The much-loved Paris landmark was designed in 1977 by two young unknowns – Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano. On the eve of its 40th birthday, they recall the sheer joy and bravado – and the struggle – of creating it
At a press conference in the Élysée Palace, in 1971, President Georges Pompidou was so properly turned out that the soles of his shoes were polished. The hairy young crew who had just won the competition to design the arts centre that would carry his name, beating 680 others, were not. Richard Rogers wore a railwayman’s blue denim suit and a flower power shirt, Renzo Piano a hippiefied combination of beard and tweeds and their partner John Young a sweatshirt that (memories would vary) may have had Mickey Mouse on it. Only Ted Happold, of the engineers Ove Arup, wore a suit and tie. “You are the capitalist,” the president told him.
This tableau captured the grand bargain between radical architecture and establishment politics that generated the famous building that would follow, the Pompidou Centre, sometimes called the Beaubourg, whose 40th birthday is about to be trumpeted with 50 exhibitions and 15 concerts and performances in 40 different cities – an André Breton show in Lille, for example, and an Alain Buffard dance piece in Nimes. And with the passage of time it only stands out more. It has claims to be the most significant single building since the war. It is both a late blossoming of the 1960s and a precursor of the city-boosting “iconic” architecture of the decades since. It is a palace for a media-soaked age, as bright in its reds and blues as colour TV and colour supplements.
In 1968, three years before the memorable press conference, the Paris streets in which the centre now stands had been ripped up by protesting students. Pompidou became president the following year – a conservative with a mission to restore order, who also planned a series of transformative building projects for Paris. Among them was a proposal for a centre of contemporary arts – not just a museum or a gallery, but also a library and a centre for music. His motives would have included a wish to tame the city with a sophisticated form of bread and circuses. As Piano now says: “After 1968, he had to do something, to show something.” […]