Pompidou Center Opens in Paris Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Pompidou Center in Paris provoked controversy because of its innovative architecture, but its museum of modern art and culture proved immensely popular.

Summary of Event

In December, 1969, only six months after his election to the presidency of France, Georges Pompidou proposed that a new museum of modern art and culture be constructed in the Beaubourg section of Paris. He selected as the site for the museum an undeveloped area that had been used as a parking lot for several decades. Although Pompidou would have preferred for political reasons that this very expensive museum be designed by French architects, he willingly accepted the recommendation of his committee that the proposal submitted by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, two relatively young foreign architects, be accepted over all the designs submitted by French architects. Pompidou Center Museums Architecture;Pompidou Center Art;museums [kw]Pompidou Center Opens in Paris (Jan. 31, 1977) [kw]Paris, Pompidou Center Opens in (Jan. 31, 1977) Pompidou Center Museums Architecture;Pompidou Center Art;museums [g]Europe;Jan. 31, 1977: Pompidou Center Opens in Paris[02750] [g]France;Jan. 31, 1977: Pompidou Center Opens in Paris[02750] [c]Architecture;Jan. 31, 1977: Pompidou Center Opens in Paris[02750] [c]Organizations and institutions;Jan. 31, 1977: Pompidou Center Opens in Paris[02750] [c]Arts;Jan. 31, 1977: Pompidou Center Opens in Paris[02750] Piano, Renzo Rogers, Richard Pompidou, Georges Johnson, Philip

The design presented by Piano and Rogers for the construction of the proposed museum was highly original. The plan called for all the structural supports, duct works, heating and air-conditioning equipment, and electrical boxes to be left clearly visible in the Pompidou Center. Visitors enter the museum by means of enclosed escalators, which take visitors halfway up the outside of the center. Unlike almost all other museums, the Pompidou Center does not have a traditional entrance on the ground floor. Huge transparent panes of glass form the exterior walls of the museum, and nothing is hidden inside or outside. Each of the museum’s five floors is a vast open space. Piano and Rogers suggested that temporary partitions, and not permanent walls, be used to divide the various exhibition areas in the museum. Piano and Rogers wanted the Pompidou Center to be as flexible as possible so that it could accommodate the ever-changing needs of the museum’s curators.

Piano and Rogers decided to use four bright colors on the outside of the museum; red was used for escalators and elevators, blue for heating and air-conditioning ducts, yellow for electrical ducts, and green for water pipes. Colors indicated usage; this facilitated the job of workers, but it also created a very effective contrast both with the fairly drab nineteenth century buildings that surround the Pompidou Center and with more traditional Parisian museums such as the Louvre, the exterior walls of which are made of solid and imposing marble.

The vast open spaces on each floor and the extremely unconventional use of bright colors and huge, transparent panes of glass displeased many architects and public officials in France. The eminent American architect Philip Johnson, who had served on the committee that chose Piano and Rogers to design the museum, reacted with disbelief when Piano and Rogers assured him that they had no intention of installing permanent interior walls in the public areas on any of the five identical floors. The controversy concerning the Pompidou Center did not end with its official opening in January, 1977. The February, 1977, issue of Architectural Design magazine included several articles by influential architects who severely criticized the aesthetic choices made by Piano and Rogers.

The lively political and artistic controversy surrounding the Pompidou Center only served to attract huge crowds to the new museum, which proved immensely popular with French and foreign tourists. In a 1987 book, Rogers noted with real pride that the Pompidou Center consistently attracted more visitors than even the Louvre.

Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers designed a museum which has proved itself to be much more flexible than traditional museums. Exhibitions can be moved with ease to any of the five identical floors. The Pompidou Center contains not only an art museum but also an open-stack library, numerous restaurants and cafés, an architectural museum, and, underground, the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics and Music (IRCAM). Piano and Rogers decided to build IRCAM completely underground in order not to destroy the aesthetic effect of the superstructure of the Pompidou Center.

In April, 1974, Georges Pompidou died and the next month Valéry Giscard d’Estaing Giscard d’Estaing, Valéry was elected president of France. At first, Giscard was not sure whether he wanted his government to continue funding the expensive and controversial project. He finally decided, however, not only to permit the completion of the museum but to change its name from the Beaubourg Center to the Georges Pompidou National Center of Modern Art and Culture. Since its opening in early 1977, the Pompidou Center has acquired numerous important works of modern art for its permanent collection and has also organized many influential historical and comparative exhibitions.

Significance

Georges Pompidou was an unusual politician, and it is not surprising that the museum that now bears his name is so imaginative and controversial. While he served in the 1960’s as the prime minister in the government of Charles de Gaulle, Pompidou participated in several conferences on French literature, and he also produced a highly respected anthology of French poetry. Although his academic training was in classical languages, he was interested in modern art from France and from other countries as well.

The main hall of the Pompidou Center in Paris.

(Jean-noël Lafargue)

Pompidou recognized the value of multiculturalism in France. While the selection committee was deciding which proposal should be accepted for the construction of the Beaubourg Center, Pompidou had a long discussion with Philip Johnson. Pompidou wanted to know what the French government could do in order to reestablish Paris as a major international center for the exhibition of modern art. Pompidou sensed that New York City, with its Museum of Modern Art and its Guggenheim Museum, had eclipsed Paris as the major artistic center for the exhibition of modern art. When he proposed in late 1969 the construction of the Beaubourg Center, however, he likely did not imagine that the museum would become so immensely popular that it would attract more visitors than any other Parisian museum.

