It sounds like a modern fairytale: in 1971 two architects, neither of them French, win the most important commission in Paris since the war, the design for the Centre Pompidou, and become famous overnight. The two - a 38-year-old Englishman called Richard Rogers and a 35-year-old Italian called Renzo Piano - design an exuberant building that delights some and outrages others: a glass box supported by a superstructure of steel and concrete, each fašade a playful grid of prefabricated columns and diagonal braces, with a transparent escalator tube that snakes up the front, and other service tubes, picked out in primary colours, that run up the other sides. Imagined as a cross between the British Museum and Times Square updated for the information age, the Beaubourg was immediately popular (today it has more than seven million visitors a year); plopped down in a broad piazza, it was also populist (Rogers still calls it 'a people's centre, a university of the street'). Yet the project was contradictory: a Pop building designed by two progressive architects for a bureaucratic state to honour a conservative president, a cultural centre pitched as 'a catalyst for urban regeneration' that assisted in the further erasure of Les Halles and the gradual gentrification of the Marais. Such tensions have run through the subsequent careers of both Rogers and Piano, who have long identified with the left even as they have benefited from the patronage of the centre and the right. So it goes, a realist would say, for any successful practice in this neo-liberal era; the test is what one can accomplish given these conditions. And on that score Rogers has picked spots where his office can do public good; as various projects for London alone suggest, no architect of his stature is more civic-minded.
LRB 19 October 2006 | PDF Download