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This essay looks at the Pompidou Centre of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, in terms of how its design can be understood as a product of its cultural, social, political and economic context, including a discussion of the influences and relationship between the philosophical ideas underpinning the movement and the resulting building. The essay first provides a brief overview of the Pompidou Centre’s history and the architecture of the Pompidou Centre and its external spaces (recognising that the Pompidou Centre is more than simply the High Tech structure; it is also composed of its plazas and external pedestrianised spaces). The essay then moves on to discuss the philosophy behind the Pompidou Centre, in terms of the intersection of the philosophy for the building and the resulting design for the building. The essay then discusses how the design of the Pompidou Centre can be understood as a product of its cultural, social, political and economic context, and ends with a brief conclusion.
The Pompidou Centre was the result of an architecture competition aimed at producing an “architectural and urban complex to mark our century” (Bachman, 2003). Bachman (2003) identifies the Pompidou Centre as belonging to the high-tech style, due to its construction, namely its revealed structures, its exposed ducts and the sharp, inside out, industrial aesthetics of the entire structure. As Bachman (2003) argues, the process of revealing normally internalised sections of such a structure led to the re-thinking of these sections, in terms of their workings, their function and the ways in which they are organised and work in concert with each other. This led, implicitly, to a re-thinking of the idea of a ‘cultural space’ and ideas about what a cultural space should be used for, and who it should be used by (Thompson and Bell, 2007). The Pompidou Centre was novel in many ways, not simply in its design, but also in the ways in which the whole space was designed to be user-friendly, to attract a variety of different users to the space for multiple purposes (Bachman, 2003). The structure, and its surroundings, were also entirely novel, with the building essentially being turned inside out, with long facades that could act as ‘information surfaces’ and a plaza that was designed to act as a meeting point for the various visitors the Centre would attract.
Casati (2007), interviewing Richard Rogers, discusses the idea of the Pompidou Centre stemming from the idea of uniting machinery with a cultural centre, which essentially means the idea of containing the cultural aspects of the centre in an innovative way, to allow multiple users to use the space in many different ways. As Richard Rogers says in this interview, “….we very quickly realised….a need not only for a museum but also for a place for people in this area to do other things: a place to go on Sunday morning with children, with dogs, with girlfriends, or to go to all manner of activities not specifically stated in the programme. It became something in which both culturally oriented people and the public could participate.” (Casati, 2007). On this understanding, then, it becomes clear that the multi-functionality of the space was a basic design concept, a basic philosophy, for the design of the Centre, and, as Rogers says, “…I have always dreamed of this piazza becoming the Parisian Hyde Park Corner” (Casati, 2007).
From this interview with Rogers, it becomes apparent, therefore, that the space around, and including, the Pompidou Centre, should be a public space, drawing people in from the community and wider afield, not only for cultural events and happenings, but also to come together to enjoy the space, for itself, as a place to come together or to simply enjoy some alone time, enjoying the space created. Indeed, with the construction of the Pompidou Centre, Rogers and Piano managed to pedestrianise a large section of this part of Paris, ensuring that people could use the space around the building for precisely this objective, in order that there be a ‘physical space where there would be no traffic, noise or danger, that would be suitable to pedestrian activities or to leisure activities.” (Casati, 2007). As Rogers explains, “The centre needed…a surface of contact with the rest of the city”. (Casati, 2007). This external space, the plazas surrounding the actual structure, were thus fundamentally important to Rogers and Piano, as an integral part of their design, to achieve the vision they had of the Pompidou Centre as being a space for people to interact with in the manner in which they wished to interact with it.
