France confronts a blockage in the Pompidou pipe dream

After 20 years and millions of visitors, one of Europe's most popular and innovative buildings is to close for renovation. By Mary Dejevsky in Paris
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The Pompidou Centre for contemporary art in Paris, which has won fame and notoriety in equal measure for its "inside-out" architecture, is to shut most of its galleries for two years from the end of next year for extensive renovation. It will have been open for barely 20 years.

The director of the centre, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, and the French culture minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, insisted yesterday that the centre would not be completely shut for this period - visitors would still be able to take the renowned outside lifts to one or two upper floor galleries. Most of the galleries will be closed for the duration, the bulk of the collection moved into storage close by, or lent for exhibitions in the provinces and abroad.

The present plan is that the centre should wind down its activity from next autumn, after a big Fernand Leger show has closed, and reopen on 31 December 1999, in time to greet the millennium.

The virtual closure of the centre, designed by the British architect Lord Rogers, whose most famous work in the UK is the Lloyd's Building in the City of London, is a politically charged issue in France, since it appears to fuel the arguments of its detractors.

They have always regarded the Pompidou Centre as an expensive eyesore unsuited to its purpose and have latterly tended to lump it together with more recent modernist works of architecture - the "grands travaux" of Francois Mitterrand's presidency, such as the Grande Arche de la Defense and the Bastille opera house - which they regard as white elephants also judged to need repair urgently.

An article in yesterday's Parisien newspaper compared the duration and cost of repairs on several of the city's oldest landmarks - the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower - to support its thesis that the new edifices are not just displeasing in appearance, but extortionately expensive to maintain.

Since 1992, the Pompidou Centre has been subject to a costly programme of exterior renovation, and much of the scaffolding is still in place. Now, interior refurbishment is needed which will cost an estimated 440 million francs (pounds 55m).

While the government may be divided on the aesthetic qualities of the Pompidou Centre, and budgetary constraints make funding the renovation difficult, ministers find themselves having to defend it on political grounds.

It was conceived under a Gaullist government and named after the last Gaullist president before Jacques Chirac. Now back in power after 14 years, the Gaullists can hardly allow "their" monument to be classed with what they see as the excesses of Mitterrandism.

The minister of culture, Philippe Douste-Blazy, and the recently appointed director of the Pompidou Centre, Mr Aillagon, insisted when they presented the renovation programme yesterday that the building was not only of great architectural importance, but also structurally sound.

Mr Aillagon said: "The project is not intended to compensate for any fragility or inadequacy of the original building. Contrary to rumours you may have heard, there is no risk that it will fall down, or bits will fall off. It is an important and sound building."

Both he and Mr Douste-Blazy were also concerned to present the project as renovation in response to rising standards of display, rising public expectations and the more diverse requirements of up-to-the-minute contemporary art forms. After renovation, they said, there would be 1,000 square metres more gallery space, more space for temporary exhibitions and more space for live performance.

Mr Douste-Blazy stressed that in its 19 years of existence, the Pompidou Centre had been a success that had exceeded all expectations. If people had thought when it opened that it would attract 5,000 visitors a day and more than 150,000 visitors a year, they would have been incredulous, he said.

Too successful, says Rogers

In London, Richard Rogers' office was at pains to insist that the proposed partial closure of the Pompidou Centre, one of Paris' most popular attractions, was "perfectly normal" after 20 years, writes Elizabeth Wine.

The building - which helped to establish Lord Rogers' reputation as an architect - is being refurbished and reorganised from its basement to its roof, a spokesman said. Over the last 18 months, Lord Rogers and his partner Renzo Piano have been working to "reorganise the configuration of departments".

Lord Rogers added last night: "The building inside has become worn out because of its own success: we have had 7 million people a year coming through, not 1 million as we had expected.

"The whole idea of a flexible building is that it should be changed, and they are going to liberate a fifth of the building by moving out all of the offices which it was never designed to have."

This will be topped off with some general "tidying up" of the building and redecoration, which Lord Rogers added he was "delighted" about.