THE landmarks of Paris inspire a myriad of emotions. Notre Dame may provoke awe; the Louvre sends many into raptures; a stroll through Montmartre can conjure up romance. And, according to the wife of its founder, le Centre Pompidou makes people happy. Mme. Claude Pompidou herself inspires a certain deference. She is tall and patrician, and her husband was President of France from 1969 to 1974. So it is all the more delightful when she becomes positively excited, even apologizes for seeming a bit silly, as she describes the reactions of ordinary people who visit the center for modern art that was so close to her late husband's heart. ``Young people, old people, so many come up to me. They say things like, `This place has changed my life.' It's quite wonderful.''
According to Mme. Pompidou, interviewed recently in her flower-strewn suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel here, the center is much more than a museum: It's a resource, a habitat, an adventure full of discoveries. And it makes people feel at home.
The Pompidou Center had been a dream of President Georges Pompidou since he took office in 1969. The ultramodern, exuberantly innovative building, constructed on the site of the ancient marketplace of Les Halles, took seven years to complete. President Pompidou died in 1974, so he did not see the fruition of his dream.
``He envisioned a center that would make modern art accessible to everyone,'' his wife recalls. ``It was meant to reach as wide an audience as possible. Other museums are rather elitist, but my husband wanted this one to be for the masses.''
An average of 25,000 people visit the Pompidou Center every day. The total number of visitors for 1984 was 8,413,500. ``Sometimes,'' says Mme. Pompidou, ``as many as 40,000 people come in one day. They have to stop the escalators. It can be dangerous.''
The Georges Pompidou National Center for Art and Culture is a multifaceted institution -- ``pluri-disciplinaire,'' as Mme. Pompidou would say. In addition to the modern art museum, it has a library, an Industrial Design Center (which exhibits ``beautiful and useful things''), and an Institute for the Research and Coordination of Acoustical Music (IRCAM) [see adjoining story], with composer-conductor Pierre Boulez as its director. Mme. Pompidou's visit to Boston was part of a five-city tour of the United States to accompany Mr. Boulez as he presented his ground-breaking new work, ``R'epons.''
``My husband believed that a head of state should support contemporary art. He wanted the center to encourage people to enjoy modern art -- not to feel intimidated. You walk right in -- there's no general admission charge [only the museum itself charges -- less than $1]. It's always jammed with young people. Schools bring their classes. There's a workshop where children can make whatever they like. It's very alive.'' Obviously, the center is much more than just a modern-art museum. While the museum's permanent collection represents the classics of 20th-century art, the center also displays the work of young artists in its contemporary-art galleries.
Using the latest audio and video equipment, visitors to the library can learn a wide variety of languages, watch films, listen to music, or attend lectures. There is even a storytelling section for children in the ``mini-library'' and a children's workshop where they can let their creative juices flow by sculpturing in clay, painting, or otherwise producing their own modern art.
The music department, IRCAM, provides contemporary composers with a laboratory in which to work, complete with specially designed computers capable of producing ``unheard-of sounds.''
The Industrial Design Center seeks to familiarize the public with innovations in the fields of architecture, urban planning, and interior and graphic design, and to encourage communication between producers in these fields, designers, and the public.
The Pompidou Center also has a publishing house, which produces books and catalogs on the diverse phases of modern art.
Mme. Pompidou agrees that not everyone is a fan of modern art. ``People are afraid of what's new,'' she says. ``Sometimes they simply will not look and listen. They cling to their preconceived notions. But with modern music, for example, if they have no knowledge of classical music, they often respond to the new. My grandsons love Pierre Boulez, for instance.''
For all its traditional grandeur, Paris has had a history of learning to love the innovative. The Eiffel Tower was considered a monstrosity when it was built in 1889. And the Pompidou Center itself caused an uproar as its walls, made of a labyrinth of enormous tubes and pipes, some of them brightly colored, rose out of one of the most historically and architecturally venerable sections of Paris. But Mme. Pompidou speaks of the liveliness and sense of gaiety the center has brought to its once-staid neighborhood.
Similarly, she feels that the glass pyramid designed by Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei which is being built in the courtyard of the Louvre will find its way into the hearts of Parisians. ``It's going to be magnifique,'' she says. ``Parisians are going to be very proud.''
There is no doubt in Mme. Pompidou's mind that the modern and the traditional blend beautifully together, and can even enhance each other. She feels that the impact of the Pompidou Center goes beyond the mere promotion of modern art.
``There was a real need for a center of this kind. And do you know what the result has been? There are now many more visitors to the Louvre!''