Centre Pompidou – 30 years

Posted: February 1, 2007 in creativity

Yesterday, the French Centre Pompidou, in full Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou (’Georges Pompidou National Art and Cultural Centre’) turned 30. The Centre was constructed between 1971-1977 and formally opened on January 31, 1977 by the the then French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing.

It is named after the former French president Georges Pompidou, under whose administration the museum was commissioned. Architecturally it is a statement about Georges Pompidou the person, who was a lover of modern art and who, though being a conservative, wanted to build a big contemporary free access art museum and free access library (no economic rationalist thinking here). Although disapproving the project finally adopted by the jury, he did try not to question it. The architects were Renzo Piano of Italy and Richard Rogers of Britain; they wanted to create a building familiar to people’s minds (such as a factory), while at the same time associating it with notions of playfulness and curiosity. And the result certainly is not an intimidating temple of culture.

Before taking a closer look at the Pompidou Centre, I would like to briefly explore its surroundings. The centre is located on Rue Beaubourg and on the fringes of the historic Le Marais section of Paris and Les Halles. Les Halles, located in the 1st arrondissement, is named for the large central wholesale marketplace, which was demolished in 1971, to be replaced with an underground modern shopping precinct, the Forum des Halles. It is notable in that the open air center area is below street level, like a pit, and contains sculpture, fountains, and mosaics. Les Halles originally was created in 1183 by King Philippe II Auguste. He enlarged the then marketplace in Paris and built a shelter for the merchants, who came from all over the country to sell their wares. In the 1850’s, the massive glass and iron buildings were constructed that Les Halles was known for. Les Halles was also known as the “stomach of Paris”. Emile Zola’s 1873 novel Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris) revolves around Les Halles.

Le Marais is another famous district in Paris. GoNomad describes it as a once mere swampland (Le Marais means’ swamp’) having become one of the most eclectic, sumptuous and surprising quarters of Paris. In walking distance of the Louvre, the Seine, the Sorbonne, and Notre Dame, it is a city within a city, where people can be who they want to be. It is one of the few places in Paris that nourishes the eccentric, mixes classic beauty with quirky charms, cradles tradition while breathing life into creative minds that cherish innovation. This is Europe at its best.

Consisting of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements, the heart of the Marais started beating in the 12th century when the Christian religious institutions began to build, followed by the Jewish community. But the area really began to flourish when the Kings left the Louvre to live in the Hotel Saint-Pol and Henri the IV and decided to build La Place Royale, today known as Place de Vosges. The French aristocracy constructed around it their private mansions, the sublime hotels, turning it into a charismatic square; some of those hotels can be still visited today. Around the seventeenth century, the Marais suffered through a dark spot in its history. Versailles took over the spotlight and the noblemen began to sell their hotels to the bourgeois. Its luster temporarily dulled, especially at the time of the French Revolution, but in the nineteenth century the Marais developed a new charm with the settling of artists and small merchants in the community. In 1962, the law of Malraux permitted destruction and renovations, which gave Le Marais a much-needed face-lift, but also destroyed some parts of its history. Luckily though, in spite of the demolitions, the historical sites are still plentiful. [Melissa Schulz]

Le Marais though is not only known for its historic buildings, shopping (both cheap and expensive), cafes and restaurants, and its lifestyles, ranging from extravagant to alternative; it is also a cultural centre with past and current bohemian flair. On an art consumption level, this is reflected in the many museums and other culture temples in the area. The southeast corner of Place de la Bastille for example is dominated (some say overwhelmed) by the flashy, curved, glassy-gray facade of the controversial Opera Bastille (see below right). In a symbolic attempt to bring high culture to the masses, former French President Francois Mitterrand chose this square for the opera house to become Paris’ main opera venue, edging out Paris’ earlier “palace of the rich”, the Garnier-designed opera house (see above left). Designed by the then unknown Uruguayan and in Canada living architect Carlos Ott, Opera Bastille was opened with fanfare by Mitterrand on the 200th Bastille Day, July 14, 1989. [Rick Steves].

The Musee Picasso is another interesting place to visit in Le Marais. It is situated in the Hotel Sale, built built between 1656 and 1659 for Pierre Aubert, Lord of Fontenay, who became rich collecting the Salt Tax (the name of the building means “salted”). The mansion has changed hands several times through both sales and inheritances. The occupants have included: the Embassay of the Republic of Venice (1671), the Marechal de Villeroi, and the French state – through expropriation during the Revolution. In 1815 it became a school in which Balzac studied; it also housed the municipal Ecole des Metiers d’Art. In 1964 it was acquired by the City of Paris, and was granted historical monument status in 1968.

In 1968, France created a law that allows heirs to pay inheritance taxes with works of art instead of money (known as dation), as long as the art is considered an important contribution to the French cultural heritage. Upon Jacqueline Picasso’s death in 1986, her daughter offered a dation leading to the setting up of the museum. The State inherited of 203 paintings, 158 sculptures, more than 3000 drawings. Based on Jacqueline Picasso’s will, a second endowment enriched the museum in 1990. Today, the museum also shows about a hundred works from contemporary artists, once owned by Picasso (Picasso’s name name of birth by the way seems to have been Pablo Diego Jose Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno Maria de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santisima Trinidad Clito Ruiz y Picasso ;) – quite a mouthful; see a self-portrait of his on the right). Swiss-Italian sculptor Diego Giacometti designed the furniture of the museum. The brother of the famous sculptor Alberto Giacometti created amongst others items, the seats, chairs and tables in bronze, as well as the centre lights in white resin. Organised in a chronological way, the museum exhibits complement in some ways those of the to the Museo Picasso in Barcelona. They start with Picasso’s blue and pink period, continue with his cubist paintings and focus especially on the works done after the 1920s.

