BACK AT THE CENTRE OF ATTENTION
When the Pompidou Centre opened in 1977, its oil-refinery looks shocked the public. Now views over the building are a selling point and its visitor figures rival those of the Eiffel Tower. Marcus Field plots the history of the centre, which reopens after restoration next month
Sunday 19 December 1999
But when the Pompidou Centre first opened in 1977 it was a very different story. Both critics and public were shocked by the architecture of tangled tubes which the right-wing Georges "Pom Pom" Pompidou had commissioned as a monument to his presidency.
In 1970, the unknown 30-something architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano triumphed in an international competition to design the building with their proposal to combine the technology of Nasa with the spirit of May '68 ("a people's palace", is how Rogers described his concept). Contemporary comic-book imagery also played its part in the building, where not only the structure is exposed, but all the services too. Bright colours express the functions of each component, with blue for air-conditioning ducts, green for water pipes, yellow for electricity conduits and red for circulation routes. The building contains the national Museum of Modern Art and a 2,000-seat library, but its most famous features are the escalators which run up the facade in transparent tubes.
Visitor numbers to the Pompidou now rival those of the Eiffel Tower. But, as the photographer Rip Hopkins discovered when he interviewed workers and residents living in its shadow, not everybody shares their enthusiasm. "The Pompidou Centre? I don't like it at all," says Dr Melki, a dentist who has lived in the area since 1958. "Since it's been built, I've probably been there five times. But people my age usually don't like it."
For younger residents like Eugenie and Sidonie, it is simply a useful point of orientation. "If you have to live in Paris, you might as well live here," they say of their apartment which looks directly on to the centre's signature ventilation ducts. "It's central, there are lots of things going on here and when you open your eyes at least you know where you are."
Homeless people who congregate around the centre are grateful for the warmth and shelter provided by its generous foyer spaces. "For these street people, the centre is perceived as a sort of haven," says Minou Humanaran, a volunteer helper with the homeless. "But it's a shame that nothing has been done to help them by giving them a proper place to sit, meet, talk and play music."
Recently, the centre had become tatty and its services obsolete - a condition reflected by a model of the building made by an artist in chicken wire and decaying waffles. A two-year renovation project ensued and the centre reopens in early January, its famous colourful facade and escalator tubes restored to pristine condition. In the first major exhibition of the centre's new life, nine young artists have been invited to celebrate the renaissance with fresh work. And for chic young Parisians there is a new roof-top restaurant run by the terribly trendy Costes brothers.
For the now eminent architect Lord Rogers, the Pompidou is a building to be proud of. Whether his latest project will ever command the same prestige seems doubtful. Views over the Dome anybody?
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