The original shock of the Center Pompidou


The future begins on Monday January 31, 1977. At the intersection of rue Beaubourg and rue du Renard, in Paris, along the most rugged edge of the Marais, it takes the form of a large multi-purpose public building new –multimedia library, film library, library, museum—made of tempered glass and cast iron. Measuring one hundred and forty-nine feet high, the building greatly exceeded the general height limit of around sixty feet – established during the reign of Napoleon III in the 19th century, by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann – which still gives the center of Paris her implacable charming conformity. It looked like something between an oil refinery and the deck of a container ship. It is the Center Pompidou, inaugurated that day by the President of the French Republic, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and named after his late precursor in this function, Georges Pompidou. This previous president had, by joining an exceptionally open design competition in 1971 with more than six hundred entries from forty-nine countries, had the building designed by a small group of men who, by the traditionally geriatric standards of architects, were terribly young then. They were engineers Edmund (Ted) Happold and Peter Rice (who, together with Ove Arup, had recently participated in the realization of the Sydney Opera House by Danish architect Jørn Utzon), as well as designers Gianfranco Franchini and John Young, and, most famously, Renzo Piano and his senior design partner Richard Rogers, who died in December 2021, aged eighty-eight.

During the ceremony to announce the results of the July 1971 competition, Pompidou wore a presidential suit and tie, but the other men looked like the Beatles on the cover of “Abbey Road”: the Genoese piano sported the bushy beard and the tweed. et-corduroy uniform of an Oxbridge intellectual; shaggy Anglo-Italian Rogers, much like George Harrison on this London pedestrian crossing, wore head-to-toe workman’s denim in the style of a British railway worker. A prominent design critic of the time compared the building precisely to the Beatles’ yellow submarine from the 1968 film of the same name: a strange vessel – colorful, powerfully cheerful, menacingly charismatic – surfacing in the heart of a unsuspecting town. “When President Pompidou looked at the drawings,” Rogers recalled, “all he said was”It will make you scream.‘ ” (“It’s going to make some noise.”)

What made the Center Pompidou such an embodiment of the future was the effort of its creators to translate agony and ecstasy, tactical spontaneity, the immediacy of urban street protests, student actions and d other countercultural spatial practices of his time—Paris, Vietnam, Civil Rights, Earth Day, and the Bomb—in the built environment. The Center Pompidou partially did this by burying half of itself underground and giving half of its territory to a new public square that slopes slightly towards the facade, just as a theater floor slopes towards from his stage – a tilt that allowed a crowd in the square to see each other. As for the backdrop of the square, the objectives were to allow a large urban building to become as lively as the greenery of a village during a fair, or as a street during a popular occupation; literally accelerate and mobilize such a building using high technology; to apply structural steel frames and movie screens and scrolling street signs and other mechanical marvels, from construction cranes to the bright lights seen in Times Square; and to combine and deploy such devices in the heart of cities. All of these moving, shiny parts could both harvest and catalyze the energy of people on the streets.

The competition’s winning entry featured adjustable floors and illuminated interactive panels on which to display architectural-scale text, such as the cryptic fragment of a famous concept drawing, “ANIMATION FILM PRODUCTION FOR COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY…” or, more prosaically, in another drawing, “CAROLINE, GO TO KANSAS CITY IMMEDIATELY YOUR FRIEND LINDA HAS BEEN CUT OFF. All that was in the air at the time. The Montreal Expo, in 1967, and the Expo of Osaka, in 1970, featured geodesic domes, adjoining Pop-art multi-screen cinematic projection spectacles, bold supergraphs and tumescent pneumatics that expressed an unlikely confluence of space-age technical acumen, Parisian barricade-making , and Swinging London’s ambitious sex appeal Piano’s independent plan for the Italian industrial pavilion at the Osaka Expo, an expandable tent in a delicate steel frame, prompted Ro gers to suggest that the two team up for the Pompidou. A direct precedent for their entry into the competition was the 1961 Fun Palace, an unbuilt project legendary among Anglophile and utopian designers, developed by visionary architect Cedric Price, with the patronage of theater director Joan Littlewood and, later , the collaboration of cyberneticist and psychologist Gordon Pask. Price, a hulking maverick who taught at the Architectural Association in London while Rogers was a student there, built almost nothing except an epic birdcage at London Zoo, but was influential in the closed habitat that was the trans of the middle of the 20th century. -Atlantic architecture scene, almost everything.

