`Dernier cri' of modernity left behind by progress

When the Pompidou Centre finally reopens, what will it be for? John Lichfield reports from Paris
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The fin de siecle will be marked across the Channel by a cultural event awaited as eagerly, and as suspiciously, as the opening of the great, concrete, circus tent of the Dome. On 1 January 2000, the Centre Georges Pompidou, three-quarters closed since November 1997, will re-open its doors. It will have been comprehensively renovated and rearranged - a resurrection of a popular, multi-disciplinary centre for modern culture that boomed through the late 1970s and 1980s, but lost its way in the 1990s.

Much fun was had a couple of years ago with the partial closure of an internationally celebrated building only 20 years old. It seemed, to some, to be a damning paradigm of the modern culture the centre was supposed to epitomise. In truth, there was never any problem with the building, which was designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano. It remains a solid, startling and amusing presence in Paris.

The problem with "Beaubourg" - thus termed by Parisians because it was in the Rue de Beaubourg - was partly its success; crowds were difficult to handle in a building where administrators took up too much space. The second problem was an institutional and philosophical one. The centre was a paean to modernity, as understood circa 1977, but modernity refused to stand still. The institution declared itself to be at the cutting edge of modern culture: but the cutting edge moved on more rapidly than this increasingly unwieldy institution.

Beaubourg was specifically conceived as a tribute to the late, modern art-loving president, Georges Pompidou, the man who had subtly accommodated the great cultural revolt of 1968. It was founded on the cultural certitudes of the 1960s and 1970s: the belief that culture should be liberated from the elite and that the traditional disciplinary boundaries should be "deconstructed". Beaubourg was to be, at once, the nation's premier museum of modern art, a library free to all, a centre for contemporary music, and a centre for the study of architecture, design, film and photography.

For 10 years or more, it was a triumph: the most visited site in Paris, ahead of the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame - though many visitors, it's true, simply rode up and down the free, glass elevator. But, as the1990s arrived, Beaubourg was unable to keep abreast of the developments in so many disciplines. More advanced centres opened in Paris, devoted specifically to photography, film or architecture.

The Musee National d'Art Moderne, the centrepiece of Beaubourg, began to flounder. It had inherited some of the masterworks of the century from the state collection - by Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani, Leger, Miro - but it also set about collecting, and hoarding, vast quantities of contemporary art. When Jack Lang was culture minister in the 1980s its budget for acquisitions doubled and the museum bought up hundreds of works by fashionable, living artists, though it had no space in which to show them. At the time of the closure in 1997, the museum had 40,000 works but displayed less than 10 per cent of its stock.

There were perennial battles within the museum about the collection. Should older modern works, such as those by Matisse and Picasso, go to other museums as the decades rolled by, as originally foreseen by Beaubourg's founders? What was modern and what was contemporary art? Was a "museum" of contemporary art not a contradiction in terms? Would it not be better to mount ephemeral exhibitions of contemporary work rather than, train-spot- terishly, buy hundreds of "representative" items which might not be worth keeping?

To make space for the ever expanding stock, some people started to campaign to hive off other parts of Beaubourg, especially the library. All such efforts to dilute the multi-disciplinary nature of the centre were fought off by Mme Pompidou, the president's widow, the person accepted as the centre's conscience and spiritual guide.

The decision to close most of the centre for more than two years was seen by some as an opportunity to resolve the contradictions. The curators argued that the centre would never create a clear, new image for itself unless it were linked in the public mind with its art collection. Others said it was the chance to hive off all the art from the first half of the century into another museum. But which? In truth, nothing has been resolved. The new Beaubourg will be an exciting and much improved place, with a futuristic new restaurant, and much improved access on the ground floor. But all the contradictions - creative contradictions, if you like - will remain.

Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the president of Beaubourg - the eighth in 22 years - insists the centre should continue to be "a place of debate and experimentation in all areas of modern culture". So, the free public library will continue to occupy an entire floor of the Centre Pompidou. The old version was wonderfully unfocused and technically overwhelmed by the march of the modernity that it purported to represent; but the new one will updated to the multi-media age.

The re-ordered and expanded art museum, now occupying two full floors instead of one and a half, will attempt to square the modern/contemporary circle. In the old Beaubourg, visitors saw the "historic" collection on the fourth floor, and more recent work on the third. In the new Beaubourg, they will start on the third floor with the contemporary displays, which will be frequently changed. The older art - including the world's finest collection of Matisses - will be on the floor above.

This is sensible enough, but considering the upheaval of the past two years, no more than a short-term solution. Soon enough, the problem will re-present itself. Either Beaubourg will have to give up collecting contemporary works, or it will have to build an annexe, or Paris will need a new museum for early 20th-century art. How long can Matisse, born in the 19th century, be considered a "modern" artist in the 21st?