Other museums in Le Marais include the museums of the history of Paris as well as of France. Both of them showcase anything from archaeological objects to painting, furniture, room decorations and architectural features. While the European House of Photography is not an unusual place to exhibit creative works, the Museum of magic and curiosities certainly is not exactly mainstream. Apart from real magic performances, it presents accessories of “amusing physics” from the 17th and 18th centuries, like magician’s tools that make objects disappear or to distort reality: for example the box of a sawn-apart woman, small “secret box” in which jewels disappear, or brass objects that are malleable. The Dolls Museum replaced in 1995 another obscure one: the museum of mechanic instruments. The new museum shows a collection of dolls and of French porcelain “babies” dating from 1860 to 1960, gathered by two collectors, Guido and his son Samy Odin. Presented in a decor recalling the times and style of their creation, the dolls have evolved: the “Parisians” from 1860-1870 have an adult face and copy the fashion of the day. It is only after 1880 that the first dolls appear with a child face, being finally replaced by those with a baby face. Last but not least there is the Ironwork/Bricard Museum. Set up in an old restored private mansion that was bought and restored by the Bricard Company which specialised in ornamental ironwork, the museum shows keys in bronze and Gallo-Roman iron, Gothic door knockers from the Middle Ages, and locks and keys from the 16th to the 19th century.

While there are so many more things that could be said and written about Le Marais, I just like to mention that Paris in general and the Marais in particular are seen as Europe’s alternative gay capital. In the past few years, Paris, which is the one of the world’s most visited city, is seen by some as the world’s most gay city. In a France that is becoming more and more conservative, Paris was the first capital in the world to elect an openly gay mayor in March 2001. Gay Pride March in June 2006 gathered up to 800 000 people in the streets. Paris remains the city of freedom and tolerance in a country that has the worst score in Europe for the extreme right wing national front in the recent local election. Le Marais is the gay district, with gays strongly influencing fashion as well as real estate prices. Real estate values have doubled in 5 years; an average price for a small studio starts at 150,000 Euros (A$250,000 which doesn’t seem much compared to Sydney prices). Right now, Paris and especially Le Marais seem to be the place to be and stay for gays (and hopefully also lesbians), with over 300 gay places to go out to and hundreds of excellent restaurants and bars.

Finally back to the actual centre of this reflection: the Pompidou Centre. Designed by Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, Sue Rogers, Edmund Happold and Peter Rice, the building structure is very distinctive: it has been described by critics as “an oil refinery in the centre of the city.” The coloured external piping is the special feature of the building. Air conditioning ducts are blue; water pipes are green; and electricity lines are yellow. Escalators and elevators are red. White ducts are ventilation shafts for the underground areas. Even the steel beams that make up the Pompidou Centre’s framework are on the outside.

The intention of the architects was to place the various service elements (electricity, water etc.) outside of the building’s framework and therefore turn the building “inside out.” The arrangement also allows an uncluttered internal space for the display of art works, drawing on ideas promulgated by Cedric Price’s Fun Palace project (1964).

Its industrial-looking exterior certainly was seen at the beginning by many and probably by some still today as quite overpowering and dwarfing its surroundings. It also attracted notoriety for its brightly coloured exterior pipes, ducts, and other exposed services. I have to say though that I quite like it. It is an expression of the post-modern zeitgeist that shapes our thought and creativity, breaking down the old linkage barriers of function and form, and re-assembling the elements of deconstruction in a playful, irreverent and provocative way. And while the critics and the more conservative parts of the public might have waged their intellectual and grudge wars against it, the Pompidou Centre quickly became a popular attraction and one of the most frequently visited cultural monuments in the world.

Primarily, the Centre Pompidou is a museum and centre for the visual arts of the 20th century, but it also houses many separate services and activities. Its Musée National d’Art Moderne, located on the fourth and fifth floors of the Centre, brought under one roof several public collections of modern art previously housed in a number of other Paris galleries; the mu seum also offers frequent temporary exhibitions devoted to modern themes.The Musée National d’Art Moderne has a major international collection of modern art by artists such as Kandinsky, Matisse, Miró, Picasso, etc. Some of the art movements represented are Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. It has 50,000 works of art (including painting, sculpture, drawing, and photography), of which 1,500 to 2,000 are on public display. Also located here is the Centre of Industrial Design, in which 20th century architecture and design are covered. The museum has a rolling program of important temporary exhibitions.

The Musée National d’Art Moderne is organisationally linked with IRCAM, the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, which is located nearby. IRCAM is associated with the French conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, known as the Centre for Musical and Acoustical Research (IRCAM). The music centre comprises rehearsal rooms, studios, and a concert hall and presents concerts devoted primarily to modern music.

The first three floors of the Centre house a large public library a library, the Bibliotheque publique d’information; the Centre also has a film museum. But it is not just the building that draws the visitors attention. Located outside the building are the Stravinsky Fountain (also called the Fontaine des automates – see image above), which features works by Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint-Phalle. In front of the Centre lies the Place Georges Pompidou, which is noted for the presence of street performers, such as mimes, jugglers and footpath artists (see image below). All up, quite a feast for the senses and the mind.


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