The Original Shock of the Pompidou Center

The future began on Monday, January 31, 1977. At the intersection of the Rue Beaubourg and the Rue du Renard, in Paris, along the roughest edge of the Marais, it took the form of a big new multipurpose public building—médiathèque, cinémathèque, bibliothèque, musée—in tempered glass and cast steel. At a hundred and forty-nine feet tall, the building was well above the general height limit of some sixty feet—established during the nineteenth-century reign of Napoleon III, by the Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann—that still gives central Paris its relentlessly charming conformity. It looked like something between an oil refinery and the deck of a container ship. It was the Pompidou Center, inaugurated on that day by the President of the French Republic, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and named for his late precursor in that office, Georges Pompidou. That earlier President had, by acceding to an unusually wide-open 1971 design competition featuring more than six hundred entries from forty-nine countries, caused the building to be designed by a small group of men who, by the traditionally geriatric standards of architects, were then achingly young. These were the engineers Edmund (Ted) Happold and Peter Rice (who, with Ove Arup, had recently helped realize the Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House), plus the designers Gianfranco Franchini and John Young, and, more famously, Renzo Piano and his senior design partner Richard Rogers—who died in December, 2021, aged eighty-eight.

At the July, 1971, ceremony announcing the competition results, 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-tweed-and-corduroy uniform of an Oxbridge intellectual; the shaggy Anglo-Italian Rogers, just like George Harrison on that London crosswalk, wore head-to-toe worker’s denim in the manner of a British railwayman. A prominent design critic of the era compared the building precisely to the Beatles’ yellow submarine from the eponymous 1968 film: an uncanny vessel—colorful, forcefully cheerful, menacingly charismatic—that surfaces in the heart of an unsuspecting city. “When President Pompidou looked at the drawings,” Rogers recalled, “all he said was ‘Ça va faire crier.’ ” (“This is going to make some noise.”)

What made the Pompidou Center such an incarnation of futurity was the effort of its creators to translate the agony and ecstasy, the tactical spontaneity, the immediacy of the urban street protests, student actions, and other countercultural spatial practices of its times—Paris, Vietnam, civil rights, Earth Day, and the bomb—into the built environment. The Pompidou Center partially did this by burying half of itself underground and ceding half of its territory to a new public plaza that was ramped slightly down in the direction of the façade, just as a theatre floor tilts in the direction of its stage—a tilt that enabled a crowd in the plaza to see itself. As for the plaza’s backdrop, the objectives were to enable a big urban building to become as lively as a village green during a fair, or as a street during a people’s occupation; to literally accelerate and mobilize such a building using high technology; to apply steel structural frames and cinema screens and scrolling signage and other mechanical marvels, from construction cranes to the bright lights seen in Times Square; and to combine and deploy such devices deep within the hearts of cities. All these moving and shining parts could both harvest and catalyze the energy of the people in the streets.

The winning competition entry featured adjustable floors and illuminated interactive signs on which to post architecturally scaled texts—such as the cryptic fragment in a celebrated concept drawing, “ANIMATED MOVIES PRODUCTION FOR THE COMPUTER TECHNIQUE…” or, more prosaically, in another drawing, “CAROLINE, GO TO KANSAS CITY IMMEDIATELY YOUR FRIEND LINDA HAS BEEN BUSTED.” All this was in the air back then. The Montreal Expo, in 1967, and the Osaka Expo, in 1970, featured geodesic domes, graphic multiscreen Pop-art-adjacent cinematic projection spectacles, bold supergraphics, and tumescent pneumatics that expressed an improbable confluence of space-age technical acumen, Parisian barricade-making, and Swinging London aspirational sex appeal. Piano’s independent scheme for the Italian industrial pavilion at the Osaka Expo, a stretchy tent in a delicate steel frame, prompted Rogers to suggest that the two partner for the Pompidou. A direct precedent for their competition entry was the 1961 Fun Palace, an unbuilt project legendary among Anglophilic and utopian designers, developed by the visionary architect Cedric Price, with the patronage of the theatrical director Joan Littlewood and, later, the collaboration of the cybernetician and psychologist Gordon Pask. Price, a commanding contrarian who taught at London’s Architectural Association during Rogers’s time there as a student, built almost nothing—save for an epic bird cage at the London Zoo—but influenced, in the enclosed habitat that was the mid-twentieth-century trans-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 gathered all the machines and marvels of the British Empire, plus some tall preëxisting elms on its Hyde Park site, under one vast glass-and-iron enclosure, a kit-of-parts structure later unbuilt and rebuilt far south of the Thames, before it burned down in 1936. The Fun Palace was designed to go even faster. It was to be a kind of life-size Erector Set or Tinker Toy, an inhabitable magical box of machines and screens that could be continuously unmade and remade by its users for entertainment, expression, education, and social action—a new kind of commons crossed with a circus—realizing Littlewood’s theatrical project of blurring the antiquated distinctions between actors and audiences. It would have been what Price called an “anti-building.” Construction sites, all scaffoldings and cranes and trucks, tend to be more interesting places than the buildings they eventually yield: the Fun Palace solved this problem by being designed to be forever unfinished. And, like a garden, it would both invite and require constant tending.

