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Centre Pompidou, a monument to modernity: 8 things you didn’t know

A new book explores the secrets of this revolutionary building

Aerial View of the Place Georges Pompidou
Aerial View of the Place Georges Pompidou
All images provided by Yale University Press

It’s been called an “architectural King Kong,” and Parisian critics drolly respond that some of the best views of the city come from the rooftop of the structure, since it’s the only place where you don’t have to look at it. The French politician and president for whom it was named said, when he saw the final design, that, 'this will make them scream.'' Since it’s construction, writers have joked that, due to its exterior, skeletal staircases, it’s impossible to tell when it’s under repair. Even praise from National Geographic—”love at second sight”—seems a bit backhanded.

The Centre Pompidou, perhaps the most iconic modern building in the architectural period piece that is the Paris streetscape, has been called many things during its 40 years. The multi-colored, inside-out, machine of a modern art museum, designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, along with Arup engineers and Gianfranco Franchini, was built between 1970 and 1977 in a then-radical fashion to create column-less, flexible interior space for exhibitions (each floor is the size of two full soccer fields). It’s now an icon, firmly into middle age. The French government just approved a $106 million facelift. But at this moment of renovation, a reappraisal also seems fitting.

Early sketch of the Centre Pompidou
One of the early models showing the evolution of the competition design, by Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, Gianfranco Franchini, and Ove Arup & Partners

According to Francesco Dal Co, an architectural history professor and author of Centre Pompidou: Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, and the Making of a Modern Monument, released this month from Yale University Press, the building is many things, including an inspiration to numerous cultural centers. But most importantly, it’s a paradox.

“The architects thought the huge public building was a gesture against power,” he says. “The French people thought that it was a monument to the glory of France, even though it was designed by a British and French architect and assembled by Germans.”

Dal Co’s book, an extensive and intriguing history of the structure that transformed a bland car park in Centre Beaubourg into museum of the future, offers a great starting point for a serious reflection on its impact and legacy. Here are some of the lesser-known facts about the great monument to modernity.

Model built after winning the design competition
Model built after winning the design competition

It was the end result, not just a cause, of a revolution

One of the larger architectural outliers in history doesn’t seem quite as odd when you consider the context in which it was designed and built. Coming after 1968, a year that saw student riots in Paris spur talk of another revolution—widespread strikes in May of that year nearly brought the economy to a halt—the museum arrived at a time of political ferment and experimentation. The competition for designs asked for a space that encouraged “participation, dialogue, and free expression,” ideas that would have been lifted directly from the signs of student protesters from just a few years before. Piano explicitly stated that the architects conceived of the open, flexible space in “the spirit of ‘68.” This was both a design, and political, statement.

Renzo Piano, Su Rogers, Richard Rogers, Ted Happold, and Peter Rice
Renzo Piano, Su Rogers, Richard Rogers, Ted Happold, and Peter Rice in front of a presentation board featuring their design for the Centre Beaubourg competition, Paris, 1971.

It made the statement that Paris was the home of modernity

According to Dal Co, the Pompidou’s progressive, forward-thinking design was meant to challenge not just French visitors, but New Yorkers. The American city had been established as a center of modernity, and the French government wanted to create an eclectic cultural center and architectural marvel that give U.S. supremacy a run for its money. At the time, the French felt disrespected; they had recently built the Concorde, only to have it rejected by the U.S. government.

It quickly became an icon

While early expectations suggested the grab-bag of a museum would struggle to succeed, it’s eclectic and contemporary programming no match for the offering in such a renowned cultural capital, the Pompidou soon became a serious draw. A decade in, it was outpacing the Eiffel Tower in terms of annual visits (7 versus 4.1 million in 1987).

Facade of the building on rue du Renard
Facade of the building on rue du Renard

The external skeleton has a color code

The building’s most famous structural feature is its “inside-out” construction, which emphasizes the idea of the cultural center as a machine and places the mechanical systems on the exterior, to keep the inside unencumbered and open (that also explains the clear walkways that snake up the side of the structure like human habitrails).

But the multi-colored pipes and structures aren’t merely colored for show. Each shade corresponds to a certain function: ventilation components were painted white; stairs and elevators are grey; smaller ventilation pieces were blue; plumbing and fire control are green; electrical systems are yellow and orange; and elevator motor room were colored red. Piano once called the structure, “a spaceship, if it was designed by Jules Verne.”

Competition jury for the Pompidou
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)

The plan was presented to, and approved, by a stacked jury

The team judging the Centre Pompidou proposals was a miniature architectural hall of fame. Philip Johnson, Oscar Niemeyer, and Jorn Utzon all joined a group of museum experts and curators to decide on the winning scheme. However, the most influential juror was French industrial designer Jean Prouve, renowned for his early steel furniture and prefab metal homes. He came out strongly for the Piano/Rogers plan, saying that it was both simple, and wasn’t a monument, two conditions spelled out in the competition brief. It’s debatable how simple the space was to complete, but it’s definitely become a monument over time.

The structural solution had a very old-fashioned inspiration

The Pompidou deserves all the credit it gets for its radical exterior, an evolutionary leap that would inform generations of public spaces. But the actual structural solution used to support the building’s flexible floorplates was actually very old fashioned. According to Dal Co, the structural solution to the building was adapted from an idea utilized by a 19th century German bridge at Hassfurt in Bavaria, designed by engineer Heinrich Gerber.

Explanatory model of the building structure of the Centre Pompidou
Explanatory model of the building structure of the Centre Pompidou

Peter Rice and the other engineers named the innovative structural element at the center of the building’s design, the gerberettes, in his honor. These elements connected the building’s long-span trusses with its perimeter column; they act as see-saws, balancing different forces. The six-story structure is composed of 14 rows of these gerberettes, anchored into the ground by steel poles that support and balance the building’s weight.

Rice used cast steel, an uncommon material for a load-bearing element, which caused consternation from French authorities, who created entirely new tests to make sure the building was safe. The concept required Krupp, the German foundry, to case special steel piece, which were then trucked into Paris. This video by Arup offers a more technical explanation.

It was a more serious version of the Fun Palace

Before designing the Pompidou, Rogers and Piano came up in the London architectural world of the 1960s, one the included experimental and exotic designs by influential thinkers such as Cedric Price, a worldly theorist and graduate of the Architectural Association. In the ‘60s, Price and Joan Littlewood, a famed theater director, devised the Fun Palace, a flexible cultural space that functioned as a giant, mobile world. It was a “shipyard” of cultural venues, including theaters, restaurants, and cinemas, a massive, flexible leisure space that functioned as a “university of the streets.”

While never built, the Fun Palace idea was championed and discussed by many in London, and many of the philosophical underpinnings were adopted by the Pompidou architects (who also drew from radical designers such as Frei Otto and Buckminster Fuller). The final scheme, which contained an open plaza, an element found in few of the other entries, echoed the idea of the building as a place of free-flowing cultural exchange.

Centre Pompidou
Centre Pompidou

Engineers were central to the project from the beginning

From the outset, Rogers and Piano worked together with engineers from Arup, including the legendary Peter Rice and Ted Happold, to help translate their ideas into workable plans and a functional structure. Rice, a legend within the structural engineering community, had experienced the challenges and controversy of the Sydney Opera House project, where the difficulty of translating architect Jorn Utzon’s vision into a workable model led to delays and Utzon’s eventual dismissal. Unwilling to go through a similar experience, Rice and the Arup team worked closely with the architects, helping to further popularize the design-build, collaborative approach for which Arup is famous.

Aerial view of the surrounding neighborhood
Aerial view of the surrounding neighborhood