HENRY PILLSBURY, executive director of the American Center, which reopens here this week, is fielding the harangue of a grumpy French journalist who has just had trouble finding the center's whimsical new building on the Right Bank of the Seine.
``We went for discretion,'' says the disarming American, acknowledging that no neon or bright posters mark the building. ``We don't want to be another Disneyland.''
More than just a clever comeback, those words give a hint of the philosophy driving the largest center for American culture and expression outside the United States. The aim is to exchange and explore, not to invade or impose a cultural vision.
Following a 56-year career on the Left Bank that spanned the blossoming of American culture in Paris, the American Center opens - after a seven-year hiatus - in a neighborhood east of the Lyon train station. Located across the Seine from the still-unfinished French National Library - the last of President Francois Mitterrand's huge building projects - the American Center aims to be a charter member in an emerging Parisian cultural complex.
The former homey but cramped quarters have given way to a new $40 million building whose exuberant facade and functional interior make architect Frank Gehry's description of his building as an ``American in Paris'' seem justified.
But more than just the building has changed since the old center closed in 1987. An already highly influential American culture has become only more dominant in the '90s, and sensitivity to that rise - witness the reaction to the opening of Euro Disney in Paris, the debate over Hollywood's international dominance, the French debate over language, and the spread of English - has heightened.
``Since the end of the Gulf war and the breakup of the Soviet Union, the hegemony of American middle culture has only spread and solidified,'' Mr. Pillsbury says. ``The necessity we face,'' he adds, ``is to provide a meeting place of American openness, a place not so much to present American culture, but to provide for artistic and intellectual exchange so that something new and better can come out of it.''
The new center, paid for with proceeds from the sale of the old building, is already a minor landmark in a city chock-full of major ones. The first work in France by the Los Angeles-based Gehry, the French limestone building looks from the outside like big-city jazz set to architecture: a free-style facade of seemingly unrelated turrets, bowls, and outcroppings; a Cubist palace.
But inside, the 198,000-square-foot building is a well-coordinated seven floors of galleries, performance and film theaters, visual and performing arts studios, classrooms (one of the center's traditional draws has always been American English classes), and 26 apartments for visiting artists and scholars.
One of the building's attractions is a 400-seat, teal-and-copper theater with what Pillsbury says is the largest stage in the world for a theater of its size. ``When [American opera director-producer] Peter Sellars saw it he hugged me and said, `Somebody finally did it right,' '' says Pillsbury, himself a theater man.
Like any good Parisian cultural center, the American Center's construction was accompanied by its share of controversy. Critics, including some former staff who were dismissed, questioned the wisdom of plunking down virtually all of the old site's $42 million sale price for the new building.
For a time, the French press wondered if the new center weren't destined to become another Bastille Opera, which five years after opening continues to sink into financial bedlam.
Yet while the center's directors admit that operating costs remain a problem, with fund-raising possibilities less bright than anticipated in 1987, they insist that American ingenuity will see the center through.
``We're no longer in that glorious period of spending on the arts that was the '80s,'' says Judith Pisar, the center's co-chairman. ``People are much more cautious.'' She cites the center's provisional use of ``visiting curators'' from the US as a ``brilliant idea'' that ``gives us access to America's best for relatively little cost.''
The center's inaugural art exhibition was organized by Ann Goldstein, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. Titled ``Pure Beauty: Some Recent Work from Los Angeles,'' the exhibition features seven artists Ms. Goldstein calls ``among the most interesting and important emerging talents in Los Angeles.''
And her approach to mounting the show fits well with the center's philosophy. ``This seemed like a terrific opportunity to expose the Paris community to the vitality of work from Los Angeles, but also like a good chance to bring artists together and encourage an international dialogue,'' she says.
The California artists will take part in a round-table discussion with Parisian colleagues.
Another inaugural activity is a series of ``discussion'' conferences throughout the month on the globalization of American youth culture. The multimedia program ``won't be just a discussion of the culture's dissemination, but a cross-cultural, multinational exploration of an evolving phenomenon,'' says Kendall Thomas, professor of law at Columbia University and the conference organizer. ``We want to look at the complex reception, reworking, and sending back of ideas.''
He cites as an example the France-based Senegalese rapper M.C. Solaar, who has taken a musical form ``with roots in Africa, refined in the US and exported, and made it specific to France - in a form now taken back to the US. People talk about American culture,'' he adds, ``but it's not by any means a one-way street.''
In fact, Pillsbury says a central challenge facing the American Center is nothing specifically American, but something the arts and culture worldwide must face. ``With the conjunction of high technology and telecommunications, the question becomes how much longer art presented in public places can compete with the home art center.''
Noting the growing importance of the meeting place in a world torn by cultural conflict, he says, ``Did we create here a town square that enhances life? I think we did.''