“Modern architecture” is an umbrella, inclusive term, similar to “Gothic architecture” or “Classical architecture,” still very valid today, under which can be gathered a plethora of regional movements and individual architects (that embraces among others, the Chicago School, Art Nouveau, Prairie School, Art Deco, Art Moderne, and the International Style) that reach back to at least the French theorist and Jesuit monk, Abbé Marc-Antoine Laugier (1753: Essay on Architecture) and the Italian theorist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1769: Different Manners for Decorating Fireplaces and all other Parts of Building), who both wrote that the primary objective in the design of architecture was an architecture that spoke not of the past, but of the present.  This did not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, the development of a style that precluded the use of ornament.  

Marc-Antoine Laugier, Essai sur l’Architeture, 2nd Ed.,1755. The Muse of Architecture directs the attention of the young architect to Nature’s “Primitive Hut,” and away from the collapsed Classical pieces made by Man. (Online)
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Chimney Piece Decorated with Frieze of Dolphins, 1769. (Online)

Laugier’s essay was just one small shot in the grand battle across the entire spectrum of all the arts referred to in France as the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes (the battle of the Ancients vs. Moderns) whose opening salvo is usually credited as author Charles Perrault’s “Le siècle de Louis le Grand” (The Century of Louis the Great) published in 1687.  Perrault (the younger brother of architect Claude Perrault) had come to the defense of his fellow authors who were attempting to write pieces about and with contemporary (moderne) subjects, arguing that the literature of the current era was superior to that of the past (ancien). 

One of earliest, if not the first European architect to consciously attempt to evolve a contemporary, if not modern architectural language was Henri Labrouste.  American historians Neil Levine, David Van Zanten, and Barry Bergdoll have consecutively shown in their work how Labrouste began this effort in his 1828 Prix de Rome envoi (report) in which he purposefully chose to analyze the three ancient temples at Paestum, Italy.  The most significant change he made from the traditional envoi was a longitudinal section of the “Basilica” that he cut through the columns, rather than in front of them. 

Henri Labrouste, Longitudinal Section of Paestum Temple, 1828. By cutting the section through the columns, instead of in front of them, Labrouste has consciously focused on the wall beyond, and not the ornament of the columns. (MOMA, Labrouste)

This seemingly innocuous decision was profound to its core: it eliminated the need for him to draw any of the corresponding ornament dictated by what type of column (i.e., doric or ionic) had been used.  Therefore, instead of focusing on the building’s columns and their ornamental system, that is, the École royale’s central architectural curriuclum, Labouste’s section focused on the walls beyond and the ornament that had accrued on these over time. In his accompanying Précis Historique, he explained his thesis that these buildings had been designed in response to their local context, never once referencing Roman architecture or making any connection to the École royale’s theory of a “universal” Classicism.  Upon his return from Rome in 1830, he was shunned by the École royale and the Académie royale, the professional organization that ran the École, (see my European Precedents Blog: coming soon) as if he was the anti-Christ.

Some nine years after his return, Labrouste finally received a commission, to design a freestanding library to house the medieval collection of the Couvent des Génovéfains that had been located to the rear of Jacques-Germain Soufflot’s Sainte-Geneviève.  The most important aspect of Labrouste’s design was his decision not to use any columns in the library’s exterior, the first time for such an exclusion in a French public building since Laugier’s Essai of 1753 had codified the use of the freestanding column.  Labrouste’s design was a direct challenge to the hegemony over French architectural practice enjoyed by the Classical tenets of the Académie royale.  Without columns, Labrouste’s elevation had no inherent order, literally (i.e., doric or ionic), and, therefore, with this one simple, yet profound move, Labrouste had eliminated all of the formal rules of the Académie royale as they pertained to which order and set of proportions were to be used in a design.  Labrouste had finally freed himself from “Palladio’s golden rules,” so to speak. For all practical purposes, therefore, Labrouste had wiped the architectural slate clean, allowing him to approach the problem from any and all perspectives that he wanted, that has allowed some historians to claim that this was one of the first modern buildings.

Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Exterior. An example of his free use of Classic details. (Author’s collection)

If Labrouste did not use columns (and beams) to span an opening (i.e., a window or door) the only alternative left to him was the arch. From his earliest sketches of his ideas for the building that have survived, it is obvious that this was his intention, for these drawings already show the unbroken arcade (like that of a Roman aqueduct) of the second floor Reading Room set on top of a basement with smooth-faced ashlar.  By using this parti, the lack of columns (and the requisite order) would allow him the expressive freedom to use the building’s ornament in a very unclassical manner to communicate his idea/s for the building’s design.

Henri Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, 1838-51. (Author’s collection)

Levine has examined Labrouste’s use of applied ornament on the exterior to show Labrouste’s intent to communicate the building’s purpose, rather than the conventional expression of the building’s chosen structural order (i.e., doric or ionic) through the use of consciously applied ornament.  Labouste also wanted to communicate the building’s function and interior organization on its exterior.  The arcade sat on plain, square columns, separated by a non-Classical capital of his own invention, that he also carried around the corner piers (that were appropriated enlarged, relative to the columns, as they had to buttress the thrust at the end of the arcade).  He infilled each of the arches’ lower portion with an inset masonry panel that corresponded to the height of the bookstacks on the interior face of the wall.  On these surfaces he had inscribed, in chronological order, the names of famous authors, scientists, and philosophers whose works could be found inside, in columns and rows that abstracted how the books on the interior were stored.   This is not a Roman temple on the exterior nor a Roman bath on the interior where the books are removed and stored in a separate room. It is a modern, French library. 

