At a press conference in the Élysée Palace, in 1971, President Georges Pompidou was so properly turned out that the soles of his shoes were polished. The hairy young crew who had just won the competition to design the arts centre that would carry his name, beating 680 others, were not. Richard Rogers wore a railwayman’s blue denim suit and a flower power shirt, Renzo Piano a hippiefied combination of beard and tweeds and their partner John Young a sweatshirt that (memories would vary) may have had Mickey Mouse on it. Only Ted Happold, of the engineers Ove Arup, wore a suit and tie. “You are the capitalist,” the president told him.
This tableau captured the grand bargain between radical architecture and establishment politics that generated the famous building that would follow, the Pompidou Centre, sometimes called the Beaubourg, whose 40th birthday is about to be trumpeted with 50 exhibitions and 15 concerts and performances in 40 different cities – an André Breton show in Lille, for example, and an Alain Buffard dance piece in Nimes. And with the passage of time it only stands out more. It has claims to be the most significant single building since the war. It is both a late blossoming of the 1960s and a precursor of the city-boosting “iconic” architecture of the decades since. It is a palace for a media-soaked age, as bright in its reds and blues as colour TV and colour supplements.
Putting this spaceship in the middle of Paris was a bit mad but an honest gesture. It was brave but also a bit impoliteRenzo Piano
In 1968, three years before the memorable press conference, the Paris streets in which the centre now stands had been ripped up by protesting students. Pompidou became president the following year – a conservative with a mission to restore order, who also planned a series of transformative building projects for Paris. Among them was a proposal for a centre of contemporary arts – not just a museum or a gallery, but also a library and a centre for music. His motives would have included a wish to tame the city with a sophisticated form of bread and circuses. As Piano now says: “After 1968, he had to do something, to show something.”
Piano says that he and Rogers, in their early 30s, were by the standards of their slow-maturing profession “teenagers, young boys”. “When you are that young, you are innocent. What you do is what you feel.” Their proposals “were an exercise in freedom, not guided by any desire to win or compromise”. What was exceptional was that “a powerful political man like Pompidou” should run an open competition that could be won by such a team. “It was a really brave idea. The point was to make people like us do something like that.”
They “stood on the shoulders”, as Rogers says, of architects such as Archigram and Cedric Price, who over the previous decade had conceived visions, largely unbuilt, of a kind of architecture that would use technology to change and move, and would embrace the gaudy glamour of film and advertising. For the Beaubourg competition, Piano, Rogers and their colleagues imagined a big frame with pipes and structure on the outside to leave the interior unencumbered and adaptable. Parts of the building could be clipped and unclipped in response to future needs. Its floors would move up and down. Huge electronic screens would interact with crowds in a piazza outside and escalators in glass tubes would transport people towards the sky. “CAROLINE,” ran a message on a screen in one of the drawings, “GO TO KANSAS CITY IMMEDIATELY YOUR FRIEND LINDA HAS BEEN BUSTED”.
There were lawsuits against us and all sorts of rules and regulations. There were many, many crisesRichard Rogers
It wasn’t supposed to be a monument but an event, a happening. Piano now also describes it as “not a building but a town where you find everything – lunch, great art, a library, great music”. The point was, as Rogers puts it, that “culture should be fun”. “After decades of museums being dusty, boring and inaccessible,” says Piano, “someone had to run away, to do something different, have a sense of participation. Someone had to express that rebellion. Putting this spaceship in the middle of Paris was a bit mad but an honest gesture. It was brave but also a bit impolite, for sure.”
It nearly didn’t happen, first because Rogers wrote what Piano calls “a beautiful little memo”, arguing that they shouldn’t enter a competition for what he thought would be “a rhetorical gesture of grandeur”.
“We were very democratic people and discussed it,” says Piano, but the composition of the competition jury changed their mind. It included the designer Jean Prouvé, a man more concerned with things like low-cost housing than monument building, so “we saw that it might also be about ethics, people, society. We were young but we were not stupid. We saw some sign of a possible miracle.”
He ascribes their victory to various factors: that they proposed a piazza, for example, rather than covering the whole site with building. Also, that “there was a clarity in our proposal, in someone saying with a degree of rebellion, ‘Hang on, what is culture?’ It changes continuously, every 25 years, so we want a flexible space.” Faced with 681 entries, he guesses, “you might get confused, then say, ‘Oh shit, this one is not stupid’”. He believes that there was “something in the air”, that their ideas caught the spirit of the time. He also thinks that “the stars, the planets, the satellites were all found in the right position”.
Having won, they embarked on the exhilarating process of getting the dreams built, which, despite the guidance of the large, established firm of Arup, was also, says Rogers, “the most difficult thing I have ever done. There were lawsuits against us and all sorts of rules and regulations. There were many, many crises.”
Pompidou died before completion and his successor, Giscard d’Estaing, after contemplating cancelling the project, slashed the budgets. Not all the original ideas survived the process. The information screens were dropped. The floors didn’t move. Fire regulations caused transparent walls to be made opaque and elegant bits of structure to be swaddled in protective material.
