestum, that he wrote as a Prix-de-Rome architect in 1829, is often seen as revolutionary, both by his contemporaries as Viollet-le-Duc and by today’s historians. However, I will look at his account from a new perspective: that of the debates on primitivism, showing how Labrouste both revolutionised and continued existing ideas. The temples of Paestum were the oldest Greek temples to be found on Italian soil. In my PhD thesis Rediscovering Architecture: Paestum in Eighteenth-Century Architectural Experience and Theory (Leiden 2010) I have shown how these temples obtained a key role in eighteenth-century debates on for instance the sublime, the picturesque, or primitivism. In my project on Primitivism for our VIDI-project some of the Paestum-accounts will come up when discussing the larger perspective of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century debates. The paper I will be presenting during the conference is the fruit of my new research into these debates.

the quest for origins

The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century quest for the origins of architecture was fuelled by a more general quest for origins in other disciplines as literature, philosophy, science and history. In this quest Paestum, widely seen as the beginnings of architecture, played a key role and featured in often-contradictory discussions on origin, design models and history. The reactions of architects, artists and writers mingled in these debates and provide us with the sources that enable us to reconstruct the intellectual context in which Labrouste wrote his account on the temples. Labrouste employed empirical archaeological research, history writing and his ideas on the inventiveness of architects in a theory that would for the first time unveil the paradox of primitivism.

progress towards the primitive

His mémoire turned the ideas on primitivism as an urge to return to origins completely upside down because Labrouste advocated a progress towards the primitive as an artistic choice. I will trace those elements in his argumentation that draw on earlier ideas, formulated by, for example, Laugier, Winckelmann, Piranesi, Paoli or Quatremère de Quincy. As current scholarship focuses mainly on Labrouste’s legacy, rather than examining where his ideas came from, his Paestum account is often seen in a limited perspective. It is merely seen as the beginning of something new, whereas he actually also stands at the end of a tradition. A tradition of revolutionary thoughts that is, that came largely into being through reflections at Paestum’s site.

 The International symposium ‘Henri Labrouste (1801-1875) and his time’ will be held at the INHA in Paris on 22 and 23 November.

The exhibition is shown at the Cité de l’Architecture in Paris, from 11 October 2012 to 7 January 2013, and as ‘Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light’ at the MOMA New York from 10 March to 24 June 2013. The catalogue, in English and French is published by Nicolas Chaudun;


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