As Rogers also notes in his interview with Casati, “…the word which most stood out on the brief was ‘information’…that (the Pompidou Centre) should be a ‘building for information, culture and entertainment’.” (Casati, 2007). Parts of the design of the building conform to this brief, in terms of the long facades, for example, which allow information to be displayed. Parts of the overall design also conform to this overarching design ideal, in that the plazas and pedestrianised spaces surrounding the actual structure also became regenerated following the opening of the Pompidou Centre; bookshops opened around the plazas, and informational and cultural events began to spring up in the plazas, from the wider city, in terms of impromptu circus events, markets and concerts, for example, all of which served the function of inviting a wider audience to the Pompidou Centre as a whole. Rogers’ and Piano’s overarching philosophy for the design of their Pompidou Centre, the need to create a space for multiple activities, for multiple users, was therefore realised through their careful design of not only the structure they designed, but also via the structure’s surroundings. As Rogers states, in his interview with Casati, “…if nothing else, the building will be a surface of contact with a non-specialised public, with the public at large. People know how to read it instantly. It’s entrails are on the outside.” (Casati, 2007).
This idea of the structure being turned inside out was obviously, therefore, a major philosophical starting point for the design for Rogers and Piano who were concerned, as has been seen, with designing a space that could be used by many different types of users, for many purposes, not only for cultural events: under this concept, therefore, it was important that the actual structure itself not be forbidding, not be off putting to all visitors that might pass by it. This idea, of opening up dialogue with culture, to people who may not normally have been open to culture, or who may have thought that culture was not open to them, was facilitated by opening up the building, by turning it inside out, as a way of saying, ‘Here I am, I am exposed, you can see what I am, I am not forbidding, I am open’ and, through this, taking the intimidation out of visiting a cultural space. The surrounding plazas and pedestrianised areas facilitate this open invitation to visit the spaces within the structure, inviting visitors in, enticing them to pass through the doors in to the Pompidou Centre itself.
As Levy (2007) states, Rogers’ and Piano’s design was chosen for its simplicity, a work of high-tech modernity, that would, through its steel, glass and stone work, open up a pedestrianised space in the heart of the city of Paris, allowing visitors from all walks of life, and all persuasions, to partake of it’s offerings how, and when, they wished to do so. The great success of the design of the external spaces, and the construction itself, is precisely that. It’s simplicity allows people to feel comfortable within it’s spaces and to explore themselves in relation to their surroundings in a way that was extremely novel at that time in the history of architecture. The structure itself, a giant enveloped space, with its innards on show, is simple in the context that has been discussed, that it reveals itself to newcomers on first contact, and, through this, presents visitors and users with a simple task: to feel welcome enough to approach, to enter and to use the space in the ways in which they wish to use the space. The greatness of the Pompidou Centre design is this simplification, this opening up of cultural spaces for the visitors, making the spaces a function of the visitors, and not vice versa. The guiding philosophy of this project was opening, welcoming, of providing spaces for information sharing and retrieval and for exchanges of all kinds, cultural and otherwise. In this sense, the Pompidou Centre is a resounding success, given the uses to which the spaces within the structure, the plazas and the pedestrianised areas are put, by many and varied visitors.
As Proto (2005) argues, the great vision of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano was to realise the need for an information centre, for a centre that would facilitate many different types of exchanges. As Proto states, “..the hyper-objectification of it’s form and the consequent transparency of its content led…to a new type of architectural fruition: that in which the ideological perception of the building exceeded the real possibilities suggested by it’s hyper-flexibility.” (Proto, 2005). The Pompidou Centre not only invites, facilitates, different kinds of exchanges, and multiple exchanges, but also allows for self-empowerment through self-learning via these exchanges, such as inter-personal interactions, and interactions with culture and with one’s surroundings, for example (Proto, 2005). In this sense, again, the Pompidou Centre was visionary in terms of creating a physical space designed to enable these interactions, these exchanges. As Stephen (2001) notes, Rogers and Renzo’s idea, and the realisation of this idea was also visionary in terms of the realisation that museums, cultural spaces, have to serve a leisure function, in terms of benefiting the wider public through the provision of leisure opportunities (Stephen, 2001). The Pompidou Centre, through its many different spaces, designed for different ends, allows users to spend their leisure time in and around the Centre, very comfortably, something that, in 1977, when the Centre was designed and built, was forward-looking, to say the least.
