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Beaubourg: 'a people's centre, a university of the street'!

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Jill Fenton

Inscrit le: 18 Mai 2006
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MessagePosté le: Mardi 17 Octobre 2006, 2:29    Sujet du message: Beaubourg: 'a people's centre, a university of the street'! Répondre en citant

Beaubourg: 'a people's centre, a university of the street'!

In recent months two books have been published in the UK about Richard Rogers, one half of the architectural team (the other half Renzo Piano) who designed the Centre Pompidou, more popularly known as Beaubourg. In the current edition of the London Review of Books, Hal Foster reflects on this architectural accomplishment:

'It sounds like a modern fairytale: in 1971 two architects, neither of them French, win the most important commission in Paris since the war, the design for the Centre Pompidou, and become famous overnight. The two – a 38 year old Englishman called Richard Rogers and a 35 year old Italian called Renzo Piano – design an exuberant building that delights some and outrages others: a glass box supported by a superstructure of steel and concrete, each façade a playful grid of prefabricated columns and diagonal braces, with a transparent escalator tube that snakes up the front, and other service tubes, picked out in primary colours, that run up the other sides. Imagined as a cross between the British Museum and Times Square updated for the information age, the Beaubourg was immediately popular (today it has more than seven million visitors); plopped down in a broad piazza, it was also populist (Roger’s still calls it ‘a people’s centre, a university of the street’). Yet the project was contradictory: a Pop building designed by two progressive architects for a bureaucratic state to honour a conservative president, a cultural centre pitched as ‘a catalyst for urban regeneration’ that assisted in the further erasure of Les Halles and the gradual gentrification of the Marais.’ (Foster, H., 2006, 'Wine Flasks in Bordeaux, Sail Spires in Cardiff,' London Review of Books, 28(20):8-9, p8)

Foster reflects that the Beaubourg demonstrated the inside-out nature of architecture – mechanical services put to the exterior of the structure in order to free up interior space, and to animate the building. It is, Foster suggests, an echo of Futurism: ‘In a sense the service tubes serve as a contemporary form of ornament – they give Beaubourg both detail and scale – and the movement of people across the piazza into the ground floor and up the escalator not only enlivens the centre but connects it to the city as well.’ (Foster, 2006:8)

In reality I wonder at the popular perception of Beaubourg. In my recent PhD research I interviewed surrealists who have lived in Paris over decades who recall the former history of the Beaubourg site, its connections with Les Halles and the historic Cour des Miracles. On a map of Paris they imaginatively re-enchanted this space by transferring it to the centre of a forest and leaving it there abandoned without tourists, eventually to be invaded by nature – vegetation and animals of every kind – and a place in which people could explore. It was suggested that the contemporary art within the building would be transformed by the invasion of vegetation although much earlier on all surrealist works of art would have been removed!

On a recent walk past Beaubourg with one of the surrealists who had proposed its re-enchantment, he appeared to have mellowed in his feelings towards it, commenting favourably on the inside-out feature of its architecture that for him is far more interesting than emerging architectures in Paris. As we walked on the piazza we contemplated if the Richard Rogers Partnership would reshape any other landscapes in Paris that, like Beaubourg, would become icons of the city. In my copy of last Sunday’s Observer a headline reads ‘Rogers scoops Stirling Prize for Madrid terminal.’ The colour and design of this new Area Terminal at Barajas airport in Madrid reminds me of the exterior of Beaubourg, the dramatic sweeps of the building’s roof in particular obliging the eye to be diverted from the non-space beneath. I invite readers to speculate on Rogers next architectural commission in Paris.

Jill Fenton
16 October 2006
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