smow blog Design Calendar: January 31st 1977 – Inauguration of Le Centre Pompidou, Paris

In 1969 the then French President Georges Pompidou announced his desire that Paris should posses a large museum dedicated to art of all kinds and which in addition to nurturing and promoting creativity was itself a landmark of the architecture of our age.

On January 31st 1977, and three years after George Pompidou’s untimely death, that desire became reality with the official opening of the Centre national d’art et de culture Georges-Pompidou, Le Centre Pompidou, Paris

Le Centre Pompidou, Paris (Photo Maureen, via

Le Centre Pompidou, Paris (Photo Maureen, via

Almost from the off the project courted controversy; be it the location, the cost or the very idea of developing such a multi-faceted project as the “Centre Beaubourg”. Problems which, somewhat inevitably, intensified when the result of the international architecture contest was announced and the winning entry from Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, realised together with the engineers Ove Arup + Partners, was unveiled in all its transparent, brutalist, inside out, garish, voluminous, abstract majesty.

Few works of architecture have polarised opinion quite as much as Le Center Pompidou, or indeed continue to do so neigh on forty years after their completion. And so to celebrate the anniversary of its inauguration, a few reflections from 1977……

Joyeux Anniversaire Le Centre Pompidou!!!

But to come into its full physical presence is a daunting experience. For it is a menacing building which stands like a man in full armour in a room full of civilians – indeed the glittering, rounded form of the outboard escalators gives a suggestion of greaves. Even so, the menace lies, not in a chance reference of this kind, but in the concept of society which this celebration of high technology supposes. One Centre Pompidou (like one Faber Dumas in Ipswich) is an exhilarating sight; but only contemplate what the centres of our cities would be like if they were chiefly composed of buildings of this kind and you see at once what a repellent fix we would be in.
Leader Comment, The Architectural Review, May 1977

…Pompidou cannot be perceived on the ground in Paris as anything but a monument; the competition brief may have said nothing about monuments, but the hidden hand of presidential power behind that brief sought a monument. Just how Piano+Rogers, who are audibly wary of ideas like monumentality, should have come to design so convincing a monument is not the least of the enigmas that surrounds this enigmatic “facility” (building is not the word for it) on the the Rue du Renard.
Enigma of the Rue du Renard. Criticism by Reyner Banham, The Architectural Review, May 1977

Everywhere you look you are overwhelmed by vast rectangular planes crossed by ducts, beams and lighting tubes. These – ubiquitous, aggressive and implacable – set you on edge. TODAY, NO ONE, ANYWHERE IN FRANCE, WOULD DARE TO DESIGN A FACTORY LIKE THAT.
Rene Barjavel, Le Journal du Dimanche, January 30th 1977 quoted in The Architectural Review, May 1977

It looks like some sort of supertanker anchored incongruously in the heart of Paris.
Charles Hargrove, Pompidou’s Cultural Colossus, The Times, February 1st 1977

To the unprejudiced eye, the exterior of the Centre Pompidou is the realization of Fernand Léger’s dream that great cities would one day rejoice in industrial forms, rather than seek to hide them, and would go on to give them the added emphasis of hot and strong color. So far from dwarfing or deriding the ancient streets which lead off from it in all directions, Beaubourg makes us aware all over again of their almost clandestine allurements. To walk along the Rue des Archives and come quite suddenly upon those visionary red and blues and greens is one of the great European experiences.
John Russell, Art View: The New Museum Parisians Love to Hate, New York Times, August 7th 1977

“Ugly, frightful and odious” were the words used by Solange d’Herbez de la Tour, President of the French Union of Women Architects, to describe Paris’ newest and most spectacular art museum.
Paris’ New Meccano Machine, Time, Vol 109, Issue 6, July 2nd 1977

With people moving through, it is kinetic sculpture on an awe-inspiring scale
Nathan Silver, Le Tour Babel, Harper’s April 1st 1977

Half longed for child of a cultivated President, half bastard of a rape in the wonderful month of May 1968 “Beaubourg” should in the first instance deal with the trauma of the late 1960s. ….. With unprecedented official effort they tried to realise what in 1968 could be heard in all mouths; the unofficial, the spontaneous, a free-flowing exchange of ideas and feelings and all unregulated by aesthetic, moral or political censorship. Without magic words like participation, without the magic of creativity through collective capabilities, no one would have dared to set up such complex programmes ……the work by the architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers stands for a specific, already historical, moment, for an ethic which in the 1960s was considered the most fascinating, and, one should add, in retrospect the most desperate, utopia.
Werner Spies, Der Pariser Kulturpalast – eine Spekulation auf die Zukunft, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, January 29th 1977

