Centre Pompidou: Eyesore or Beacon of Innovation?

Centre Pompidou is one of the world’s most renowned museums, housing revered artworks, but its exterior appearance has been fiercely debated for over 40 years.

Sep 2, 2021By Lisa de Luca
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When the Centre national d’art et de culture Georges Pompidou, or the Centre Pompidou, was unveiled in 1977, its radical design shocked the world. The French museum has a dramatic, brightly colored, and industrial exterior, showing off materials such as pipes, tubes, and electronics. Moreover, the building’s design made no attempt to merge with the surrounding area, a quintessentially beaux-arts district.

 

While heralded by some as a modern marvel and immediately embraced, the French newspaper Le Monde called the structure “…an architectural King Kong.” These opposing perspectives sum up the infamy of Centre Pompidou, still considered by many as a blight on the cityscape of Paris.

 

Behind Centre Pompidou: A City Needing To Modernize

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Photo of external pipes of the Centre Pompidou, via French Monuments

 

France began experiencing an economic boom in the late 1950s. In 1959, officials put forth a plan that provided a charter for the largest transformation of the Parisian landscape since the Second Empire. It included schemes to redevelop areas of the city that could deliver more revenue to the state. This plan also allowed for more creative architecture, as authorities were aware that other European capitals were embracing modern styles and didn’t want to be left behind. In 1967, the government enacted new regulations that allowed for greater height and volume in new city architecture.  The official report stated, “…the introduction of these new rules is tempered by tradition and there is no danger that it will provoke violent discontinuities…” – these are their famous last words.

 

At this time, modern architects like Le Corbusier and Henry Bernard were venerated, while an academic education from the École des Beaux-Arts was denigrated. By the early 1970s, modern architecture had driven out all rivals in Paris.

 

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These new endeavors were considered to be Paris’ quick route to modernization. Called Grand Projets, these investments into urban renewal include the Montparnesse Tower (1967), La Défense business district (launched in the 1960s), and the redevelopment of Les Halles in 1979 (which has since been re-designed).

 

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Montparnasse Tower, designed 1967; with Les Halles, designed 1979

 

Georges Pompidou rose to power in 1969 as France’s second president of the Fifth Republic; he was an avid art collector and fancied himself an expert on the subject.  He wanted to emphasize culture in Paris and developed an idea to create a cultural center that would have a popular rather than elitist character. At the time, the French National Museum of Modern Art was architecturally unattractive and located at the Palais de Tokyo in the 16th arrondissement, then considered an inconvenient part of the city. In addition, unlike many other cities at this time, Paris did not have an extensive public library.  From these considerations, the idea to create a destination where creative works from the 20th century and those heralding the new millennium eventually became a reality.

 

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La Défense, seen from the Eiffel Tower

 

The location chosen to house Pompidou’s cultural center was an empty lot in the Beaubourg area in the 4th arrondissement. This lot had already been slated to hold a new library, new housing, or a new museum. In addition, the site is a stone’s throw from many landmarks, including the Louvre, the Palais Royal, Les Halles, Notre Dame, and only steps away from one of the city’s oldest streets, Rue Saint-Martin.

 

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View of Beaubourg and Rue Saint Martin from the top of the Centre Pompidou, via French Monuments

 

In 1971, a competition was called for architects to submit plans for this new cultural center. It was an international competition, the first in Parisian history. It reflected the sentiment that the Beaux-Arts education system had restrained French architecture. Submissions had to meet the criteria of interdisciplinarity, freedom of movement and flow, and an open approach to exhibition areas. There had to be a place for not only housing art but a center for fostering it. In total, there were 681 entries.

 

The Winners: Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers

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The competition jury for Plateau Beaubourg, 1971. Seated (from left): Oscar Niemeyer, Frank Francis, Jean Prouve, Emile Aillaud, Philip Johnson, and Willem Sandberg (back turned), via Curbed, The Centre Pompidou Archives

 

The winning entry came from Italian Renzo Piano and Brit Richard Rogers, both in their early 30’s, and a primarily non-French team executed the project. Piano had a strong interest in rational and technological architecture. He felt he was an industrial designer and process analyst in addition to being an architect. Rogers too was interested in advanced technological architecture, function, and design economy. In this way, their submission was innovative and differentiated – the architectural plan utilized modern technological innovations and earmarked half of the site to construct a public square. Piano and Rogers were the only contestants who had dedicated any space for public use.

