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What’s in a place?

The Pompidou Centre transformed our relationship with buildings

By Amanda Levete   December 2011

The Pompidou Centre “creates a sense of place, one that belongs to everyone”

What makes a masterpiece? Great art stops us in our tracks; it gives us an insight into reality; it makes us think; it helps us to see and understand the structure of things. Unlike art, architecture is driven by function. Architects need to meet exacting technical and regulatory dictums, and respond to unforeseen demands. But therein lies the art: the struggle of doing all this while holding onto the integrity of the idea; of seeking that perfect balance between form and function.

So many of the ingredients that go into making a building are outside the architect’s control—site, context, timing, brief, client and geographical location, to name a few. The Parthenon would not exude the power it does were it not for its pivotal location at the top of the Acropolis. Most of the great 20th-century houses have spectacular sites—think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s FallingWater and its rugged waterside plot, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House alone among trees and the impossibly dramatic cliffside of Casa Malaparte.

Timing also has enormous impact. Ride on the breaking wave of the zeitgeist, and even the temporary can become permanent. Paxton’s brilliant Crystal Palace of 1851, completed in just eight months, was without question the ultimate expression of its age, and the industrial revolution.

You can’t have greatness in architecture without shifting the debate in some way—so it has to be about much more than perfection. Perfection can refer to a technique mastered over time; but it is never perfection that changes the world. It is something more urgent, more conceptual that shifts the way we look at things, which makes a building more than an object, but a place; a place that holds ideas, meaning and even ideology.

The most important building of recent times is still the Pompidou Centre, by Piano + Rogers, in Paris. It redefined the way we think about space. And it is the guiding inspiration for the explosion of new projects across the world, from Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Highline in New York to Herzog de Meuron’s Philarmonic Concert Hall in Hamburg.

The Pompidou Centre is not the most artful or even the most beautiful building of modern times, yet it turned the world of architecture upside down—and it changed forever the way we view and use our museums and galleries. By celebrating the art of building and engineering, and by exploiting the visual drama of joining huge pieces of steel, it spawned a new movement of structural expressionism, otherwise known as “high tech.” The fact that you didn’t even need to go inside—riding the external escalators was exhilarating enough for some—was a truly radical proposition for a museum.

Even now, some 30 years on, the Pompidou Centre speaks of democracy and accessibility, of a new social order, of public and collective ownership. It’s a building that manages to preserve the immediacy of the first sketch with a rawness unfettered by sleek sophistication. But above all it creates a sense of place, one that belongs to everyone. The vast empty, sloping piazza in front of the museum was a potent response to the Paris riots of May 1968, merging the social with the populist with the cultural.

To fully appreciate the brilliance of this building is to recognise the impact and influence it has had on other public spaces. There would be no Tate Modern had it not been for the Pompidou Centre. They are very different buildings, but the Pompidou had demonstrated the power of architecture to break down barriers between art and the public. Tate Modern used the same notion, of a massive inclined entrance leading down to the overwhelmingly empty space of the Turbine Hall, to do just that, showing also that absence can be very present.

There would also be no Guggenheim Museum Bilbao without the huge financial spinoffs and social benefits that came to the Parisian district of Les Halles, where the Pompidou was built, turning it into one of the most popular destinations in the world. The so-called “Bilbao effect” is now attempted all over the world—but most buildings fail to have the same impact because of their lack of conceptual rigour.

In the project that my firm, AL_A, has undertaken at the V&A, due for completion in 2015, the openness of Pompidou has given us the confidence to rethink how we might channel the power of public space. We are creating a new courtyard which will be an outdoor room of the museum, with a new gallery beneath it: making visible the invisible, by creating a palpable expression of the world-class new gallery space below. The synergy of courtyard and gallery reflects the ethos of the V&A, and the challenge faced by all museums today: to continually attract new audiences, to inspire and educate, and to put modern design and innovation back in the foreground.

Pompidou redefined the role of a museum in the city. It is no longer enough to simply be a site of great culture and learning, housed within four walls. Great museums must also be unique and inspiring public places.

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