Tourist-Trodden Pompidou Center Gets a Lift

WHEN it opened in the middle of one of Paris's oldest neighborhoods in 1977, the multicolored, glass-and-steel Georges Pompidou Center was ridiculed as a misplaced industrial-style hulk devoid of public appeal.

The public proved the critics wrong. Less than two decades later, the 20th-century cultural center, featuring France's premier modern art collection and a 1,500-seat public library, is the most-visited public institution of its kind in the world. Every day the center, now most often called simply ``Beaubourg,'' receives on average 26,000 visitors - instead of the 7,000 for which the building was designed.

But the astounding success and all the unanticipated visitors mean that Beaubourg has also taken a lot of wear and tear. Today even its most fervent supporters acknowledge that the building resembles more of an overcrowded and run-down public housing project than a world-class showcase of contemporary art.

And that was not a plight that the current government, headed by Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, once a prot of the late President Pompidou, was willing to accept. So just as Socialist President Francois Mitterrand got his grand Louvre renovation and the Musee d'Orsay (which displays 19th-century works), the center-right Balladur government is making sure that Pompidou's legacy enters the 21st century with a shine.

Beginning in 1997, a two-year, $110-million renovation project will not just spruce up the place, but expand exhibit space and correct some of the architectural features that have compounded the crush of the crowd. The center will be given several new entrances to specific activities, for example, so that the main entrance becomes less of a bottleneck. Currently the main entrance also serves as a makeshift waiting room for library patrons, but the library's popularity often generates waits that make an hour's worth of queuing up at Euro Disney seem like a snap.

Beaubourg will also get new commercial and restaurant space, in the interest of tapping into the center's revenue-generating potential. The center will remain open throughout the staged renovation.

Museum officials and the City of Paris also plan a redesign of the pedestrian esplanade outside Beaubourg's door. The hugely popular open square attracts jugglers, fire-eaters, comics, and musicians, but also pickpockets, drug-users, and the homeless. Plans call for better lighting and better integration of the square with the surrounding neighborhood.

But perhaps the central purpose of the Pompidou renovations, aside from simply renewing worn-out infrastructure, is to once again give the center the inventive and progressive spirit that a focus on crowds took away.

When Beaubourg opened in 1977, the idea was to return to Paris some of the energy of the modern arts - one of the late President Pompidou's passions - that was increasingly focused in New York. Now, says Culture Minister Jacques Toubon, it's time to ensure that the Pompidou Center enters the next century ``the center of reference in creative cultural matters.''

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