The reaction to Pompidou’s initial proposal was predictable. The French opposition parties, especially the Socialists, denounced the Beaubourg project as unnecessary, and their displeasure increased when the selection committee chose two foreign architects, who refused to hire exclusively French contractors and suppliers for the museum’s construction. Rogers and Piano were not happy when many French construction companies submitted bids that the designers judged to be excessively high. They wanted to deal with both French and foreign companies so that the vast project could be completed on time and under budget; Piano and Rogers demanded and obtained the right to have complete control over the planning and construction of the Beaubourg Center.

Piano and Rogers understood that Paris already had a large number of formal museums built in imposing marble, and many critics believed that such museums appealed largely to a social or artistic elite. Piano and Rogers made a conscious effort to create a flexible museum in which people of all nationalities and social classes would feel comfortable. The exterior walls of the Pompidou Center are composed purely of panes of transparent glass, and this created an impression of openness. The bright colors used throughout the Pompidou Center strike visitors as playful and seem to convey the idea that one can have fun while admiring the magnificent works of art displayed. A vast plaza was preserved in front of the Pompidou Center, and magicians and street artists are allowed to perform there; such popular artists are not permitted in the vicinity of the more traditional Parisian museums.

When the French government asked Piano and Rogers to include the IRCAM facilities in the Pompidou Center, the architects added a witty touch. IRCAM was constructed under an adjoining plaza, and Rogers and Piano designed a shallow rectangular fountain for the plaza; brightly colored mechanical statues of hearts, lips, musical symbols, and smiling human faces were placed in the fountain. These imaginative sculptures and the many water spouts in the fountain bring much aesthetic pleasure to visitors and to those working at IRCAM. Although the numerous innovative elements in the Pompidou Center provoked controversy, this only served to increase popular interest in the new center of modern art and culture. The controversy quickly abated, and the Pompidou Center soon became an integral part of the landscape of Paris.

Although the Pompidou Center possesses an impressive permanent collection of paintings and sculptures by eminent artists, the museum has become especially famous for its special historical exhibitions, which have illustrated the myriad artistic connections between France and other countries. In 1977, a major exhibition at the Pompidou Center dealt with the many links between the artistic centers of Paris and New York. This exhibition made visitors understand more completely both the profound influence of French artists on their American colleagues and the equally strong influence of American art, music, and cinema on the cultural life of France. Cooperative agreements between the Pompidou Center and many American museums made this special exhibition possible. The curators of the Pompidou Center wanted people to appreciate the fully international nature of the work displayed there. Priority would not be given to French artists. Artistic quality, and not the nationality of an artist, would determine whether a work of art should be shown in the museum.

The New York-Paris exhibition of 1977 was followed by many other equally successful historical exhibitions that explored the artistic, musical, and even cinematographic links between Paris and Moscow and between Paris and Berlin. In addition to such massive historical and comparative exhibitions, the Pompidou Center has also organized many excellent exhibitions to examine the work of individual artists. One of the most successful exhibitions of this type was the museum’s superb 1982 retrospective showing of selected masterpieces by the American abstract painter Jackson Pollock. Although it would be incorrect to say that Pollock’s work was not held in high esteem in 1982, this retrospective exhibition at the Pompidou Center enabled a new generation of museumgoers to see for themselves his stunning masterpieces of abstract art. Pompidou Center Museums Architecture;Pompidou Center Art;museums

Further Reading
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    Architectural Design 47 (February, 1977). Special issue devoted to discussion of the Pompidou Center contains several essays by prominent architects who comment on the significance of the Pompidou Center in relation to other museums of modern art. Includes a brief statement by Piano and Rogers, highly complimentary essays by Andrew Rabeneck and Dennis Crompton, and very negative essays by Alan Colquhoun and Ted Happold.
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    xlink:type="simple">Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou. Centre Pompidou. New York: Rizzoli, 1977. Contains detailed plans of the original and revised designs prepared by Piano and Rogers for the construction of the Pompidou and clearly explains how Piano and Rogers solved the many practical problems involved in building the center.
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    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Douglas. “Paris: The Palace of Pleasure.” In The Museum Transformed: Design and Culture in the Post-Pompidou Age. New York: Abbeville Press, 1990. Contains a thoughtful analysis of the architectural importance of the Pompidou Center and describes the influence of Piano and Rogers on architects who have designed museums since the completion of the Pompidou Center in 1977. Includes an excellent bibliography.
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    xlink:type="simple">DeRoo, Rebecca J. The Museum Establishment and Contemporary Art: The Politics of Artistic Display in France After 1968. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Examines how museums responded to political protests of the era and how museums failed to represent artists’ work and intentions. Chapter 5, “Institutionalizing ’68,” focuses on the Pompidou Center.
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    xlink:type="simple">Lucie-Smith, Edward, ed. Masterpieces from the Pompidou Center. Translated by Simon Watson Taylor. London: Thames and Hudson, 1983. Contains color photographs of 120 major paintings and sculptures in the permanent collection of the Pompidou Center. Critical commentaries are given for each masterpiece included in the book.
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    xlink:type="simple">Steegmuller, Francis. “Paris Celebrates.” The Atlantic Monthly, June, 1977, 88-90. Steegmuller declares the Pompidou Center to be a sanctimonious flop. He asserts that the Duchamp brothers, artists whose work was displayed at the opening of the center, would have loved it—but that they would have thought of it as a gigantic joke.

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