Up to and including its opening on 31 January 1977, the Pompidou received the critical response traditional for buildings that go on to be much-loved landmarks: the Guardian’s art critic wanted this “hideous” object covered with Virginia creeper. “Paris has its own monster,” said Le Figaro, “just like Loch Ness.” In its defence Rogers pointed to the hostility the Eiffel Tower provoked when it was new. “Making change is not easy” says Piano.
But it was a popular success. Crowds and impromptu street entertainers gathered in the piazza. Visitor numbers were five times predictions. The escalators were a hit. Because of the uniform roof heights of most of Paris’s buildings, and the fact that the Pompidou Centre rises above its neighbours, sweeping views unfolded as you rode to the top. It enabled citizens to take possession of their city. “It was necessary,” believes Piano, to create a building of this type at this time, “and because it was necessary it became accepted.”
Sadly, since the Pompidou reopened in 2000, after a two-year refit, the escalators are no longer free to enter, which diminishes their role in making the centre into a popular fun palace and connecting its life with that of the city. The art inside now feels more remote from that of the street, but the Pompidou remains successful for the same reasons as when it was first built. It’s partly the energy, joy and bravado palpable in its construction, which you don’t have to be an expert in architecture to sense. It’s partly the simple, somewhat traditional but effective relationship of building to public space – a palace in front of a piazza, like something from renaissance Italy. Mostly, it’s the surprising and mutually enriching combination of the two. A radical building in a radical urban plan, or a conventional building in a conventional one, would not be as powerful.
It helps that it is visibly inhabited – not just a bizarre object but one around which you can imagine yourself moving
At the same time, it’s a building with flaws and contradictions, whose theoretical rhetoric doesn’t stand too much scrutiny. Exposing the pipes and ducts on the outside doesn’t actually make it easier to maintain and alter but multiplies by a large factor the amount of surface exposed to the weather. The idea of clipping elements on and off has proved largely a fantasy. Much of the detailing is beautifully considered, which is nice, but runs counter to the ethos of spontaneity.
Logic and consistency are not what the building is about. Piano later admitted that it would have been cheaper and more efficient to have put a row of columns down the centre of the building. There would have been no need for enormous trusses and little impact on the design ideals, except that, in Piano’s view, a concession on this point would have put the building on a slippery slope whereby a series of pragmatic decisions would have diluted its spirit to the point where there was nothing left.
Much of the Pompidou’s appeal is about how it looks, which is not to say it doesn’t change anything. If Paris now had no such building, it would suffer more from the ossification that, in truth, is one of its weaknesses. The city would be more of a museum piece. And it is in this way, as a magically transformative cultural building, both popular and progressive looking, with the power to boost a city or change its image, that the Pompidou has been most influential.
This is a lot about the relation of building to mass media, with which the architects were fascinated from the start. If the unrealised big screens were to have generated an interaction of people and information of a kind now made commonplace by smartphones, the main impact was more direct. Simply by being a large memorable, striking thing, it makes itself known to audiences who haven’t seen it in the flesh. It helps that it is visibly inhabited – not just a bizarre object but one around which you can imagine yourself moving.
The Pompidou’s descendants include the grands projets – the Pyramid in the centre of the Louvre, the Grande Arche at La Défense – that later French presidents built in Paris and ambitious mayors built in French cities. Then the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the very many would-be icons, from brilliant to catastrophic, that followed. Many of the architects and engineers involved went on to have eminent and influential careers. Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, going their separate ways, would give the world airports, skyscrapers, parliaments, art galleries.
At its best, the Pompidou concept is about celebrating the life of cities and bringing energy to their centre – and in the 1970s, through a combination of flight to the suburbs and destructive planning, traditional cities seemed endangered and in need of such support. It works through bold and optimistic architecture and direct devices, like the escalators and the plaza.
At its worst, it leans too heavily on too vague notions of “progressive” and “creative” design. The same rhetoric, applied to the Millennium Dome or some of the commercial projects that Piano and Rogers now design, can be less convincing. The Eiffel Tower argument, that posterity will vindicate anything new and startling, gets wheeled out to justify almost anything. It gets forgotten that there is intelligence in the Pompidou design, in the way it responds to a historic city, for example, as well as spectacle and novelty.
Piano is confident about the building’s future. “We believe that the life of this building will be 2,000 years so we don’t care so much about 40 years. The Colosseum is still there so I don’t see why it won’t be still there.”
His Paris office is round the corner from the centre, so he sees it almost every day that he is in the city. He visits it frequently. “I am the Quasimodo of Beaubourg,” he says. “Every single bolt of the building, I have a sense of why it’s there. And when I see it now I wonder how they could ever have allowed us to do something like that.”
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The Pompidou Centre in Paris: one of the most visited museums in France. The iconic landmark is ideally situated in the 4th arrondissement at the heart of the French capital. Since its inauguration in 1977, the futuristic building has been the source of many criticisms, some called it an eyesore, others praised its high-tech architecture made up of colourful pipes and massive steel struts. To better understand why the radical building attracts thousands of visitors each day, here are a few facts and figures that you should know when visiting the Pompidou Centre!