But at its birth the center seems to be entering a future already overtaken. Its esthetics, economics and environment are a final statement on an era of faith in unlimited growth, technological benevolence and social consensus
Jim Hoagland, Paris’ Machine-Age Temple for the Arts, The Washington Post February 1st 1977

Yet virtually no one in Paris has a good word to say for Beaubourg…. It could not be otherwise. What is being discussed on these occasions is neither a building nor a museum nor an exhibitions policy. It is an attitude of life, and one which runs counter to everything that Mr Average Parisian stands for. By nature he is close, suspicious, xenophobic, property-orientated and resistant to change. Beaubourg by contrast is (or was meant to be) a working model of an open society. Foreigners designed and built it (people of 14 nationalities were concerned in its construction). Walls were transparent, doors were wide open where they existed at all, and the word “no” was to be used as sparingly as the headsman’s ax [sic]. Much of what it has to offer is given away for free. All this was un-Parisian and gave offense
John Russell, Art View: The New Museum Parisians Love to Hate, New York Times, August 7th 1977

Refuse this cultural confusion and demand the authorities of our country recognize that the living culture of France today and tomorrow will be by the French and not for them.
Hugues de Varine, Confusion culturelle, Le Monde, January 21st 1977

One thing however is certain: it will enhance its neglected surroundings to an extent no new building and no restoration has succeeded in achieving this century
Ulrich Conrad, Bauwelt, Heft 11, 1977

The Center has also inspired, among art dealers, an energetic takeover of the surrounding Beaubourg neighbourhood, and this too adds to the general suspicion. The belief is widespread that the whole project is little more than a plot – the Socialists say it is an “elitist” plot – to sell the public something it does not really need.
Hilton Kramer, A New Arts Center in Paris to open Amid Raging Controversy: Paris Arts Center, New York times, January 30th 1977

Those who have the misfortune to live on the Beaubourg plateau have, day after day, watched, powerless, this brutal violation of their existence: as if they were of no importance. What future Balzac will tell of their crushing? Whole families, old men, artisans, shops have been uprooted without the slightest concern for the dramas that thus ensued for them. A school was demolished, and rebuilt an intersection further. While billions were squandered on this vandalism, traders have seen their businesses collapse.
Jean Paris Abolir le monstre, Le Monde January 21st 1977

For many Parisians the decision to build the “Centre Pompidou” as a striking modern building in the Old Town district of Beaubourg is nothing but a aggressive imposition. … No one can say this – according to its popular nickname – “Raffinerie” was fitted harmoniously into Beaubourg.
Die Raffinerie der Künste, Der Spiegel February 7th 1977

In the case of the Beaubourg this principle of flexibility seems to have led to an over-schematic solution which does not take into account the size of the building. It seems to have been conceived on a much smaller scale, with the result that both its spaces and its elements belong to an order of magnitude quite different from that originally imagined
Alan Colquhoun, Critique, Architectural Design, Vol 47 No. 2 1977

And so it is the siting which is wrong, and this is what makes the Pompidou Centre seem so objectionable; it is simply not possible to reconcile the multicoloured expressionism of a compromise megastructure with a district which is two and three hundred years old. …. Siting has to be carefully considered if an architect is to be given a proper chance of respecting the surroundings and thus of contributing to them. Unfortunately this building is in the heart of Paris. And far too big for it.
Stephen Gardiner, The Culture Factory. Inside out, Observer, February 6th 1977

…..the obsessive verticality of this façade’s 90-odd service-risers and structural elements does not optically increase the apparent height, rather, it seems to echo the close-spaced verticals of the conventional Parisian constructions on the other side, and draw the two sides of the street into a closer unity
Enigma of the Rue du Renard. Criticism by Reyner Banham, The Architectural Review, May 1977

Then regardless of the functionalism of this provocative, brutalist, fauvist painted architecture: the symbolism of the glass, the inside out façade, elevators, escalators, does not want to, cannot, deny. Here, not far from the spot where until recently the market halls, Zola’s famous “Belly of Paris”, so delightfully enchanted the Flâneur, has been built, by all means of today’s engineering, a monument to cerebral consumption
Werner Spies, Der Pariser Kulturpalast – eine Spekulation auf die Zukunft, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, January 29th 1977

