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EXHIBITIONS Four diverse decades of French design

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Walking down Broadway, you could easily miss the downtown Guggenheim. What you see from the street is a shopfront displaying Kandinsky ties, Rauschenberg umbrellas and Jeff Koons plates, along with the usual coffee- table books: it's the Guggenheim bookshop. Inside, if you inquire at the cashdesk about the entrance to the museum, they point you to the back of the shop and, sure enough, there it is, hidden behind the postcard racks and bookshelves - a white space guarded by big men in blazers with walkie-talkies and badges. It could only happen in America.

This autumn the shopfront of the museum is a little different, however. The Franco-Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn has added a fantastical, jerry- built window-box projecting out into the street - a piece of shantytown made principally of sheet plastic and brown adhesive tape, which displays equally cheap art souvenirs surrounded by aluminium foil window-dressing. Inside, the museum has mounted a show of contemporary French architecture, art and design.

Hirschhorn's installation gives a false impression of what follows. Most of the show is put together from the Pompidou Centre's collection of art and design, juxtaposed with a more diverse French state collection of contemporary art. As one might expect, there is no common theme aside from the fact that everything was made in France in the last 40 years. And France is no island. French preoccupations over that period have not been dissimilar from those of other western countries, and at least a third of the creators exhibited are not French.

None of this stops curators and critics from scribbling away and trying to find that common theme. There is much dicussion around the title 'Premises', much quotation of Gaston Bachelard, Georges Perec, Paul Virilio and other French heavyweights. There are lots of heavy titles: 'Places of Memory', 'Form/ Relation', 'Dispositives', 'Enlarging the Condition of Living', etc. But in the end you are left looking at a collection of models, photographs, furniture, films, videos and installations which resists being classified, dogmatised or intellectualised.

There are the usual flagships we have been seeing for the last 10 years - Nouvel, Portzamparc, Perrault, Starck, Boltanski, Reynaud - but, in the newer work, there is something that could tentatively be seen as a common cause. The French have become as preoccupied with poverty as they once were with luxury. This preoccupation is implicitly political, as it was with Italian arte povera, and it is most noticeable in Hirschhorn's installation.

It all began with Duchamp's decision to make art with what has already been produced for another purpose. In architecture, it translates into using cheap mass-produced materials to make buildings of simple, economical form; of treating the site, vegetation, and the sun in the manner of a judo wrestler who uses the weight and the momentum of his opponent to throw him. A handful of projects by young architects like Nicolas Michelin & Finn Geipel, Anne Lacaton & Jean-Philippe Vassal, and Edouard Francois & Duncan Lewis illustrate this preoccupation. It is not unique to France, but it does seem more pronounced there, perhaps because of the depression the French building industry has been going through since the beginning of this decade.

Denis Connolly is an architect in Paris

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