More than a Reading Room

By Rachel C.

With the Industrial Revolution (literally) gaining speed throughout the US and Europe, the mid-1800s ushered in a new era of architectural expectation, design, and construction. 

French architect Henri Labrouste embraced the technical and architectural questions of this era and essentially redefined modern architecture through his responses, as illustrated in his design of the Reading Room of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris.

Front facade, detail.

The library was built between the years 1838 and 1850. It was intended to be a fireproof, free standing public library for the former abbey of Sainte-Geneviève. 

This was a new kind of building project, and Labrouste was one of the first architects to meet the question of how to create a synthetic modern architecture in a new era of building. 

Henri Labrouste, perspective drawing of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. Engraving by Jacques-Joseph Huguenet (from Revue générale de l’architecture et des travaux publics 11, no. 11 [1853], pl. 31).

Huguenet, engraving of Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, partial elevation and section (from Revue générale de l’architecture et des travaux publics 10, nos. 1–2 [1852], pl. 23).

For this project, Labrouste had to divide his focus between the logistical concerns of book storage and the attempt to develop new symbolism for a new library that still fit in with the surrounding urban fabric. 

Labrouste, a preliminary perspective drawing of reading room, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, 1839 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris).

Labrouste believed that all new architectural forms must be derived from history. 

Probably Labrouste and/or Julien Thobois, drawing of Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, transverse section through reading room, ca. 1850 (Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris).

He designed a large and open reading room to fill the upper story of the library. 

Edouard-Antoine Renard, engraving of Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, reading room (from L’Illustration, Jan. 1851, 29).

After many preliminary sketches and plans, he decided to create a double-barrel vaulted ceiling for the room, reminiscent of the central colonnade of the Greek civic space in Paestum. The cast-iron, Greek-like columns are tall and thin, and curve at the top to receive the iron, Gothic-inspired arches. 

The unique synthesis of Greek and Gothic styles is paired with a modern and innovative building material and style that exposes and celebrates the cast-iron skeleton form. 

Windows and books line the walls. The many windows, along with the terracotta panels on the ceiling that serve to reflect light, contribute to the room being a luminous and sought after space for readers.

Even more, Labrouste instituted revolutionary systems of ventilation, heating, and gas lighting, further contributing to the space’s popularity for reading and study.


He used iron in his construction both structurally, to maximize space and minimize interior divisions, and symbolically, which was a revolutionary concept. 


Although the curved iron trusses were a structural component of the building, they also served an important ornamental function, along with the fine stenciling on the terracotta panels and the designs on the intrados of the stone arcade by the windows along the walls. 

Labrouste, drawing of Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, details of iron structure of reading room. Engraving by Huguenet (from Revue générale de l’architecture et des travaux publics 11, no. 12 [1853], pl. 22).

This was the first major public building that utilized an exposed iron skeleton for aesthetic purposes. 

Labrouste successfully devised a modern interpretation of old traditions, celebrating industrial materials with the ushering in of the new industrial era, while applying them to a modernized adaptation of Greek and Gothic styles.

CargoCollective sketch.

He considered the questions of structure and form with respect for tradition but also with an ingenuity that enabled him to make use of the new technologies and values of the industrial era. 

Labrouste, drawing of Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, transverse section through vestibule, reading room, and stairwell. Engraving by Huguenet (from Revue générale de l’architecture et des travaux publics 10, nos. 11–12 [1852], pl. 26).

By establishing a dialogue between traditional architectural practices and modern ideas and technologies, Labrouste skillfully adapted old standards to a new age. His work on this library suggests that an understanding of precedent can be more of an aid than an impediment to creativity.

Consulted: European Architecture 1750-1890 by Barry Bergdoll, (Oxford University Press, 2000); and Modern Architecture by Alan Colquhoun, (Oxford University Press, 2002).