Pompidou's new sparkle


IT MUST HAVE felt mildly disconcerting for the people behind the Centre Pompidou-Metz, having spent €60 million planting a colossal timber and Teflon conch on a windswept site in eastern France, to hear it greeted not with howls of outrage but with cheers of approval.

The project’s directors had fond memories of the controversy that marked the opening of the original Centre Pompidou, in Paris. In 1977 the experimental building by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers – a towering structure that looked like a multicoloured oil rig dropped into the heart of the capital – stirred so much debate that it was branded, for a time, the most hated building in France. But the controversy was the making of the place. About 25,000 people came every day to see its modern-art collection, the criticism soon waned and the Pompidou became one of the most famous buildings in the world.

More than 30 years later the Centre Pompidou-Metz, a sister institution to the original, has proved that provoking indignation is not the only way to make a splash. Its daring design and smart, eye-catching exhibitions have won critical praise, and, just 18 months after opening, the centre has become the most popular exhibition space outside the capital. “My hope was around 250,000 visitors in the first year, and we got 800,000,” says Laurent Le Bon, the director of the centre. “So we surpassed it. Let’s see if that holds.”

When the Pompidou-Metz was conceived, a decade ago, as the first regional outpost of a major French gallery, the rationale was simple: the Musée National d’Art Moderne, one of the constituent parts of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, had built up a collection of 70,000 works, making it the largest of its type in Europe, but had the space to show just 3,000. In 2000 its president, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, eager to promote the collection more widely, initiated a call for offers from provincial cities – and Metz, the little-known capital of industrial Lorraine, won out.

Cynics pointed out that Metz is Aillagon’s birthplace, but Le Bon, who was involved in the process from the start, says the city was chosen for a more straightforward reason. “We almost went to Lille, we almost went to Montpellier, cities that were on the other side, politically, to Jean-Jacques Aillagon [an ally of former president Jacques Chirac],” Le Bon says. In the end they chose Metz because the local mayor said the city would pay for it.

The building is an extraordinary sight. When you step out of Metz-Ville station its vast undulating roof, a cross between a circus big top and a conch, looms instantly into view. The roof, an 8,000sq m white Teflon membrane held in place by 18km of glue-laminated spruce and larch meshed into criss-crossing patterns, is the structure’s most striking feature.

All of this droops over the glass-and-steel body of the building, while the upper galleries stick out like airport passenger bridges, each with enormous windows at the end giving views over the city. The membrane is translucent, so when the building is lit from the inside at night, the hexagonal roof structure is revealed in all its intricate glory.

There are also a few nods to the Paris mother house: the central mast is 77m tall, to acknowledge the year the Centre Pompidou opened, and the sloping terrace at the front has the same dimensions as the parvis beloved of buskers and street performers in Paris. The design, by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and his French associate, Jean de Gastines, manages to be loyal to the spirit of the Pompidou and resolutely singular at the same time.

“We didn’t do a copy-and-paste of the Centre Pompidou-Paris,” says Le Bon. “We took its genes and tried to reimagine the utopia of the 1960s and 1970s but with the experience of 30 years of the Centre Pompidou.”

In other ways, too, the Pompidou-Metz is more than an annex of the Parisian original. It’s legally autonomous, has its own board of trustees and is funded by regional authorities. It does have free access to the Paris collection, however, a privilege that distinguishes it from the Guggenheim in Bilbao, for example, which has to pay to borrow works from its namesake in New York and transport them to Spain.

The new centre wears its regional identity proudly, says Le Bon, allowing it to inform curatorial choices and making it a vital part of its self-image. A compact, cosmopolitan city in the former industrial belt of northeastern France, Metz has changed hands many times and still serves as an intersection of people and cultures. That fluidity has been built into the building, where the gallery space of 5,000sq m is most distinctive for its ability to adapt and reshape itself for each exhibition.

JUST AS THEoriginal Pompidou aimed to reinvent the Beaubourg area of central Paris, so the Pompidou-Metz is the centrepiece of the new Amphithéâtre district, slowly taking shape around it on former industrial land. “Shigeru Ban worked a lot on trying to frame the city, so that when you walk around in the building you discover the city. It’s not disconnected from its urban world,” Le Bon says.

One of the finest views is from the window of the Grande Nef gallery, giving a panorama of the attractive city dominated by its cathedral.

Le Bon resists comparisons with Bilbao, where the arrival of the Guggenheim is credited with rejuvenating the city (Pompidou-Metz cost four times less than its Basque counterpart), but there is clearly an expectation that Metz will reap ample benefits from the project. Already, the city estimates the centre has brought in €40 million in spin-off income (mostly via hotels, restaurants and tourist sites), and officials in the northern city of Lens, where a satellite of the Louvre is due to open next year, are watching the experience closely. “I’ve always said that a cultural institution won’t change the world,” Le Bon remarks. “But I do think the Centre Pompidou-Metz can serve as a catalyst here.” If that is to happen, the Pompidou-Metz has to keep making an impression once its novelty has worn off. A great deal depends on the quality and consistency of its curatorial work, not least because the centre is given over entirely to temporary exhibitions.

Its inaugural show was the acclaimed Chefs-d’Oeuvre?, a clever attempt to trace the meaning of masterpieces from the middle ages to the mid 20th century, with plenty of crowd-pleasing works by artists such as Picasso, Brancusi, Matisse and Kandinsky. There will be between two and four major thematic or monographic exhibitions a year. The latest is the multimedia Erre, Variations Labyrinthiques, which takes the motif of the labyrinth to explore representations of wandering, loss and escape. A forthcoming exhibition looks at how aerial photography has modified artists’ perceptions since the 19th century, and next spring sees the opening of 1917, a panorama of artistic creation in that year of terrible upheaval. (Some of the first World War battlefields are near Metz.)

The critical response so far has been glowing, and the millionth visitor is expected to pass through the door this week, but Le Bon knows the task of establishing the place, of giving it a purpose, has only just begun. “We had a lot of luck with the project,” he says. “Now we really have to apply ourselves, because the hard bit starts now.”