Once upon a time, I wanted to be an architect. It’s the only profession I ever seriously considered besides music. I actually designed one thing that was built: a music-room addition to an existing home in Carson City, Nevada. But I suspect the world is a better place for my not having pursued architecture.
The more I read about building and buildings, the more in awe I am of the enormous organization required to get anything done, particularly with large civic projects.
Did you know the most visited attraction in Paris is the Centre Georges Pompidou, known by its shorter name “Beaubourg”? You know, it’s the museum that looks like a factory, with its brightly colored pipes on the outside and a glass-enclosed escalator. Ever since opening, it has had more visitors than the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre combined, between five and six million annually.
Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano and British architect Richard Rogers (not the “Oklahoma, Carousel, Sound of Music” guy!), and their team, the Centre opened in 1977. Those brightly colored tubes aren’t random either—they are coded for each mechanical system: heating, cooling, water, etc. (Green: plumbing; blue: climate control; yellow: electric; red: fire and emergency) The concept of “reversibility” was trailblazing in 1971, the year Piano and Rogers’ team won the design competition. The practical result was that maintenance was easier, since the ducts were reachable without tearing up walls.
Another pair of words used by the architects on this project was “changeable” and “improvisatory.” As a musician, I find the word “improvisatory” of great interest. Many of us think of our buildings as “solid,” something the recent spate of tornadoes quickly gives the lie to. But what the Beaubourg design team meant was that the interior spaces themselves could be reconfigured quickly and easily to accommodate the different expositions and other functions needed in a cultural center. The building itself “is jazz” so to speak.
The Place Georges Pompidou in front of the Centre has become one of Paris’ most popular places to people watch, and serves as a platform for hundreds of street performers. It also effortlessly accommodates the endless stream of visitors with astonishing ease and a laid-back quality.
Underground and just to one side of the Centre lies the experimental musical/acoustic research facility IRCAM, founded by Pierre Boulez. Over it is one of my favorite things: the “Stravinsky” fountain, with its sixteen water-spraying whimsical fountains (lips, treble clef, snake, etc.) designed by Niki de Saint-Phalle and Jean Tinguely.
Inside the Centre, modern art exhibitions are shown. On the top floor is a public library, with a strong collection of other media: recordings, video and the like. The ride up on the exterior escalator offers sweeping views of Paris, the “beau bourg” without equal.
Of course, the French love their architectural scandals, and criticism of Beaubourg has been ladled out with some intensity since the beginning. Some say the “flexibility” of the architect’s mission is a contradiction in terms, since a building “is” static, and a building that “enshrines culture” but looks like, hence glorifies, that which “kills” culture (the machine) is an oxymoron.
All I can say (and you know what a traditionalist I am) is that the place seems to make people happy, encourages sociability, and serves many community functions. Go see for yourself!
© 2011 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs