An immediate architectural icon of Paris - the Centre national d’art et de culture Georges-Pompidou (Centre Pompidou, or Beaubourg) - is a vast multidisciplinary structure, a culture factory that preserves and exhibits important modern art collections. It is a place where the many strands of contemporary culture intertwine: art, design, literature, music and cinema. The centre is like a huge spaceship made of glass, steel and coloured tubing that landed unexpectedly in the heart of Paris, and where it would very quickly set deep roots.
The project was conceived in 1969 by then French President, Georges Pompidou. An international competition was launched by the French Ministry of Culture in 1971, which Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers entered and won. The two-hectare site, the ‘Plateau Beaubourg’, lies on the edge of the Marais right in the dense urban fabric of old Paris. Half of the area is taken up by the building with the other half, following a radical design strategy, devoted to the creation of a public space – the piazza, ‘parvis’, that gently slopes down to the lower-ground-floor entrance hall.
The entire structure of the 10-floor building (7 above ground, 3 below) is made of steel. Huge 48m warren trusses span the full width of the building. They are connected to columns at each end by a die-cast steel ‘gerberette’. This massive, visible set of structural components removes the requirement for internal support and thus enables the creation of huge open spaces. The resulting 50 x 170m plateaus can be arranged and equipped for any activity. To achieve maximum flexibility within these vast internal spaces, the services and circulation have been placed outside them. Lifts and escalators are contained within the support structure on the piazza façade. Escalators zig-zagging through transparent tubes up the front of the building afford increasingly extraordinary views out over Paris. The colour-coded utilities (blue for air, green for water, yellow for electricity and red for vertical circulation) are positioned along the Rue Beaubourg, street-side façade. Deliberately leaving behind the tradition of the austere, impenetrable monument, the Pompidou Centre is totally transparent in both face and function. It is inviting and understandable.
In addition to the big entrance Forum, the main upper-level gallery spaces and the vast library – the Bibliothèque publique d’information, found on the first, second and third levels of the main building –, the site also houses other departments, including the Atelier Brancusi and the IRCAM – the institute for music/acoustic research and coordination.
Despite earlier widespread opposition to the project, the public was quick to embrace the Centre Pompidou. From the opening in 1977 more than 150 million visitors passed through its doors. This extraordinary popularity made it necessary to close the building in order to renovate and enlarge public spaces. The Centre Pompidou re-opened in 2000.
From the moment the results of the open international competition for a new cultural center in Paris were announced in 1971, the Pompidou Center attracted both strong praise and fierce criticism. Designed by architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers together with structural engineers Ted Happold and Peter Rice of Ove Arup and Partners, the winning scheme was conceived as an antimonumental democratic palace of culture. Since opening in 1977, the Pompidou Center—also known simply as Beaubourg, the name of the site where it is located—has proved to be immensely successful in fulfilling the ambition of its designers, becoming both a focus of the contemporary visual arts in France and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe.
The competition, initiated by French President Georges Pompidou, attracted 681 entries. The nine-person jury included four architects of international distinction: Jean Prouvé (president of the jury), Philip Johnson, Oscar Niemeyer, and Jørn Utzon. In the event, Utzon was ill and unable to participate in the selection process. The winning scheme, selected in the first round of deliberations by a vote of 8 to 1, caused controversy when it was discovered that the designers were young and relatively unknown and that they were not French.
The building offered a bold vision of a new kind of monument that, instead of being pompous and elitist, would be populist and fun. Its thinking reflected a number of influences: Le Corbusier’s principles of pilotis (Stilts), the free plan, and the occupiable roof; the provocative avant-garde visions of Archigram and Cedric Price; and ideas about prefabricated systems buildings as advanced by architects including Jean Prouvé and Ezra Ehrencrantz. The architects organized the building as a disarmingly simple rectangular volume overlooking an enormous new public square. Pushing structure, services, and circulation to the exterior created vast open floors—each providing 7500 square meters of column-free space—that fulfilled the internal flexibility required by the competition brief. The envelope itself, inspired by a famous unbuilt scheme for the Maison de la Publicité (1935) on the Champs Élysées by the German architect Oscar Nitzchke, was to be an information machine animated by changing images and text.
The completed building, built under political pressure and to an extremely fast timetable, is remarkably faithful to the com-petition scheme. It is one of the outstanding achievements of the century and of the movement that subsequently would be called High Tech. A fastidious attention to detail that far surpassed conventional building technology of the time complements the building’s formal simplicity, setting new standards for both the architectural profession and the building industry.
Like the Eiffel Tower built a century earlier, the Pompidou Center uses technology to capture the spirit of the time. Happold and Rice were determined to use cast steel for the structure of the building. Although cast iron had been widely used in the 19th century, it had been supplanted by steel alloys that were less brittle and by rolling processes that were more efficient. Marrying 19th-century techniques with 20th-century knowledge of fracture mechanics, Rice was particularly interested in using cast steel as a way of reintroducing the human imprint of craft into techniques of industrial mass production.
A single row of columns along the east and west facades carries enormous castings called gerberettes, named in honor of Heinrich Gerber, a 19th-century German bridge engineer who developed the cantilever principle that defines the structural concept of the building. The gerberettes, connected to the columns with giant steel pins, are rotating arms with the inboard end shaped to carry 44.8-meter clear spanning steel trusses on seated connections without welds or bolts. To counterbalance these loads, “sputnik” bosses at the outer ends of the gerberettes are tied to the foundations with a series of tension rods. The gerberettes are shaped to reflect structural forces and, appropriately in view of Rice’s intentions, also have been described as strongly anthropomorphic.
The 95,000-square-meter building—which includes a mix of art galleries, design centers, libraries, theaters, cinemas, and restaurants—was constructed in just four-andone-half years. To compress the construction program, the steel superstructure, like many of the building components, was prefabricated during the 26-month period when the castin-place concrete foundations, mechanical plant rooms, and parking floors were built below grade. Following a diplomatic intrigue, the steel contract controversially was awarded to the German firm Krupp. The steel was brought to Paris by rail and, because of its enormous scale, transported to site at night on specially designed trucks. The contractors assembled the superstructure in vertical slices without scaf-folding. With an astounding 1500 tons of steel erected per month, it took just eight months to complete both frame and floors. Like the primary structure, the enclosure and secondary systems of the building were all designed as prefabricated kits of parts.
In the public imagination, the Pompidou Center is embodied in the color-coded vertical services risers and mechanical plant that define the east facade and the public escalators that are hung in clear plexiglass and steel tubes along the west facade. Viewed from the narrow medieval streets that surround the site, the services—characterized as irreverent, strident, and playful—express the radical spirit of the building. Although the envelope was not realized as an information machine, the escalators and public circulation galleries animate the west facade, making it an extension of the square. The public promenade rises far above the rooftops of the surrounding historic quarter to reveal spectacular panoramic views of Paris.
Following the completion of the Pompidou Center and an adjacent building for the Institute for Research and Coordination of Acoustics and Music (IRCAM) in 1977, the partnership of Piano and Rogers ended. Propelled to international prominence by the success of the Pompidou Center, each went on to achieve a distinguished reputation in his own right. Their subsequent individual collaborations with Peter Rice, ended by Rice’s untimely death in 1992, produced a number of distinguished buildings noted for both the advancement and humanization of technology.
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