Icon of the Month: Centre Pompidou | icon 045 | March 2007

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words Kieran Long

Marco Goldschmied, erstwhile partner of Richard Rogers, once told me a story about taking a cab from the airport to Beaubourg in the centre of Paris. When he told the driver that he was one of the architects responsible for the Centre Pompidou, the cabbie abruptly stopped and told him to get out and walk.

The Centre national d’art et de culture Georges Pompidou, as its full name goes, is one of the most controversial and recognisible buildings of the 20th century, and this year is its 30th anniversary. Perhaps the most alien building ever made in one of the world’s most historic city centres, it has not lost the power to shock.

Rogers won the competition for the building in 1971 in collaboration with Renzo Piano. The partnership was a low-profile one, and they entered the competition (with engineer Peter Rice) not thinking they would win. There were 687 entries, but their proposition of a transliterated Fun Palace (Cedric Price’s 1960s concept of a building as a responsive laboratory of fun) won favour in a city recovering from the violent uprisings of 1968.

The site is in the Beaubourg, in the fourth arrondissement, within a kilometre of Notre-Dame. In 1971 it was a poor and blighted district, but it was also a place where a number of artists lived and worked, and the Pompidou needed to serve a high-brow community while remaining accessible to the wider public. It was perhaps the first example of iconic architecture being used to popularise contemporary art, and of an art gallery being used as an explicit tool for regeneration.

The most radical aspect of the project was its combination of a Kunsthalle arts programme with a hypermarket approach to flexibility. The original brief combined a museum of modern art, a reference library, a centre for industrial design and one for music and acoustic research. This has since been trimmed to just the museum and the library, along with restaurants, cafes and bookshops. The architecture aimed to accommodate this with vast, open floor spaces. The huge steel portal frame with 13 bays created an uninterrupted floor span of 48m. Each storey is 7m high.

Most famously, the architects pushed all pedestrian circulation and mechanical services to the outside of the building’s envelope, using air, water and electricity conduits (colour coded using blue for air, green for fluids, yellow for electricity and red for circulation) as decoration. Escalators were added to the exterior that give fantastic views across the city.

Perhaps the most underrated strategy of the building is the urban gesture. Rogers has said that the scheme was the only one in the competition to leave half of the site empty, to form the Place Georges Pompidou – its slope encouraging visitors towards the entrance. Piano said in a recent BBC radio interview that the building, while apparently celebrating the technology of its making, “is more about a parody of hi-tech, it’s more about introducing that sort of familiarity of the machine instead of the intimidation of stone and marble and arches. It was really about welcoming people.”

Piano and Rogers never built together again. While the Pompidou is a young architect’s building, it is the product of a more optimistic time, and neither of its architects have ever matched it for radicalism or sheer chutzpah.

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