Whose culture is this? Is this really the culture of tens of millions of ordinary French citizens, young and old, who have never desired to go to a museum, even if an ultra-modern gadget, because they do not have free time, because they are troubled by other concerns … the vast majority of French people have been deprived of their most basic right, the right to the consideration that M. Giscard d’Estaing claimed for them in May 1968
Hugues de Varine, Confusion culturelle, Le Monde, January 21st 1977

To our eyes, coaxed by all the angels of Reims, Versailles and by Mansart, Gabriel and Louis XV, the Centre Georges Pompidou constitutes at first a shock. Why ? Because this is the first monument of a cultural revolution that we are experiencing.
Jean d’Ormesson, Un salut à l’avenir, Le Figaro, January 31st 1977

…it is extremely difficult to imagine any art exhibition being able to compete with this amazing display of architectural fireworks
Stephen Gardiner, The Culture Factory. Inside out, Observer, February 6th 1977

Over time the competition the panorama view of Paris offers to the art works is just as hostile to your concentration as the labyrinthine of walls, and for all the ductwork under the roof which reminds one of being in a boiler room. Aside from strokes of luck such as the “Meta” by machine builder Tinguely, which very fittingly rattles between the poles of a roof terrace, everywhere there are severe handicaps for the viewing of art. In this essential aspect the “Centre Pompidou” fails.
Die Raffinerie der Künste, Der Spiegel, February 7th 1977

It is when we get inside that trouble begins. … Arresting as it may be to begin with a completely open space the size of two football fields laid side by side, it poses problems of a social, psychological and organizational kind which have yet to be solved. In this matter, Beaubourg is the prisoner of its own success. … Beaubourg at this time is by no means the best place in Paris in which to come to terms with a great work of art.
John Russell, Art View: The New Museum Parisians Love to Hate, New York Times, August 7th 1977

Mr. Goldman was unlike most visitors who, according to one guard come mainly to gawk at the building. Once they make the trip to the top and take in what is possibly Paris’s finest view they tend to leave – the vast exhibition areas were not overcrowded. “The French come to complain about the architecture”, said the guard.
Susan Heller Anderson, Visitors Flood Pompidou Center: Tourists Gawk as Parisians Sneer, New York Times, July 30th 1977

We must now turn to this question of why this “Centre de Culture” looks at one and the same time, like a construction which will never be finished, like a packet of macaroni held upright by steel wires and like one of those wind socks that you see at the Foire de Paris
Rene Barjavel, Le Journal du Dimanche, January 30th 1977 quoted in The Architectural Review, May 1977

Leaving Paris I needed an antidote to those dry bones waiting to be fleshed in art. Before taking the Train Bleu, I dined in that restaurant in the Gare de Lyon which is named for it. There’s Third Empire opulence for you – crammed and gorgeous ceilings, a classic cuisine that disdains the use of frozen ingredients, old-fashioned warmth and courtesy. It’s the Paris many of us go to Paris for. Beaubourg is trying to pull Paris in another direction. Paris will yield, after a proper show of resistance. It’s the most accommodating of all the great cities. Those bones will live.
Anthony Burgess, Gargantuan Palace of Art and Culture in Paris: “A $200-Million Erector Set”, International Herald Tribune, January 31st 1977

This beautiful 18th century district is remarkable for its courtyards, archways and magnificent old houses and into which has burst the Centre, which bristles with twentieth century enthusiasm and idealistic intentions
Stephen Gardiner, The Culture Factory. Inside out, Observer, February 6th 1977

There was a time when Parisian lounges had had enough and stormed and dismantled the Bastille. Who today will take the initiative to demand the rescinding of this monster and its metamorphosis into a garden?
Jean Paris Abolir le monstre, Le Monde January 21st 1977

In three or four years time this centre will be the most normal thing in Paris, along with the Tour Eiffel, a place to enjoy the spectacle of the city.
Renzo Piano + Richard Rogers, Piano + Rogers Nuovo oggetto a Parigi Domus 566, January 1977

Non, ce n’est pas laid. C’est different. Tant mieux – No, it is not ugly. It’s different. Good so.
André Frossard a.k.a “Cavalier seul” Le Figaro February 2nd 1977

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