Pompidou Center at 10 thriving despite barbs

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

``This big, steel, ugly thing irritates me,'' groans Desmond Kadogin, a visitor from New York. ``Maybe I will like what is inside,'' says an Italian tourist. People may love it or hate it, but few remain indifferent to the Georges Pompidou National Center for Art and Culture.

The now-famous building, with its multicolored piping and air vents in red and blue, sits smack in the center of Paris on the site of the once-famous Les Halles wholesale food markets.

This month the Pompidou Center or ``Beaubourg,'' as it is popularly known after the street that runs alongside, is celebrating its 10th anniversary. What better time to take a look at what has happened to the project which a decade ago created such an uproar here?

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When President Georges Pompidou, who authorized the project, looked at the plans, his remark was, ``They're going to scream.'' He was right. A group of French architects brought a lawsuit to block construction. Politicians criticized its $180 million cost. Later, critics called the center a ``culture supermarket,'' and some visitors have compared the inside at peak periods, when the narrow escalators and entrances are jammed, to the Paris subway. Some question whether it hasn't sucked up resources that should have been used for other cultural activities. The debate continues.

One thing is certain, however. Beaubourg has become, indisputably, one of the most popular museums in the world. Over 7 million people visit it each year - only slightly less than flock to Disneyland, and five times the number that had been expected.

The secret of its success is that it never was intended as an ordinary museum. Its goal was to be multidisciplinary cultural center, a sort of super ``Maison de la Culture,'' the artistic community centers created by de Gaulle's minister of culture, Andr'e Malraux, for the masses.

``We created an institution that puts together things not usually put together,'' says Jean Maheu, Beaubourg's current director. ``It wasn't made once and for all. It's a center of development, a sort of workshop.''

With generous government subsidies and a $59 million annual budget, Beaubourg houses the only National Museum of Modern Art in France, with its collection of some 17,000 contemporary works. It runs the Institute for Research and Coordination of Acoustics and Music (IRCAM), where Pierre Boulez's Ensemble Intercontemporaine explores new forms of musical expression. It houses the Center of Industrial Research (CCI), which looks at man and his environment and has done exhibitions on subjects as diverse as immigrant children and the aesthetics of garbage.

With a separate budget it provides a library that serves 11,000 people daily - incredibly, the first general one in France to be opened to the public.

Still criticized as brazenly un-French (the architects were English and Italian, the first director Swedish), Beaubourg at 10 is thriving, even if it hasn't shaken the controversy. One thing is beyond dispute, though: The view of Paris from its roof is terrific.

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