The origins of the Pompidou Centre
The 4th arrondissement from above © French Moments
The Cultural centre project was born from a declaration made by French PresidentGeorges Pompidou in 1969: “I passionately want Paris to have a cultural centre which will be both a museum and a creative centre“.
The location chosen for the cultural centre was a wasteland at the heart of Paris, a place called Beaubourg. Pompidou’s dream became reality after his death (1974). The cultural complex was officially opened on 31 January 1977 by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.
If there are two names to remember about the Pompidou Centre’s construction, they would be those of its architects:
- Richard Rogers, a British architect (born 1933) who is also known for his work on the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and the Millenium Dome in London.
- Renzo Piano, an Italian architect (born 1937) who is also known for designing the Shard in London (2012).
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What is so special about the Pompidou Centre
The architects wanted to free up space inside the building by placing all service equipment outside. That’s why it looks like a building turned inside out. As architect Renzo Piano recalls, he wished to “put the inside outside, and show the inner workings“. The enormous cube was meant to be “a building which will not be a monument but a celebration, a big urban toy“.
The colour-coding of the Pompidou Centre’s pipes
The pipes seen from rue Beaubourg © French Moments
Now if you face the Pompidou Centre from rue Beaubourg, it will be clear to you. You’ll understand how this ‘inside-out museum‘ was designed to free up maximum gallery space within it. Walls and internal structures were put outside the building, and infrastructure was covered by enormous colourful tubes. The bright colour codes help distinguishing the various functions of the pipes:
- the water pipes are green
- the air-conditioning ducts are blue
- the electricity lines are yellow
- the funnels (ventilation shafts for the underground areas) are white
- the escalators and other areas dedicated for human traffic are red
You may like it or not… but you have to agree that the façade is an outstanding piece of architecture from the late 20th century. The tangle of pipes and tubes covering the glass and steel framework of the building earned it the nicknames of ‘the Gasworks‘, ‘an oil refinery‘, ‘a ship in dock‘, ‘a cultural supermarket‘, ‘Notre-Dame of the Pipes‘, ‘Pompidolium‘ or ‘avant-garde eyesore‘. A journalist wrote in Le Figaro newspaper: “Paris has its own monster, just like the one in Loch Ness“.
The transparent escalator
The escalators at Centre Pompidou © French Moments
The outside escalator climbs the front of the building like a lighted snake. Enclosed in a transparent Plexiglass tunnel, it gives access to the Modern Art museum, the panoramic terrace and the Georges restaurant.
The cultural complex of the Pompidou Centre
The Pompidou Centre from rue Beaubourg © French Moments
The Pompidou Centre is a cultural complex that houses:
- the National museum of Modern Art (Musée national d’Art moderne) on the 4th and 5th levels. This is the largest modern art museum in Europe. It comes second in the world after MOMA in New York.
- the Public Information Library (Bibliothèque publique d’information, or BPI) on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd levels. This vas library is popular with Parisians as it opens late.
- the Institute for Acoustic and Musical Research (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, or IRCAM) is situated underground beneath the place Stravinski.
- the temporary exhibition halls are located on the 1st and 6th levels.
- the bookshop is located on level 0, a design shop and a café are on level 1.
- the fashionable Georges restaurant is on level 6, as is the panoramic terrace.
A few words on the National museum of Modern Art
Juan Gris: Violine und Glas (1913)
A visit to the National museum of Modern Art will give a complete overview of modern and contemporary art.
The museum displays modern collections from 1905, including 50,000 works and objects from more than 42,000 artists. Many Schools represented in the museum include movements such as:
- Fauvism (1905-1910, Derain, Marquet, Dufy and Matisse),
- Cubism (1900s, Braque, Picasso),
- Dada (1910s, 1920s, Duchamp),
- Paris School (1910s-1930s, Soutine, Chagall, Modigliani),
- Abstract School(from 1910s, Kandinsky, Kupka, Mondrian, Klee), and
- Surrealism (1920s, De Chirico, Dalì, Ernst, Magritte, Brauner, Masson, Tanguy, Giacometti, Picasso, Mirò).
There is so much to see from paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographies, not forgetting other media such as cinema, architecture, design, and visual and sound archives.
If you head towards North-Eastern France, don’t miss the Pompidou Centre Metz, a provincial branch of the museum of Modern Art inaugurated in 2010 in the Lorraine city of Metz.
Pompidou Centre in Metz © French Moments
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The panoramic terrace
The outside escalator leads you to the 6th and top floor where you can enjoy one of Paris’ best panoramic views. Above the rooftops of Paris you’ll recognise the Eiffel Tower, Montparnasse, Montmartre and the business district of La Défense.
Place Georges Pompidou, Paris © French Moments
Also called Place Georges Pompidou, the vast piazza is a pedestrian-only square. It slopes gently down to the main entrance to the cultural centre.
Large crowds of visitors and passers-by gather to watch the street performers: mimes and jugglers.
How to get to the Pompidou Centre
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