 

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Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers on the phone in Centre Pompidou, 1976, via The Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

By accounts, the press conference in 1971 to announce the winners was a sight to be seen: President Pompidou – representative of the establishment and looking the part – stood alongside Piano, Rogers, and their team – personifying youth and modernity by their age, ethnicities, and clothing. Piano has since stated that President Pompidou was “brave” to have held the open competition as it invited ideas and concepts that were not necessarily rooted in French traditions.

 

The Construction of Centre Pompidou

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Interior of Centre Pompidou

 

Piano and Rogers wanted to design a functional, flexible, and polyvalent building to ensure that it was adaptable to the needs of the future. Ultimately, the objective was to create a space that housed different types of art cohesively, with an ability to accommodate various exhibitions, events, and visitor experiences. This approach was based on the inevitable change Piano and Rogers knew an art and learning institution would need to evolve with. Thus, all internal spaces were designed with fundamental agility: everything could be easily rearranged since they developed an uncluttered, massive interior.

 

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Interior of Centre Pompidou

 

Piano and Rogers worked closely with their engineering team from Arup to construct a network of architectural elements that would allow for this malleable internal space.  Attached to the main steel structure, a system of cantilevers, or gerberettes as they were named by the engineering team, enabling the interior spaces to be reconfigured as needed. Centre Pompidou is built with 14 rows of these gerberettes, supporting and balancing the building’s weight.

 

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Close-up of a Gerberette, via Dezeen

 

The ability to configure the interior spaces is innovative in its own right. However, what shocked the world then and still does today, is Centre Pompidou’s exterior. Upon its opening on January 31, 1977, the French museum’s debut was met with scathing remarks: certain critics called it “The Refinery,” and The Guardian simply deemed it “hideous.” Le Figaro announced: “Paris has its own monster, just like Loch Ness.”

 

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Aerial view of Centre Pompidou, via Dezeen

 

Paris’ own Nessie displays interior structural necessities, conveniences, and services on the outside, looking like an ocean liner without the exterior plating. A trellis of metal columns and pipes cover the windows of the center. Worked into this web of metal, completely exposed, is the unexpected – a color-coded map of air-conditioning ducts (blue), water pipes (green), electricity lines (yellow), elevator tunnels (red), and escalator tunnels (clear). White tubes in the shape of periscopes enable the ventilation of the underground parking lot, while corridors and viewing platforms enable visitors to stop and marvel at the view around them.

 

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Exterior view of the escalator, via Dezeen; with water pipes and electrical tubes

 

What the exterior achieves is quite remarkable – a dynamic façade that allows spectators to experience the modernity of the Centre Pompidou without ever going inside. Moreover, the exterior’s drama is exaggerated by the sheer size of the center – it’s 540 feet long, 195 feet deep, and 136 feet high (10 levels), a height that exceeds all other structures in its immediate vicinity.

 

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The Pompidou seen from across the city, via The Guardian

 

Complementing the French museum’s unusual façade is the public square on the west side of the building. Inspired by a Roman piazza, the square further invites the public into Centre Pompidou’s space. Parisians and tourists alike congregate in the courtyard and use it as a meeting place, a hangout, and a pathway through the neighborhood. Street theater and music are performed in the square, as well as temporary exhibitions. Fantastically, Alexander Calder’s massive sculpture Horizontal is permanently installed in the square. Like the exterior of Centre Pompidou, the public square is dynamic and pulses with energy.

 

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View of Alexander Calder’s Horizontal in situ, via The Guardian

 

The square plays another role as well – it’s open to the general public, and almost marries the striking design of the Pompidou’s exterior to the traditional Parisian neighborhood.

