Sunday, January 31, 2010


The streets of Paris have seen more revolutions and agitations than most, and after each one, the victors (the Jacobins in 1789, Cavaignac and the National Assembly in 1848, Thiers in 1871, the Gaullists in 1968) have re-built Paris to suit their political agenda. Haussman’s re-ordering of the city along the lines of political and capitalist power is the most notorious of these reconstructions, but in fact Haussmanisation continued well into the twentieth century, and is likely to exert itself again in the twenty-first.

Roger’s and Piano’s Centre Pompidou, built along the Rue Beaubourg, presents itself as a formal architectural exercise – a building turned inside-out, so that its skeleton (frame, joins, pipes etc) is exposed, and the distinction between its inner workings and outer facade becomes blurred. It is apparently as apolitical as the Eiffel Tower, and as supreme a feat of engineering (though altogether less awe-inspiring). Richard Rogers had come out earlier in the 1970s as embracing the non-ideological architecture of the USA, in contrast to the opaque theory of the European modernists and post-modernists.

But actually, the Pompidou is a conceit, both in its content and its context. First, the context. Following the shock of May 1968 to the political elite, successive governments and Mayoral Offices (most notably that of Jacques Chirac) looked to the urban fabric of Paris to see how it could be made less ripe for subversion and more amenable to the maintenance of state and corporate power. This was achieved via three principal methods: the gesture of ripping up the streets (the cobbles of the Latin Quarter, the paving stones under which the revolutionaries uncovered the beach, were paved over), the removal of unauthorised areas of assembly (such as the vegetable markets at Les Halles) and the construction of iconic buildings by big-name architects, which replaced real-life on the streets with a marvellous spectacle. Needless to say, the dispersal of undesirable people from the Fourth arrondissement to the banlieues naturally followed.

The sickly pocket of Beaubourg was sanitised in 1977 by the construction of the Centre Pompidou (a building which couldn’t be less Parisian if it tried). The Pompidou – the most iconic of buildings, by the biggest of big-named architects – could therefore never have been apolitical, and the decision to use the site as a cultural centre is highly significant.

And what of the content? Well, for all the hype of high technology, today it now looks bland and dated, like a very old, clunky IBM computer. Hi-tech is everywhere now – it is the genus of choice for the unimaginative constructor of offices and supermarkets all over the world. It is a superior example of the genre, granted, but its design was clearly chosen as a means of gentrification. It appears to have been flown into the Right Bank at random, a tokenistic nod to modernisation and globalisation (for there is little about the Pompidou that is in keeping with the local environment). Its concept, too, is shaky: those coloured tubes and elevators which seem to blast visitors upwards like atoms in the hadron collider are decorative rather than functional.

The Pompidou has succeeded in its main aims: of shifting dissent, drawing the masses into the Plateau Beaubourg, institutionalising culture, erasing the distinction between high and low culture (though, in so doing, replacing both with a smooth, smug middlebrow culture). Tourists come to look at the Pompidou (and no doubt the marketing men know for how long the average visitor stops to stare), and some venture inside (which we did not) to join others in an act of mass consumption. “What one comes to learn in a hypermarket – hyperreality of the commodity,” writes Baudrillard, “[...] is what one comes to learn at Beaubourg: the hyperreality of culture.”

One goes, one gazes, but one cannot make an imprint on the Pompidou (this is true of all cultural institutions). And since one cannot participate in such a space, the space ends up making its imprint on its visitors. “That,” says Baudrillard, “is mass production, not in the sense of a massive production for use by the masses, but the production of the masses. The masses as the final product of all sociality and, at the same time, as putting an end to sociality, because these masses that one wants us to believe are the social, are on the contrary the site of the implosion of the social.”

But this implies what Baudrillard describes as the “stockpiling of men” (analogous to a museum’s stockpiling of cultural artefacts), and it is in this inert assembly of bodies inside the Pompidou that he imagines its paradoxical downfall. The building will buckle if more than 30,000 people are inside at any one time, and this is the challenge that Baudrillard presents to the masses. “Make Beaubourg bend!” he demands. “If the masses magnetised by the structure become a destructive variable of the structure itself [...] then Beaubourg constitutes the most audacious object and the most successful happening of the century.”

Could even the canny Jacques Chirac ever have envisaged such an expression of people power?


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