The making of a modern monument

There is an element of chaos theory in Francesco Dal Co’s Centre Pompidou: Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, and the Making of a Modern Monument, published late last year by Yale University Press. To consider the making of Paris’s iconoclastic cultural center, Dal Co parses a complex history in a volume whose breadth belies its modest page count.

His story begins in Paris 1968, the year of the working class uprisings that led to the resignation of Charles De Gaulle and the ascension of Georges Pompidou to France’s highest office. That President Pompidou vowed the following year to build a cultural center in Beaubourg, an ailing neighborhood in the heart of the capital, casts the Centre Pompidou as a tactical legacy project. Pompidou would, as it were, counter civil unrest with cultural rejuvenation.

Dal Co, however, is less interested in this aspect of the building’s history. Instead, his starting point is the paradox of how the vision of a moderate French president could develop so symbiotically with the emergence of an architectural avant-garde.

Dal Co scans broadly for the project’s rationales. Building upon earlier scholarship, he searches for the less-perceptible forces at play, subjecting artifacts and events to detailed forensic analysis. For instance, he revisits De Gaulle’s public refrain of “La réforme oui, la chienlit non” (“Reform yes, masquerade no”), dissecting its etymology to reveal a significant post-1968 recalibration of moral and aesthetic values. As Dal Co suggests, a popular plea for transparency — for visible reform instead of the “masquerade” of the prerevolutionary social order — found architectural expression in Rogers and Piano’s competition-winning design, which gleefully exposes its internal workings on its façade.

Centre Pompidou

Dal Co builds a strong historical foundation for his claims, guiding readers through the early work of Piano and Rogers, as well as that of Arup engineers Peter Rice, Ted Happold, and Gianni Franchini. He links the trajectories of these individuals to intellectual projects begun by Frei Otto and Buckminster Fuller, two pioneering figures who fostered the practice of generating architectural form out of empirical studies of structure. According to Dal Co, this fundamentally different approach to form-making established a basis on which architects and engineers could develop a shared formal language, a new syntax for combining structure and material that, in its newborn purity, exuded the openness so sought after in post-1968 France.

To articulate the shift in thinking embodied in the Centre Pompidou, Dal Co does not linger on Otto’s tensile structures or Fuller’s geodesic domes. Rather, he turns his attention to the construction of the concrete-shelled Sydney Opera House. Jørn Utzon’s opus proposed such a spectacular polarization of form and structure that it strained the traditional relationship between architect and engineer to a breaking point. From Dal Co’s vantage, the Sydney project produced “butterfly effects” felt in Paris, precipitating the alliance of the battle-tested engineers at Arup and the fresh-faced duo of Piano and Rogers, who appealed to Pompidou’s wish for a building purified of old, monumental connotations.

As early drawings show, the Centre Pompidou was imagined to be so porous, so subservient to the mercurial activities coursing through it, that its architecture was rendered insignificant, reduced to what was then the barest notion of structure. Like others before him, Dal Co relates this self-effacing quality to the work of British architects Cedric Price and Archigram, whose 1960s visions of continuously morphing environments seemed to have found their closest actualization in Beaubourg.

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Centre Pompidou

In an impressive feat of history writing, Dal Co also connects this postwar trend in architectural thinking with a building that stood almost exactly upon the museum’s site a century earlier: the iron-and-glass market pavilions of Les Halles, whose vast spans and thin iron supports helped introduce nineteenth-century Paris to a utilitarian architecture of “lightness and economy,” as its proponents claimed.

The invocation of Les Halles serves a dual purpose in Dal Co’s story of Pompidou. First, it gives precedence to the association of large, lightweight structures with vital public spaces. It also imparts a revolutionary nature to the structures, drawing a parallel to the Centre Pompidou. Like Piano and Rogers’ design, Les Halles appeared unapologetically modern in its day, simultaneously shocking the masses with its indifference to formal architectural expression and enchanting them with a glimpse into a future of large, efficiently constructed public spaces. Dal Co smartly implies that, as with Les Halles, the radical appearance of the Centre Pompidou was always destined to warp over time, its self-effacing mechanisms becoming more visible with each new coating of historical meaning.

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Les Halles

More than once, Dal Co demonstrates how the distant past has a way of slipping into the present. In his chapter on the technical realization of the Centre Pompidou, he suggests that the premise of generating a material form that aspired to be immaterial established conditions for an extraordinarily open creative process. Having expunged old notions of form and structure, Pompidou’s makers found themselves willing to revive obsolete construction methods, eventually hinging their unmasked design on the use of nineteenth-century cast-steel forms called “gerberettes.” For the author, this integration of old technology marks one of the design’s most subversive moments, challenging the notion of modernity itself.

Centre Pompidou offers a refreshing take on architectural history writing. Dal Co moves with the spryness of a historian well established in his field, covering great distances to arrive at his conclusions. There is a pleasure in allowing the specificity of the topic — a single building — to gather a cosmos of artifacts, people, and movements from distant junctures of time and space. The cohesiveness of the book is a testament to the talents of its author and translator. By the end, the reader is left with fluttering impressions that the Centre Pompidou emerged out of decades of cultural evolution and, simultaneously, the miraculous alignment of individual wills.

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