This review of Shigeru Ban’s Centre Pompidou-Metz first appeared in The Architectural Review
More from: Paris’ Grande Arche in line for £160m revamp
‘Centre Pompidou is the only public monument the ’70s have produced,’ pronounced Reyner Banham in these pages shortly after the Paris venue’s opening (AR May 1977). And despite the emphasis on adaptability - with the infamously exposed servicing creating (theoretically, at least) infinitely reconfigurable floorplates - he presciently predicted that whatever modifications occurred, its monumentality would remain fixed until the ‘century’s end’.
Today’s search for singularity has, however, a counterpoint in the drive for multiplicity. Museums are increasingly eager to disperse their progeny. London’s pair of Tate galleries long ago branched into Liverpool and Cornwall. Others are more buccaneering: both Paris’s Louvre and New York’s Guggenheim will launch satellites in Abu Dhabi over the next couple of years, designed respectively by Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry.
Indeed, the Guggenheim’s proliferation comes close to missionary zeal: since Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1959 masterpiece in New York there have been ventures into Venice, Bilbao, Berlin - even Las Vegas, which, despite Rem Koolhaas’s design, failed ignominiously.
However, the Guggenheim’s most successful project, also by Gehry, spawned the Bilbao Effect - a contagious notion with three identifying symptoms: an ‘iconic’ piece of architecture (often a gallery); a ‘starchitect’; and a de-industrialised, moribund ‘regional’ city.
Following this trend, in May the Pompidou opened its first outpost in the eastern city of Metz. Although only an 80-minute train journey from Paris, culturally it’s a million miles away. The government, in the spirit of decentralisme, hopes the €86 million (£73 million) Pompidou Metz - part of a 50-hectare regeneration site - will have a Bilbao-like effect on a region whose traditional mining and metal industries are in decline. ‘What is at stake here,’ President Sarkozy melodramatically declared, ‘is no more or less than a new renaissance of the Lorraine.’
There are similarities between the Paris and Metz projects. Both competitions were won by slightly ad-hoc groupings: Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers in 1971 with Gianfranco Franchini; and, in 2003, Japan’s Shigeru Ban, Paris-based Jean de Gastines and (working on the proposals) ex-Rogers architect Philip Gumuchdjian.
Furthermore, both can be read as a combination of a pair of ideas. The genius of the 1977 Pompidou Centre was how two radical paper speculations from the 1960s - Plug-In City by Archigram’s Peter Cook and Cedric Price’s Fun Palace - coalesced into a physical presence, even more shocking for its violation of the 4th arrondissement’s classical sensibility. This seems now a pivotal moment, when an unrealised visionary spirit gave way to an enterprising, buildable high-tech.
‘Less a handshake, more a fistfight, at Metz the meeting of the two ideas fails to strike an accord.’
The two diagrams - one about the sinuous roof, the other the splaying galleries - crash together like drunkards jostling on a narrow staircase.
The sketch models describe a more harmonious relationship. Like the original Pompidou, which gave half of the site over to a piazza, at Metz the ground plane looked to be a generous public space, not enclosed but sheltered by the canopy. Under this, sometimes poking through, were three identical elongated boxes (the galleries) stacked and rotated from each other, with multiple entrance points suggested by a number of vertical cores. Crucially, the roof was visually permeable, so the arrangement of the internal elements would be expressed externally.
What has been delivered is a fatally compromised version. The circulation has been centralised into a single core, with a 77m metal spire piercing the roof as a reference to the year of the original’s opening (is this serious architecture?). The escalator only goes to the first floor, so to reach the upper galleries you must head through a push-bar door to an escape stair, or wait for one of two lifts, which hardly coped with a handful of journalists. Getting round this building will be a nightmare.
Credit where it’s due, the galleries are ideal for showing art. But so they should be: they are all unadventurous modifications of the white cube. The upper triplets are 80m extrusions while the ground-floor gallery (which, with other amenities, has silted up much of the public space) is a polygonal version. Functional as they may be, they are entirely generic.
The roof of CNC-machined laminated timber beams evolves a language developed in Ban’s earlier projects. From numerous examples, the architect’s elegant Japanese pavilion (AR September 2000) for Expo 2000 in Hanover, which employs his trademark structural paper tubes, particularly stands out. Though Metz is geometrically more complex, this wooden iteration, though beautiful, looks leaden by comparison. Furthermore, the membrane allows only 15 per cent light penetration. In the day the roof is opaque. Press photographs show an appealing glowing mass, but these surely mourn the loss of the initial proposal’s fundamental transparency.
‘Twilight shots reveal the roof’s raison d’être. Here is the saleable image of regional rebirth, the ‘monumentality’ of which Banham speaks. But other than that the roof lacks a role.’
From inside, it creates absolutely no spatial tension with the gallery blocks, which completely snub it, their glazed ends framing instead specific(ish) contextual views. From the glass lift, the tops of the galleries present themselves as wasted, white blanks, marked with the odd workmanlike footprint. Furthermore, the rectilinear galleries should float independently through the oval roof cuts, instead of being obviously braced together.
Arriving from the adjacent train station to the primary facade, the envelope beneath the roof is a shanty-like collection of materials: industrial rolling glazed doors, corrugated translucent sheets, white beach-hut boarding, metal escape stairs. It makes a mess of what should be a welcoming gesture. Yet more bizarrely, from the upper ranges it obscures views of the outlaying town. I only spotted one section - from the upper lift lobby - of clear glazing. This reveals some rear ducting, which is more rewarding to interpret as a satirical wink at the first Pompidou, rather than sheer ineptitude.
In Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Line of Beauty, a character dismisses a relation’s stately pile by saying: ‘It’s the contents that make Hawkeswood. The house itself is something of a monstrosity.’ This applies equally to Pompidou Metz. With the Parisian counterpart’s 65,000 modern artworks mostly languishing in storage, there are unrivalled resources for future shows.
The inaugural exhibition offers a tantalising glimpse of this collection with works by Braque, Léger, Matisse and Picasso, among other more recherché delights. Entitled Masterpieces?, the question mark is no doubt hoping to encourage the first probing visitors to approach each piece - some 800 of them - with an open mind. And yet somehow it also seems a symbol of institutional self-doubt, a half-suppressed acknowledgement that this relation doesn’t measure up architecturally to its trailblazing ancestor.
Winning the competition as unknown thirtysomethings, Rogers and Piano have both individually gone on to win the Pritzker Prize. Ban and de Gastines were both in their mid-forties. The latter is hardly an international figure, but it is not entirely fanciful to imagine the arc of Ban’s career soaring to reach architecture’s finest accolade. However, judging this building’s quality at close range, he seriously needs to raise his game. This was a big commission for Ban, and an even bigger missed opportunity.
Architect: Shigeru Ban Architects Europe, and Jean de Gastines Architectes, both Paris, France.
Associate Architect: Philip Gumuchdjian, London, UK
Structural engineers: Arup, Terrell
Photography: Paul Raftery
Centre Pompidou-Metz by Shigeru Ban Architects & Jean de Gastines Architectes, France