Thursday, August 14, 2008
Pompidou Center (Beaubourg)
The Centre Nationale d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, commonly known as the Pompidou Center, is in the Marais district of Paris. Initially given the working title Beaubourg (after its site), the center was formally named for its initiator, French president Georges Pompidou (1911–1974), following his untimely death. In December 1969 he announced an international design competition for a monumental multiuse public library, modern art museum, and contemporary arts center. The winning team, chosen from 681 entries, was directed by two architects—the Italian Renzo Piano (b. 1937) and the Englishman Richard Rogers (b. 1933). They were assisted by Gianfranco Franchini (one of Piano’s erstwhile fellow students), and Ted Happold and Peter Rice of and structural engineering firm Ove Arup and Partners. Rice had been site engineer on the Sydney Opera House. Opened in February 1977, the Pompidou Center was a bold and innovative building redolent of the radical but unbuilt schemes of the Archigram group. Renowned for its highly flexible plan and the external exposure of its structure and services, the Pompidou Center was immediately acclaimed as the Parisian symbol of late-twentieth-century high-tech architecture.
In his first year of office, President Pompidou decided that the library proposed by his predecessor Charles de Gaulle should have a broader function. A passionate champion of the arts, Pompidou envisioned a national center that would act as a focus for the extensive array of cultural activities then evident in Paris. He wanted a building complex that would encourage all forms of artistic expression, promote the connection between the arts and social life, and be widely accessible to the person in the street. Flexible and uninterrupted internal spaces were needed to enable exploitation of its multiuse focus and to meet changing needs.
The design team coalesced early in 1971, following Happold’s approach to Rogers about the competition; they had collaborated before. Rogers was then partner with Piano, and they saw Beaubourg as an opportunity to correct their firm’s bleak work outlook. Piano, based in Genoa, Italy, was an architect and industrial designer. From the mid-1960s he had been experimenting with lightweight shells. One of his projects was the Olivetti plant in Scarmagno, Italy (1968); he also designed the building’s components. He met the Italian-born Rogers in London in the late 1960s, and they collaborated on the Italian Industry Pavilion at the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair. Rogers had been a member of England’s Team 4 with Norman Foster. Over the next few years Piano and Rogers together produced the ARAM Medical Center in Washington, D.C. (1970), the Fitzroy Street Commercial Centre in Cambridge, England (1970), and offices for the B and B Upholstery Co. in Como, Italy (1971–1973). In several, aspects—a totally flexible plan, an external steel structure as the basis of the esthetic, and the use of strong color—the latter foreshadowed the Pompidou Center.
The vast Plateau Beaubourg, cleared of dilapidated 1930s housing but surrounded by historic buildings, was selected as the site for Pompidou’s new arts complex. It was being used as a car park for the nearby food markets at Les Halles, then in the process of demolition. The architects retained about half the Plateau as a pedestrian open space, intended for meetings and street theater, as well as gardens and sculpture. The new building was pushed to the eastern edge alongside an existing street. Construction began in April 1972, and Beaubourg was inaugurated by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing on 31 January 1977; it opened to the public two days later. Finished on time and under budget, it cost Fr 993 million (then U.S.$100 million).
All the Pompidou Center’s mechanical services are on the street side; on the side facing the open space, external escalators within clear acrylic vaults give access to the building’s impressive interiors. To create uninterrupted internal spaces suited to unlimited uses, the steel-framed structure is outside the building, supporting an internal envelope enclosed by a glass skin. Six floors, 532 feet (166 meters) long and 192 feet (60 meters) wide, with movable suspended partitions, house a spectrum of functions, including a library, an art museum, and an industrial design center. There are also spaces for exhibitions, theater, dance, and musical productions, as well as a cinema, lecture and meeting rooms, a restaurant, and (more recently) an Internet café. The Piano and Rogers office designed the furniture, which was sympathetic to the building’s esthetic. Outside, the unavoidably expressed vertical, horizontal, diagonal, and crisscrossed prefabricated tubular steel structural components form grids and lattices to create the architectural composition of the facades. The frame, together with the escalators and circulation walkways, and the service ducts are painted green, blue, red, yellow, gray, or white, according to their function. The building is raised on pilotis—doubtless the influence of Le Corbusier—creating a covered undercroft with space for shops. A 700-place car park is provided beneath the Plateau.
The architects’ intention was compromised in the realization of Beaubourg for a variety of reasons: the cooler attitude of Pompidou’s successor, Giscard d’Estaing; public reaction to the unconventional design; and of course the cost. Fire regulations were also an agent of change because the need to provide fire-isolated sections in such a large building confused the plans for total internal flexibility, achieved (according to the design) by having movable floors and walls. One of the abandoned proposals—it had impressed the competition jurors—was the display of information from the structural frame in the manner of Oscar Nitzchke’s proposal for the unbuilt Maison de la Publicité (1932–1935). A lit screen was investigated but costs were prohibitive.
Like the Eiffel Tower (1889), the Pompidou Center, while provoking controversy for its eccentric design, was a highly successful tourist attraction. Daily visitor numbers soon reached 20,000, four times the predicted traffic. Having welcomed some 160 million people in its first twenty years, the Center was closed for renovations from late 1997 until January 2000. Piano and Jean-Francois Bodin, designer of the Musée Matisse in Nice (1987–1993) and the renovated Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1992–1994), jointly supervised the Fr 576 million (U.S.$92.75 million) project. Essential maintenance including painting was carried out, the building and its infrastructure were modernized, and additional exhibition spaces were created by the removal of offices to an off-site location. A more orderly approach was taken to the use of the internal spaces by rationalizing use patterns. Access to the library from the ground floor was improved and the surroundings enhanced by additional trees.