Few buildings in the world come close to being as original, offensive and remarkable as the Parisian Centre Georges Pompidou.
Ever since this highly unconventional building opened its doors to the public in 1977, the Pompidou Centre has been a topic of controversy. Despite the many credits this building deserves, it is of sorely awkward proportions in its surroundings, appearing clunky, massive and outlandish even when viewed from the hilltop of Sacre Coeur.
So outlandish is the building that its architect Richard Rogers reported being hit on the head with an umbrella by an old French woman when he confessed to her to having designed the building as they stood facing it. And even though the building first received such unfavourable reception, opinions have undoubtedly largely changed since then.
The Pompidou Centre’s story started in 1971 when French President Georges Pompidou championed his vision to build a Cultural Centre in the heart of Paris in the rundown neighbourhood of Beaubourg. The Centre ambitiously aimed to combine four institutions: a Museum of Modern Art, a Public Library, a Design Centre and the Institute for Contemporary Music. An international architecture competition was declared open and a stellar jury comprising nine personalities including renowned architects Jorn Utzon, Philip Johnson, Oscar Niemeyer and Jean Prouve was assembled.
Receiving a staggering 681 entries, project number 493 belonging to the young and unknown team of Renzo Piano & Richard Rogers and the already reputed Ove Arup as engineers was adjudged the best. The design proposed three main ideas: a virtually transparent building, a large plaza by leaving half the site unbuilt and a structural system that gave column-free spaces inside to allow maximum flexibility.
To achieve the intended transparency, all building services had to be exposed thus resulting in ‘gutted’ exteriors. The exposed service pipes have been painted green for water, blue for air, red for transport and yellow for electricity, colour-coded for ease of maintenance and not just stylization. This unprecedented ensemble was a radical and bold architectural statement even for a city that was no stranger to the sort.
The building and plaza work remarkably well together. Always peppered with locals, tourists, street vendors, the forecourt is the main interface of the building with its immediate setting; arguably a precedent for subsequent projects in the city such as the Institut du Monde Arabe (1984) by Jean Nouvel. The façade opposite the plaza is articulated by two main elements: a suspended tube escalator that snakes diagonally and white cross-ties which create an illusory plane that is all but solid.
Without this porous façade, the building would have no distinct personality and also lends itself to an easily identifiable logo. Its ‘other’ façade on the busy street flaunts exposed pipes as if they were deliberately contorted to make a composition of shapes and colour.
The gutted exposition also extends indoors. As the building’s designers wanted to maximize usable space in the building, the idea was to locate the structural assembly on its perimeter. With all the structure and circulation thus pushed onto the periphery, the Pompidou Centre provides ultimate flexibility but also dramatically limits the variety of interior spaces that could have been created through its unique structural assembly.
In fact, its veritable Modern Art collection in particular is reported to have suffered a great deal due to the original open-plan exhibits and exposure of artworks to direct sunlight. Within a decade, the Centre found itself engaging Gae Aulenti to rearrange the collection through a system of corridors and rooms that hid the exposed services and created more functional display zones. Despite the numerous changes within, the Centre continues to attract over 8000 people a day – after 40 years of completion. There is no doubt that the building is as much a spectacle as the artwork within.
The creative forces that shaped the Pompidou Centre’s design principles can be traced to several threads: the assembly details of the wildly successful Crystal Palace, Viollet le Duc’s theories for iron trusswork, the new architecture of oil rigs, the triumph of space exploration in the 1960s, Archigram’s ideas for a city within a city and most importantly to the sociopolitical climate in France at the time that was recovering from the student riots of the late 60s.
However, for me, the most fetching analogy in the design’s evolution is the Pompidou Centre’s likeness to the Accutron Spaceview wristwatch, which was sold between 1960 and 1977. Gifted to him by his mother around 1969, Richard Rogers has expressed his love for the watch as ‘it wears its machine on the outside, has a certain scale for different components and is filled with vibrant colours’ – much like Rogers’s own work.
To stretch the analogy further, Renzo Piano designed the Jelly Piano watch for Swatch in 1999 inspired by the Pompidou Centre’s colour palette and arguably by the Accutron itself. It is important to also note that both architects have pursued the same aesthetic in their works over the decades: consistently exploring the limits in engineering and architectural expression through a language that refuses to be typecast.
It was perhaps owing to this predisposition that the formidable team of Piano & Rogers alongside exceptionally talented engineers Ted Happold and Peter Rice (both worked for Ove Arup at the time) that structural details of the Pompidou Centre were developed with such clarity. Together they exploited advancements in steel from allied streams of shipbuilding and large-scale mechanical engineering projects for the Pompidou. But not everyone involved with the building was as optimistic about it.
When Georges Pompidou died in 1974, the new President d’Estaing was not the most supportive of the project and closer to site the contractors had long deemed the building too radical to be well-built hampering the general sentiment. It was observed only later that what left Piano & Rogers unaffected by the glum was their limited interaction with Paris at large.
Today, the Centre’s infectious vibrancy effortlessly extends to its surroundings. Within stone’s throw is the eclectic Stravinsky fountain surrounded by graffitied walls. What could at once be an eyesore to some may find solace in Banksy’s comforting words: “They say graffiti frightens people and is symbolic of the decline in society, but graffiti is only dangerous in the mind of three types of people; politicians, advertising executives and graffiti writers.” Very much like the gutsy Pompidou Centre.
Text By Aftab Jalia