February 02: the central monument of punk rock Pac-Man & disco lightsabers
2012/02/02 § Leave a comment
On this day in 1977 the Musée National d’Art Moderne, in the Centre Pompidou, opened to the public.
Clio ranks this as one of the ten most important buildings of the twentieth century (and probably is not alone in doing so). It posed a significant challenge to norms of museum design, and asserted blatant technological expression in a most unlikely setting. To say that the selection of this high-tech project for the newest museum in Paris came as a shock to many is putting it lightly. This is Paris we’re talking about: Paris of the grande tradition of Classical French architecture (see yesterday’s post to find out where that came from), those little book stalls on the Seine, elderly men in berets playing the accordion, not to mention things like Notre Dame, which is just one-half mile (or, in Parisian terms, 1,462 baguettes laid end-to-end) away. It’s a big box whose structure and services (the latter color-coded) were moved to the outside to free the interior. The competition entry by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers took delight in announcing its difference from the physical nature of the city, not to mention its departure from standard museum design. No traditional galleries, no hierarchical entry, and a style of architecture that was blatantly anti-establishment and anti-art; indeed, it was pro-machine, pro-technology, pro-populism, allegedly all the things that its collection would be about, too. It became the signal work of High Tech architecture, the building that made it OK for London insurance markets and Hong Kong banks to build landmarks that don’t just reveal their structure but make every effort to celebrate the most acrobatic feats of hugely scaled engineering design possible.
In addition to its demands to be understood as a twentieth-century building for twentieth-century art, the new approach was explained as a way to popularize the museum experience and to make a multi-functioning building in a space that would regenerate a drab part of the city. Rather than the allegedly off-putting, elitist architecture seen in more traditional museums, where classical cartouches and columns stand at the top of broad flights of stairs, this was more welcoming, open on two long sides, allowing anyone to live out their dreams of hamster life in a Habitrail by taking the snakey escalators up to the top. (Not that the traditional architecture of the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay appears to slow down the 10.8 million annual visitors to those museums,* but never mind.) It was a huge success in these terms: the museum opened six years after the competition, on time and under budget, and was immediately and immensely popular. Too popular, one might argue, since the building (which cost an adjusted $1.03 billion), had to be shut down between October 1996 and January 2000 to restore the damage done by the unanticipated numbers of visitors (to the tune of $119 million)–on some days, four times the expected 5,000 per day showed up.
Pompidou paved the way for other museum enterprises that would use unprecedented architecture to boost attendance. It had the Bilbao effect twenty years before Bilbao. As it ages (which it does expensively), it will take on the uncomfortable quaintness that is the destiny of all things designed to be of-the-very-moment: it is fated to be aesthetically obsolete, or at least, really stuck in its particular period, appropriately so, along with the art inside of it. Remember that the sense of modernity and future technological promise in 1977 is shared by these events and artifacts: the vinyl debut of The Clash, the opening of the Trans-Alaska pipeline, the special effects of the original Star Wars, the creation of the Department of energy by Jimmy Carter, the first test free-flight of the space shuttle Enterprise, the episode where Fonzie Jumped the Shark that you dialed up with your hand rather than a remote control, the release of the Atari 2600, the start of trans-Atlantic flights by the Concorde to New York, illuminated discotheque dance floors. Clearly, we’ve moved on, but Piano & Rogers’ museum is now an old building, only fifteen years shy of eligibility for a historic landmark plaque. Pompidou is to the Apple II as the Regium Waterfront is to whatever Apple product you’re holding right now, and you know it’s only a matter of time until they look dumpy.
*or the Rodin Museum, Picasso Museum, Museum of the Middle Ages, Museum of Advertising, Museum of Asiatic Arts, the Arts & Metiers, the Orangerie . . . have I made my point?
Image: (from this source)