Price and Littlewood’s name for the Fun Palace evoked London’s historic Crystal Palace, the popular success of the Great Exhibition of 1851, which brought together all the machinery and marvels of the British Empire, plus some great pre-existing elms on its Hyde Park site, under a vast glass and iron enclosure, a kit structure of parts later unbuilt and rebuilt far south of the River Thames, before it burned down in 1936. The Fun Palace was designed to go even faster. It was to be a sort of life-size Erector Set or Tinker Toy, a habitable magic box of machines and screens that could be continually undone and remade by its users for entertainment, expression, education and action. social – a new kind of commons. crossed with a circus – realizing Littlewood’s theatrical project of blurring antiquated distinctions between actors and audience. It would have been what Price called “anti-building”. Construction sites, all the scaffolding, cranes and trucks, tend to be more interesting places than the buildings they eventually give way: the Fun Palace solved that problem by being designed to be forever unfinished. And, like a garden, it would invite and require constant maintenance.

Other significant influences on the design of the Center Pompidou were the psychedelic and technological visions of Archigram, an informal supergroup of British architects who in the 1960s and 70s published a periodic “architectural telegram” featuring vivid representations walkable cities and wearable cybernetic devices. These are sensational sublimations of the war machines their designers experienced as children during World War II. It was at the Center Pompidou that something of all that future – with complicated help from state power – finally came down to Earth, on a grand scale and for real. In the early years, more people went there than to go up to the Eiffel Tower. Designed for five thousand visitors a day, at the turn of the 21st century, the building has hosted five times that amount and has seen around two hundred and fifty million people since its opening. Early visitors were, perhaps in a particularly French way, thrilled to be scandalized and scandalized to be delighted. A critic for The world called the new building “a kind of architectural King Kong”.

But you could say that this particular future of 1977, just like this great ape, didn’t last long. Before the building opened, the influential British-American design critic Reyner Banham struck a preemptively elegiac note, observing that “Pompidou’s . . . transparency and color seem even more faithful today to the vanished aspirations of the “60s”. “Seen against the dim light of the winter sun in the fresh snow of the last day of 1976, the west facade shone with those ‘explosions of fire, ice and light’ which we were invited to observe with our ‘third eyes of the soul’ a psychedelic decade earlier,” he wrote. Between the administrations of the liberal Pompidou and the austere d’Estaing, the construction budget for the building was cut. More moving floors. What was left was a very big idea. The building was conceptually upside down: its entire steel structure was an exoskeleton, which not only meant vast, flexible, hangar-like free spans for the interiors, but also a kind of structural legibility and systematic transparency that served as a case study, if only by visual allegory – for how a better society, political machines and all, might work. Huge ducts and pipes – blue for air conditioning, red for escalators and elevators, green for water, yellow for electricity – all meander across the surface of the building with the mesmerizing pretty ugly beauty of a car engine without its hood.

A setback in the building’s history was the decision, at the turn of the millennium, to begin charging people to ride the iconic monumental escalator that zigzags like a glass caterpillar sideways to a terrace of spectacular observation above. Having a ticket separated the building space from the city space, turning citizens into consumers. Far from the dream of the Fun Palace still under construction, the Center Pompidou will be completely closed between 2023 and 2027 for restoration and asbestos removal. The jury that selected Rogers and Piano’s design included not only pioneering modern architects Jean Prouvé, Oscar Niemeyer and Jørn Utzon, but also the powerful American socialite, curator and designer Philip Johnson, whose lifelong specialty was assimilation of successive avant-garde aesthetics. in cultural and institutional establishments. And despite all the small “d” democratic vibes of the People’s Palace that bears his name, it was Georges Pompidou who, as President Charles de Gaulle’s Prime Minister, did much to bring the Parisian student movements to an anticlimactic conclusion. which were the most important of 1968. expression.

A generation older than these students, Rogers had been a well-connected Florentine refugee from fascism whose fortuitous ancestry brought him to England in 1938. at the Architectural Association in London and Yale University – under tutelage of American brutalist hero Paul Rudolph – gave him a creative outlet and professional identity free from both his then undiagnosed dyslexia and his status as an insider-outsider within Britain’s fragile, nativist class system.


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