 

Richard Rogers said, “Cities of the future will no longer be zoned as today in isolated one-activity ghettos but will resemble the more richly layered cities of the past. Living, work, shopping, learning and leisure will overlap and be housed in continuous, varied and changing structures.”

 

Renovating A Contemporary French Museum

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Fontaine by Marcel Duchamp, 1917/1964, via Centre Pompidou, Paris; with Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix, 1926, via Centre Pompidou, Paris

 

With its art collection housing works from Marcel Duchamp to Otto Dix, along with a cinema, performance halls, and research facilities, the Centre Pompidou makes vivid its potency as one of the world’s leading art institutions. Since opening, the Centre Pompidou has gone through a number of renovations.

 

In 1989, Renzo Piano designed a new entrance to L’Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique (Institute for acoustic/musical reseach and coordination). This came when the music program was scrutinized for no longer being avant-garde, so IRCAM needed an update. IRCAM’s entry, as it is an underground music facility, was a slot on the ground next to the Centre Pompidou that led to underground chambers represented by a vast empty space aboveground. The entrance was covered in flat glass with an opening for the single-run staircase. This then led to a space underneath called the Espace de Projection, a variable acoustics hall, and was regarded as the finest marriage of architecture and acoustics.

 

Piano’s new entrance, built over the ground entrance, is a tower constructed of brick.  Although Piano used this material because the city officials mandated it, he wanted to push the boundaries and thus hung the bricks in stainless steel panels. The tower is somewhat blank looking, which retains the mystery of the original entrance on the ground.

 

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Red-bricked IRCAM building viewed across Pompidou sculpture garden, via IRCAM, Paris

 

From October 1997, the French museum was closed for 27 months paint and repair the exterior, increase the exhibition space, upgrade the library, and built a new restaurant and gift shop, at a cost of $135 million. Renzo Piano and the French architect Jean-Francois headed the project.

 

In January 2021, it was announced the Centre Pompidou would close for renovations from late 2023 until 2027. Le Figaro has reported that the renovations could cost about $243 million and would include a major upgrade of the heating and cooling systems, escalators and elevators, and asbestos removal.

 

Centre Pompidou: A Veritable Center of Modernity

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Crowds waiting in the public square, via Dezeen; with Centre-Pompidou Metz, via ArchDaily

 

The significance of the Centre Pompidou has been apparent from its opening in 1977: its success is hardly debatable. The internationally renowned French museum, called Beaubourg by Parisians, is the largest museum for modern art in Europe and attracts approximately 8 million visitors a year.

 

The design of the center was intended to illustrate modern art and position Paris as the home of modernity. Therefore, it made no attempt to merge with the surrounding area and was like nothing anyone had seen before. When Centre Pompidou turned 40 in 2017, Renzo Piano’s firm stated, “The Center is like a huge spaceship made of glass, steel and colored tubing that landed unexpectedly in the heart of Paris, and where it would very quickly set deep roots.”

 

“The shock of the new is always really rather difficult to get over,” Rogers has said. “All good architecture is modern in its time. Gothic was a fantastic shock; the Renaissance was another shock to all the little medieval buildings.” Rogers has also pointed out the hostility the Eiffel Tower provoked when it was new.

The Center Pompidou Today

The Center now has permanent outposts in Malaga, Metz, and Brussels. In 2019, the Centre Pompidou and the West Bund Development Group launched a five-year partnership, organizing exhibitions and cultural events in Shanghai. Additionally, the Center will also open an outpost in Jersey City, NJ, USA (a short distance from Manhattan) in 2024, kicking off a five-year agreement with the city and institution.

 

The Centre Pompidou has firmly cemented itself globally as a beacon of innovation. It’s not only one of the world’s most important centers of art, but its architecture still turns heads, simulates conversation, provokes hostility, and draws people in.



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By Lisa de LucaLisa is an artist and writer with degrees in Fine Art (BFA) and Art Restoration from FIT in New York. Her professional experience includes years as a gilder and restorer with clients including Sotheby's, Christie's, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and as an art broker working for a number of gallerists and antique dealers. Lisa's areas of interest are the history and art of the late Roman Republic and Roman Empire, Italy between 1450-1650, and Tudor England.