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  • Writer's pictureTer Hollmann

A Brief History of the Centre Pompidou in Paris

What is The Pompidou Centre?

The Pompidou Centre (full name Centre national d'art et de culture Georges-Pompidou in French) is a 20th-century avant-garde art centre in the Beaubourg area of the 4th arrondissement of Paris that houses a modern art museum, a centre for music research, and a public library.

Centre Pompidou

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Centre Pompidou History

‘Paris has its own monster, just like Loch Ness’, wrote a critic in La Figaro upon seeing the Pompidou Centre for the first time in 1977. Today, however, the Pompidou is considered one of the most beloved buildings in all of Paris and one of the most acclaimed works of 20th-century architecture.

Designed by Richard Rogers, Su Rogers, Gianfranco Franchini and Renzo Piano, the concept of the building was to have all of the functional, mechanical and structural systems on the outside, so that the interior could be an open space, free to move, change and adapt to the needs of those who are using it. It’s cited as the first example of this kind: an inside-out building.

The Pompidou Centre is home to a centre for music research, a public library, and the Musée National d'Art Moderne, or National Museum of Modern Art. The museum is the largest modern art gallery in Europe, housing works by artists from over 90 different countries. Some of the illustrious names that hang on its walls include Picasso, Duchamp, Matisse, Pollock and Warhol. Every major modern art movement is represented, from Surrealism, Cubism and Dada to Expressionism, Fauvism and Abstract. Whilst its impressive collection of 120,000 works encompass all the creative arts, from photography to sculpture and design.

The main attraction, however, is the structure itself and its extraordinary features like the external escalator encased in a glass tube. Despite the criticism it received upon its opening, Parisians took to it almost immediately. Crowds gathered in the square to watch impromptu street entertainers and to socialise. In fact, the square is still a popular meeting point to this day. The number of visitors far exceeded expectations. In the first 30 years of its existence the Pompidou welcomed over 180 million visitors.

Centre Pompidou

The building’s story starts with its namesake, the French President Georges Pompidou. He commissioned the centre in 1969 and created a competition, open to anyone, to design the building. There were 681 entries and the adjudication was carried out by architects Oscar Niemeyer, Jean Prouvé, and Philip Johnson.

Renzo Piano described their thinking around the project: ‘After decades of museums being dusty, boring and inaccessible, someone had to run away, to do something different, have a sense of participation. Someone had to express that rebellion. Putting this spaceship in the middle of Paris was a bit mad but an honest gesture. It was brave but also a bit impolite...’ He goes on to describe it as, ‘not a building but a town where you find everything – lunch, great art, a library, great music’.

In 1971, at the press conference to announce the winners, the architects, dressed in their blue denim and tweed, stood next to the suit-and-tie perfection of President Pompidou. It was the moment that captured the story in its entirety: radical thinking meets establishment politics, the old and the new.

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