History of the Pompidou Centre History of the Pompidou Centre

History of the Pompidou Centre

The Pompidou Centre is a Paris landmark, an extraordinary piece of architecture inaugurated in 1977, that is officially - when translated from the French - the Georges Pompidou National Art and Culture Centre. Locals call it "Beaubourg" after the neighbourhood around it in the 4th arrondissement of Paris. The building was the vision of the man it's named after, France's leader between 1962 and 1968. President Georges Pompidou had the idea of a space dedicated to the culture of the 20th and 21st centuries, bringing together visual arts, literature, music, cinema and design in one unique multicultural institution. The building has extensive galleries featuring both visiting exhibitions and selections from its permanent collection of modern and contemporary art, one of the most important in the world. With additional exhibition spaces, a cinema, a large public reading library - and eight million visitors each year - the President's idea now seems as if it was a very safe bet. This present day success masks a highly controversial history, however, both of the idea itself and its audacious design.

Popular versus elitist culture

There were many problems facing President Pompidou's vision of a national multicultural centre. Not least was that by the 1970s, Paris had lost its place as a leader on the contemporary arts scene to New York. To regain the top spot, the French capital needed an original space that would be instantly recognised around the world.

There was another factor. For Georges Pompidou personally, it was critical that all forms of artistic expression should be given prominence in the new centre. He didn't want it to become yet another exclusive preserve for the Parisian art elite. These populist ambitions sparked intense debate, and a standoff ensued between those who were in favour of a celebration of popular culture, and those of a more traditional mindset, the established cultural elite.

The President's artistic aspirations

Georges Pompidou was passionate about this project, and about his view that the new centre should include music, film, books and even audiovisual research. As he put it, "This place should be both modern and constantly evolve. The library alone will attract thousands of people who, in turn, will inevitably find themselves in contact with other aspects of the arts."

"The Ship of Culture"

Despite all of the cultural controversies, an architectural competition for the design of the new building went ahead, and, eventually, the Georges Pompidou National Art and Culture Centre was inaugurated on January 31 1977 by President Pompidou's successor, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. Not least due to the intense cultural debate that preceded it, the opening ceremony attracted international attention, and was attended by political and cultural personalities from around the world.

What they saw was a building like no other, with all of the utilities and structure that are usually concealed - piping, brightly coloured tubing, lifts, the now famous stairs - all proudly exposed on the exterior. This was an entirely new architectural language, thought up by the winners of the design competition, Richard Rogers from Britain, who went on to design the landmark Lloyd's building in the City of London, and Renzo Piano of Italy, now best known for The Shard in London and the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Their new Parisian arts centre wasn't universally liked. The most enthusiastic called Rogers and Piano's creation "The Ship of Culture". Others were less kind, calling it "Our Lady of the Pipe", while the French newspaper Le Figaro likened it to the mythical Loch Ness monster.

Controversial or not, the public voted with their feet. In its first year a building designed to welcome 5,000 visitors a day found itself hosting five times that. Most came for the major exhibitions, but the vast new public library was also an instant hit.

After its 20th anniversary in 1997, the Pompidou Centre closed for an extensive renovation lasting three years. Internal areas were increased by more than 8,000 square metres and spaces were redeveloped to allow for more works to be exhibited and for more dance, theatre and music to be performed. There's now a new space for children, with two exhibitions each year.

Even those with no interest in art love the Pompidou Centre. There's a unique panorama over Paris from the upper floors, which can be accessed from the external escalators.

Our Pompidou Centre tickets give you direct access to the permanent collections of the national modern art Museum and all the exhibitions on display.

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