Centre Pompidou

Lately, I have been feeling far more cynical than usual about the state of the world. The rise of conservative and nationalist movements has me worried for my fellow citizens and the most vulnerable among us. It also has me biting my nails about the 2017 French election. But rather than become consumed by frustration and despondency, today I want to focus on something French presidents have become adept at over the last few decades: contributing new museums to the Parisian cultural landscape.

It has become a rite of passage for modern French presidents to fund and found a museum during their presidencies. In 2007, Jacques Chirac opened the Musée du Quai Branly on the banks of the Seine. This huge museum, with its mur végétal and lush green campus, is dedicated to multiculturalism and tribal histories of Pacific, Asian and African regions. In the early 1990s, François Mitterand recognised that the national library in the second arrondissement, while gorgeous, was far too small for France’s needs and opened the soaring Bibliothèque Nationale de France in the thirteenth arrondissement, with its own internal museum. Mitterrand also made his mark on France’s most lauded museum by commissioning the infamous Louvre Pyramid in the late 80s.

Not all these museum projects have been welcomed, mind you. Before François Hollande took up the country’s top job in 2012, Nicolas Sarkozy tried and – thankfully – failed to launch his own museum project, a well-intentioned but ill-informed Maison de l’Histoire de France on the site of the Archives Nationales. While a museum of national history may appear admirable, Sarkozy’s proposal was to focus on French military history and the grands hommes of France, with little to no acknowledgement of the role of women, inhabitants of former colonies, ethnic groups, migrants and other minorities in the nation’s story.

Les Musees de Paris- Archives Nationales 4

Now, I’m no fool; I’m aware that these museums are as much propaganda as they are a gift to the French people, and some have fallen flat. But one success story most can agree on is the Centre Pompidou, the modern and contemporary art museum commissioned by Georges Pompidou during his reign. As beloved as it is controversial, as eye-catching as it is jarring to look at, this Lego block of a museum building has dominated the Beaubourg district of the fourth arrondissement since the 1970s.

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Hulking, stark and alien-looking, the Centre Pompidou is not exactly a pretty building. A rectangular brick of glass and plastic, its exhaust pipes, fans, escalators and gutters are all located on the building’s exterior and painted in bright primary colours. Against the stone curlicues of the Marais’ traditional architecture, it is inconspicuous to say the least. Plus with its predominance of white painted metal, it always looks just a little bit grimy.

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But the Centre Pompidou is a glorious place. Its quirky exterior complements its unrivalled collection of twentieth-century art. Featured artists range from French figureheads like Braque, Matisse and Duchamp, to European superstars like Picasso, Dalí and Kandinsky, to American pop artists like Warhol and beyond. There is a balanced focus on both early twentieth-century movements like modernism and fauvism, and cutting-edge contemporary collections.

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The Centre Pompidou is filled to the brim with world-class abstract and avant-garde art. It balances its white cube interior with the explosion of red, blue and yellow pipes on its outer walls. The bizarre nature of many of its works is reflected in the clear plastic escalator tubes that transport visitors up its exterior from floor to floor. Alongside its permanent and temporary collections, it is also home to a library, cinema and city viewing platform. The Centre Pompidou isn’t traditionally beautiful, and it doesn’t even look very presidential. But that’s part of its charm, and the building is more than a home to artworks; it’s an artwork in itself.

Xx La Muséophile

Centre Pompidou

Place Georges-Pompidou 75004 (métro: Rambuteau or Hôtel de Ville)

Museum homepage

Full price: 14 euros

Reduced price: 11 euros

Opening hours:

Wednesday to Monday: 11am to 10pm

Closed Tuesdays

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6 thoughts on “Centre Pompidou

  1. You actually like the building? Well, let’s just say we agree that it is controversial. It does always look just a bit grimy. I agree with that, too, and with the opinion that it has a good collection of modern art. But this building that appears to celebrate its mechanical systems is a nightmare to get around in, unless you like baking while riding an escalator that looks and feels like taking a Habitrail tube that was left in the sun. The plaza outside can be okay in good weather, when the street performers entertain the visitors who are trying to find the museum entrance. In bad weather, that plaza is windy and cold — and having it empty makes it no easier to find the front door. The huge open space inside is pointless. Again, people mill around, trying to figure out where to go, how to get there and what the options even are. It turns its back on the street; to me a good building interacts with its neighbors, even when it doesn’t look like them. The restaurant on the roof has glorious views of the city, in part because you don’t have to look at the Pompidou, but they leased it to the Costes brothers. Since when was overpriced food and the trademark “too cool for you” Costes staff attitude suitable for a public building? And don’t sit inside on a sunny day, as those visually celebrated mechanical systems will not cool the glass-walled space to a comfortable temperature. I could go on but you get my point. To me the building doesn’t work and gives modernism a bad name.

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    1. All valid points. I agree it’s an inefficient building, in many ways at odds with its surrounds. But despite its griminess and design flaws, it’s still iconic. There’s probably a reason we don’t see many inside-out buildings like the Pompidou, but the fact that we don’t only makes it more interesting to look at. Plus: isn’t art supposed to challenge us, make us uncomfortable? Perhaps it’s a deliberately difficult construction… or perhaps I’m giving it too much credit!

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      1. Intellectually uncomfortable is one thing. Physically uncomfortable is quite another. It’s the old form vs. function thing. I’m big on function. I think a public building should have a clearly identifiable front door; the Pompidou does not. I think a museum should make it easy to find the art, the gift shop, the restaurant, the toilets, the ticket booth. At the Pompidou, good luck with all that. And as I say, it gets hot in there, in places and in ways that the design makes it impossible to correct.

        I believe you shouldn’t have to choose between form and function. Just look at the Modern in New York, which works fairly well. Look at how Pei’s pyramid organizes the Louvre, how it improves its function. Architecture is not pure sculpture; it is sculpture with functional requirements. For me, to ignore either form or function is a design fail. Iconic isn’t enough. Auschwitz is iconic and fuctioned well too, now that I think of it. Thankfully the Pompidou is no Auschwitz. I don’t want to take that comparison any farther than to say they are both iconic. My point is, in both cases, why would we ever want to do that again?

        I am arguing as an architect. I think about function all the time. Certainly if you never want to set foot inside the Pompidou, if you want to toddle over on a beautiful day and just take a look the outside, it’s an interesting piece of sculpture. I prefer the nearby Saint Phalle fountain but maybe that’s just me.

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