Thursday, 1 October 2009
The Pompidou … Gallery of the People!
It must have been quite a shock when the designs for this highly anticipated building were initially revealed to the French public. Not only were the winners of the international design competition foreign (Italian architects Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini, and Richard Rogers from Britain), but also the design they proposed was such a radical departure from any other building in Paris as to totally alienate itself from all historical ties to the city. Not since the building of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 would a structure cause such consternation and derision, yet the ‘Beaubourg’ as it was known at the time, would continue to be built, championed the country’s president, Georges Pompidou. The result was a radically complex multi-level form that effectively would see the traditional notion of a building literally turned inside out. With its exposed structural skeleton combined with a spaghetti-like maze of multi-coloured electrical and air-conditioning ducts, it appeared to be the ultimate celebration of function over aesthetics. While I still can’t honestly say that it is one of my favorite pieces of architecture, it’s significance as a post-modernist icon has to be acknowledged. Despite initial public criticisms, it proceeded to change our perception of public architecture. Although Modernism had done little to change many of the elitist notions of what an art gallery might be, the design of the Pompidou Centre had successfully signaled a new egalitarian approach to the arts that can be clearly seen today.
The first time Jules and I visited, we were immediately struck by how the building was squeezed within the traditional period buildings of the neighborhood. Surprisingly, there are few surrounding grassed areas, but rather paved spaces that could be adapted for a range of public uses. When we were there, we were amazed to find dozens of young people scribbling on the ground with chalk. Clearly this was some sort of organized event, but it was difficult to see exactly what was being achieved. Nonetheless, there was much laughter and enjoyment from the simple indulgence of making colourful marks in a prominent public space on a warm Sunday afternoon. Similarly the nearby Stravinsky Fountain (designed by Jean Tinguely) was another colourful reminder of the fun and relaxed nature of the area that surrounds the Pompidou Centre. This is a youthful space that encourages spontaneous art in all its forms; be it artists, musicians, jugglers, mime acts or dancers … they all seem to congregate around this Parisian landmark.
Traveling our way upward through the Perspex domed escalator that is attached to the outside of the Pompidou, we are provided with wonderful views across the suburbs of Paris … a bonus! We head straight to the third level (the highest point) to inspect a major exhibition of the work of Alexander Calder and as we step into a wide open area, we are immediately struck by the contrast of the minimalist interior to the visual chaos of the buildings exterior cladding. In the gallery it seems, the buildings architecture takes a back seat to the importance of the art itself and despite the large crowds, there seemed to be a distinct sense of light and space. It was simply one of the nicest places to view art and over the next few months we would visit several times to attend major exhibitions by Kandinsky and Freud, as well as continuing to examine it’s impressive permanent collection.
The architects of the Pompidou Centre were originally given the brief to create a building that would promote the popular notion of artistic, social and cultural exchange and to that end, they certainly achieved their goals. While it created much controversy in its day, the building and its surrounding spaces are now a welcome haven for all forms of popular culture and as a result, is constantly alive with activity. While the Louvre and the many other galleries and museums of Paris tend to celebrate the past in a more academic and austere manner, the Pompidou provides a youthful approach to the arts that is somehow quite irresistable. This was particularly reinforced as we took the escalator downward after our visit and looked to where we had earlier seen kids marking the pavement with chalks. Their task was now almost complete and we were both quite stunned by the colourful floor mural that had collectively been created throughout the afternoon. While it was more than likely that this enormous work of art would be washed away with the next shower of rain, they had clearly valued the experience of making art in this collaborative way. Indeed it is doubtful whether such an activity would have been undertaken anywhere else in Paris other than here. The Pompidou is truly a place in which both permanent and transient art forms are equally valued as legitimate artifacts of a creative culture. It remains ‘a gallery of the people’ and much like its architecture it is influenced by the contemporary rather than the conventions of the past.