Other significant influences on the Pompidou Center’s design were the psychedelic, technological visions of Archigram, an informal supergroup of British architects who in the sixties and seventies published a periodical “architectural telegram” featuring vivid depictions of walking cities and wearable cybernetic devices. These were sensational sublimations of the war machines that their designers had experienced as children during the Second World War. It was at the Pompidou Center that something of all this future—with a complicating assist from state power—finally came down to Earth, at scale and for real. In the early years, more people went there than up the Eiffel Tower. Designed for five thousand visitors a day, by the turn of the twenty-first century, the building accommodated five times that amount, and has seen an estimated two hundred and fifty million people since its opening. Early visitors were, perhaps in an especially French way, thrilled to be scandalized and scandalized to be thrilled. A critic for Le Monde called the new building “a kind of architectural King Kong.”

But you could say that this particular future of 1977, just like that great ape, didn’t last long. Before the building opened, the influential Anglo-American design critic Reyner Banham struck a preëmptively elegiac note, observing that, “Pompidou’s . . . transparency and color seem even truer nowadays to the departed aspirations of ‘the swinging 60s.’ ” “Seen against the low raking winter sunlight in the fresh snow of the last day of 1976, the west facade flashed with those ‘explosions of fire, ice and light’ that we were bidden 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 building’s construction budget was slashed. No more moving floors. What was left was one very big idea. The building was conceptually inside out: all of its steel structure was an exoskeleton, which meant not only vast, flexible, hangarlike clear 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 machinery and all, might work. Huge ducts and pipes—variously color-coded blue for air-conditioning, red for escalators and elevators, green for water, yellow for electrics—all snaked across the surface of the building with the fascinating jolie laide beauty of a car engine without its hood.

A setback in the building’s own history was a decision, made around the turn of the millenium, to start charging people to ride the signature monumental escalator that zigzags like a glass caterpillar up its side to a spectacular observation deck above. The fact of a ticket segregated the space of the building from the space of the city, turning citizens into consumers. Far from the dream of the continually under-construction Fun Palace, the Pompidou Center will be fully closed between 2023 and 2027 for restoration and asbestos remediation. The jury that selected Rogers and Piano’s design included not only the 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 the assimilation of successive avant-garde aesthetics into cultural and institutional establishments. And for all the small-“d” democratic vibes of the people’s palace that bears his name, it was Georges Pompidou who, as the Prime Minister for President Charles de Gaulle, did much to anticlimactically conclude the Paris student movements that were 1968’s most prominent expression.

A generation older than those students, Rogers had been a well-connected Florentine refugee from Fascism whose fortuitous ancestry brought him to England in 1938. Starting at age six, he went through that nation’s famously punishing boarding schools, from which military service plus an education at London’s Architectural Association and Yale University—under the tutelage of the American Brutalist hero Paul Rudolph—gave him a creative outlet and professional identity immune to both his then undiagnosed dyslexia and his insider-outsider status within Britain’s brittle and nativist class system.

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