In terms of the Pompidou Centre’s design being understood as a product of its cultural, social, political and economic context, as has been seen, the building, and its surroundings, were very much intended to become a unified enabling space, through which visitors could interact with their surroundings in novel ways, initiating, directing and thus controlling their own experience whilst in the Pompidou Centre. The approach of visitors to the culture presented at the Pompidou Centre was this very different to how culture was, and is, presented at many other cultural centres and museums. Socially, as has been seen, the ethos of the Pompidou Centre was to bring together a wide variety of visitors, from many different backgrounds, and experiences, for many different purposes, from partaking in the cultural events on offer to enjoying the open spaces around the structure. Socially, therefore, the philosophy behind the design of the Pompidou Centre was to unite previously often socially disjunct visitors, through its welcoming, inside out, structure and through the offering of many different recreational spaces, in which visitors are free to choose, and direct, their own visitor experiences.
The Pompidou Centre space attracts not only visitors one would normally associate with cultural attractions, but also visitors who would not normally visit museums and other such sites (Thompson and Bell, 2007); on this basis, then, the design, and its intentions, have been entirely successful, allowing for multiple visitors, undertaking multiple activities, within the umbrella of the Pompidou Centre spaces (both internal and external). Under this view, as Rogers argued (Casati, 2007), the Pompidou Centre does indeed act as a ‘Parisian Hyde Park Corner’, a place in which people can air their views, express their desires for their free time and enhance their lives through multiple exchanges. Politically and economically, the Pompidou Centre, has, as has been seen, led to a large amount of redevelopment and regeneration in the surrounding areas of Paris. The plazas and other external spaces have been filled with complimentary shops, stores and cultural/entertainment activities (circuses, for example), leading to a general regeneration of the area surrounding the centre.
This essay has looked at the Pompidou Centre of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, in terms of how its design can be understood as a product of its cultural, social, political and economic context. This analysis included a discussion of the influences and relationship between the philosophical ideas underpinning the movement and the resulting building. As has been seen throughout the essay, the whole concept of Rogers and Piano was to use the entire space they had been given in order to create a variety of spaces in which multiple users could interact in multiple ways, with the spaces and with each other. Philosophically the main driving force behind the Pompidou Centre seems to have been to offer culture to the masses, to enable interaction with culture, in a novel way, in such a way that this offering would be embraced, by multiple users, in a myriad of different ways. This aim seems to have been achieved, and even surpassed, in terms of how visitors use the spaces within the Pompidou Centre and in terms of the sheer numbers of visitors to the Centre.
In conclusion, with the Pomipdou Centre, Rogers and Piano, who at the time were relatively unknown architects, showed how an unused section of a city can be regenerated, and opened up to a mass of users who previously would not have considered using a ‘cultural centre’. It is, through its High Tech design, as Proto (2005) argues, a successful exercise in showing how visitors can be enabled to direct their own self-learning, through multiple, previously unexpected, and un-hoped for, exchanges. Rogers’ vision for the Pompidou Centre as a ‘building for information, culture and entertainment’ (Casati, 2007) has been realised, and its aims and hopes surpassed in this sector of Paris.
Bachman, L.R. (2002). Systematic Centre Pompidou. In Integrated Buildings: The Systems Basis of Architecture. John Wiley. This extract is also available from Architecture Week, via [Accessed 6th July 2008].
Casati, C. (2007). The Parisian Hyde Park Corner. The Guardian Tuesday October 9th, 2007.
Kron, J. and Slesin, S. (1997). High Tech: The Industrial Style and Source Book for the Home.
Levy, B-H. (2007). A monument of audacity and modernity. The Guardian Tuesday October 9th 2007.
Proto, F. (2005). The Pompidou Centre: or the hidden kernel of dematerialisation. The Journal of Architecture 10(5), 573-589.
Stephen, A. (2001). The contemporary museum and leisure: recreation as a museum function. Museum Management and Curatorship 19(3), 297-308.
Thompson, H. and Bell, J. (2007). The Pompidou Centre. The Guardian Tuesday October 9th 2007.
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