When Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers won the competition to build the Pompidou Centre in 1971, I was a young student at Hammersmith School of Art. It was a heady, Bohemian era, shortly after the Paris riots of 1968, and this building, more than any other, captured that radical spirit and message of social change. And it was the building that made me switch course and become an architect.
They created a structure that was anti-monumental and democratic, one that didn’t look imposing or institutional. The Pompidou Centre literally turned the world of architecture upside down and inside out. The services, structure and circulation, typically hidden deep inside a building, were instead revealed on the outside in bright colours in an architectural language of emancipation.
As a cultural centre, it was just as revolutionary. It didn’t make any demands on you as a visitor; it didn’t expect you to behave in a certain way – whether you went to the museum or the library, ate in the café or hung out with friends, all were equally valid ways of spending your time there. You didn’t even have to go inside – riding the escalators that run up the outside of the building was exhilarating enough for some.
Above all, it created a feeling that it belonged to everyone. The vast, sloping piazza in front of the museum was a potent response to the riots of 1968, merging the social with the populist with the cultural. For Rogers, the events of 1968 were a moment that “nearly changed history, certainly for Europe. It looked as though there would be a revolution. In fact, it didn’t happen. But we captured some of it in the building.”
Looking back at the design almost 40 years later gave me the confidence to think about my own work on public buildings in a new way. This has played out at the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum in London and Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT) in Lisbon. Instead of grand entrances and stairs, we created places that make you feel welcome and draw you in. At the V&A, a colonnade makes it easy for people to drift in off the street and into a courtyard, an outdoor room of the museum that feels part of the city as much as part of the V&A, blurring the threshold between the two. In Lisbon we constructed a new footbridge across the road and the railway tracks that lands on the roof of the museum. From there you can walk down to the galleries or remain in this new town square.
It is because of the Pompidou Centre that today’s cultural buildings are judged as much by their public spaces as by the artworks or performances they contain. Like the Pompidou’s piazza, the roof of the museum in Lisbon and the courtyard of the V&A have become social spaces, almost distinct from the museums themselves. That’s why the Pompidou Centre is one of the seminal buildings of the 20th century. It is transformative and progressive. You can’t really ask for more.