Some ten years after Labrouste had completed the library,  French architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, another adversary of the École (following the 1848 uprising and the rise of the Second Republic, the school dropped royale from its name) had stated this thought explicitly: “if we wish to find the architecture of our epoch [his italics] which is so loudly called for, that we find it not in mixing past styles but by looking to the principles of new structure.”  The architects of the Chicago School were simply taking this side of the centuries-long debate between the ancients and the moderns in their work, informed by the recent writings of Viollet-le-Duc and likeminded theoreticians.

Burnham and Root, Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Building, Chicago, 1881. I include this building as it stood directly across Adams Street from the site for the Field Store, offering Richardson the chance to do Root “one better.” In other words, Richardson had admitted that this building was his inspiration for the design of the Field Store. (Hoffmann, Root)

The importance of Labrouste and his library to the Chicago School came directly to Chicago via the designs of H.H. Richardson, who not only had briefly studied in Paris at the École where he could study the library in person (remember the arcades in his Marshall Field Wholesale Store), but more importantly, had also taken a position in the office of Labrouste’s older brother, Théodore Labrouste, where he was surrounded with the ideas of a new architecture, freed of the Classical strictures of the Académie and the École.

H.H. Richardson, Marshall Field Wholesale Store, Chicago, 1885. (Online)

As early as 1889. Boston critic Henry Van Brunt had identified this “Western” architectural phenomenon, as distinct from events on the East Coast in an article he wrote in 1889:

“Its independence of spirit, perhaps, its energy, enterprise, and courage, or a certain breadth of view, inspired by its boundless opportunities, [which] has happily enabled them to use this [European] inheritance without being enslaved by it.  It would have been easiest for them to quote with accuracy and adapt with grace the styles of the Old World, to be scholarly, correct, academical, and thus to stand apart from the sympathies of the people, and to constitute themselves an aristocratic guild of art.  They preferred to play the more arduous and nobler part: to become, unconsciously, ministers of an architectural reform so potent and fruitful, so well fitted to the natural conditions of the West [my emphasis], that one may already predicate from it the speedy overthrow of the temporary, experimental, transitional vernacular art of the county, and the establishment of a school [my emphasis] which may be recognized in history as the proper exponent of this marvelous civilization.”

Many of these Chicago architects had also read Van Brunt’s translation of Viollet-le-Duc’s Discourses on Architecture, first published in 1875, and Root’s own 1889 translation of portions of German Gottfried Semper’s Der Stil.   Under the influence of Europe’s most current ideas of what a “modern architecture” could and should be, the architects of the Chicago School, interested in developing a modern style of architecture that was the product of contemporary ideas, practices, and materials, that also responded to the particular contextual forces of the building’s function, site, and locale, following Root’s lead would also begin to develop their own theoretical and aesthetic approach to the design of buildings, that was largely independent of what was becoming fashionable on the East Coast during this period.


This was best represented in McKim, Mead, & White’s 1887 design for the new Boston Public Library, very much influenced by Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève.  Charles McKim was most certainly aware of Labrouste’s building and ideas, as he had attended the École  from 1867 through 1870.  (Was it simply serendipity that McKim had chosen the building in which Labrouste had been the first to challenge the strict rules of the Académie des Beaux-arts, or did McKim, as a dutiful graduate of the École consciously mean to cancel the apostate Labrouste’s ‘Declaration of Architectural Independence’ by imposing the Académie’s traditional strictures upon American architecture?)  France’s querelle des Anciens et des Modernes had jumped across the Atlantic and had assumed physical form as the site for McKim’s library sat directly across Copley Square from and facing Richardson’s Trinity Church, voted the best building in the U.S. by the A.I.A. only two years earlier.

McKim, Mead & White, Boston Public Library, 1887. (Online)

Archeologically-correct Classical Revival architecture, quoting Summerson’s three categories, represented the antithesis of the what Chicago School architects were attempting to aesthetically achieve. Root expressed this as early as 1885 in a paper he published in the Inland Architect:  “The great styles of architecture are of infinite value but they are to be vitally imitated, not servilely copied.”  The most vocal in his opposition to the Classical Revival, however, was neither Root nor Louis Sullivan, but Sullivan’s always fearlessly argumentative partner, Dankmar Adler, who, following the close of the 1893 World’s Fair, gloomily predicted:

“The immediate effect of the example of the Fair buildings will be a general and indiscriminate use of the classic in American architecture.  Efforts will be made to force into the garb of classic Renaissance structures of every kind and quality devoted to every conceivable purpose… in palace and cottage, in residence and out-house, in sky-scraping temple of mammon on city streets, and in humble chapel and schoolhouse of the country roadside.”

After the Fair, while the majority of Chicago’s architects followed Daniel Burnham’s lead in joining the “American Renaissance,” there were opponents to the literal reuse of Classical details who continued to argue for the development of a modern style of ornamentation, with, of course, Louis Sullivan in the vanguard.  Adler also continued to voice his protest against the use of the Classical Revival wherever and whenever he was given an opportunity to do so.  Even three years after the Fair, in front of the entire A.I.A. convention of 1896 in Washington, DC, he defiantly argued his point, “What I have written is intended to be a protest against the dogma that art in architecture ended with the Renaissance.”


Drexler, Arthur (ed.). The Architecture of the École des Beaux-Arts. Cambridge: MITPress, 1977.

Middleton, Robin (ed.). The Beaux-Arts and Nineteenth-Century French Architecture. Cambridge: MITPress, 1982.

Bélier, Corinne, Barry Bergdoll, and Marc Le Cœur. Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light. New York:MOMA, 2012.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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